A priest of the Diocese of Corpus Christi sent me an email this morning with this message:
Dear Bishop, You were ahead of your time! It’s too bad we had to wait this long for your efforts to be vindicated. If only the stubborn jackasses that were bound and determined to defy you on this no matter what the cost had applied their furious efforts to carrying out this policy and figuring out the best way to train and prepare the children we’d be far ahead by now! Sad… but maybe God used that offering of our frustrations to bring about the fruits that we are beginning to enjoy now! If that is the price to win this grace I am happy to have spent the most productive years of my priesthood doing my bit for God and the Church. May God bless you always…
BRAVO BISHOP SAMUEL J. AQUILA, FOR RESTORING THE SACRAMENT OF CONFIRMATION TO ITS PROPER PLACE
I WAS ORDAINED A BISHOP ON JANUARY 25, 1972. THAT SPRING I ATTENDED MY FIRST MEETING OF THE NCCB/USCC, HELD IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA. ONE OF THE PRINCIPLE AGENDA ITEMS FOR THE MEETING WAS THE REPORT OF THE AD HOC COMMITTEE ON THE AGE OF CONFIRMATION, CHAIRED BY BISHOP ALEXANDER M. ZALESKI, BISHOP OF LANSING.
As I recall the meeting, Bishop Zaleski reported that his committee had surveyed the bishops of the United States and had found that there was almost an equal number of bishops who favored restoring the age of confirmation to approximately age seven with the Sacrament being administered before First Holy Communion as opposed to those bishops who favored administering the Sacrament at around the eighth grade.
The bishops were unable to resolve the impasse at that meeting and they were unable to resolve the question at the next three meetings. Finally it was resolved to let each bishop make the policy for his own diocese.
In the early Church it was the norm that the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy Communion) were to be administered in close proximity to each other if not on the same occasion. Indeed it still the practice in the Eastern churches for the Sacraments to be administered on the same occasion.
Later, in the West, the practice of infant baptism was retained but the Sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion were posponed to the ‘age of reason’ commonly understood to be approximately seven years of age.
Canon 788 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law did not contemplate in any way the deferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation beyond the seventh year. However, when the Roman Pontifical was revised several years later it contained the concession that “for pastoral reasons” the age of Confirmation could be postponed beyond the seventh year.
The revised Code of Canon Law of 1983 returned to the older norm that the Sacrament of Confirmation “is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion (reason) unless the conference of bishops determines another age.”
That loophole confirmed the practice which the NCCB/USCC approved in 1972-75 of letting every bishop decide for himself when the Sacrament should be conferred.
While this was going on there developed in the United States the pop psychology movement which infected the religious educators so much so that the religious educators began to put pressure on bishops to make of the Sacrament of Confirmation something analogous to the bar mitzvah of the Jews, that is, a rite of passage from adolescence to young adulthood. And so in some dioceses the age of Confirmation was pushed back to the 9th, 10th, 11th or even the 12th grade of High School.
For me this was a big mistake. The Sacrament of Confirmation is not a rite of passage. It is a firming up in the recipient the graces of the presence of the Holy Spirit one received at baptism.
About the same time the religious educators were pushing for a rite of passage into young adulthood, the United States was beginning to feel the full impact of the sexual revolution. Whereas in the past it was not uncommon for a girl in high school to become pregnant, now we were beginning to see girls in middle school becoming pregnant.
Sex was not the only problem. The drug culture was in full bloom in those years and children in middle school and elementary school were being pressured to experiment with drugs.
In seemed logical to many of us that children beginning around age seven needed the help of the Holy Spirit much more than they would need it at a later age because they needed the help of the Holy Spirit in making the difficult choices they were now being forced to make while still intellectually and socially immature.
When I became bishop of Corpus Christi in 1983 I set in motion the discussions which led to the restoration of the age of Confirmation in the Diocese to the age of reason and the Sacrament was administered before First Confession and First Holy Communion. I believe that the improvement in the spiritual life of young Catholics was soon apparent.
Sad to say, as soon as I retired my successor changed the age of Confirmation to 8th, 9th or 10th grade.
Es var immer so!
Mundelein, Ill., Jul 9, 2011 / 06:58 am (CNA).- Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo in a recent lecture examined the sacrament of confirmation and explained his reasons for believing children should receive it before First Eucharist.
“One can speak of the many effects of confirmation and the impact it makes upon one’s life, but it is always important to remember that the divine person of the Holy Spirit is received in confirmation,” he said in July 6 remarks at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary. “We need the gifts of the Holy Spirit, every day, every hour, every minute and every second to live a life that gives glory to the Father as Jesus glorified the Father.”
The bishop explained that he had initially favored the view that confirmation was a “sacrament of maturity” that should be reserved to high school students only. However, his view changed after further studies, work with the sacraments of initiation and experience with young children who were confirmed when they entered the Church.
Placing confirmation after First Communion “only muddied the primacy of the Eucharist as the completion of initiation into the Church and the life-long nourishment of the relationship established with the Trinity and the Church in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation,” the Fargo bishop said.
In an August 2002 pastoral letter, Bishop Aquila instructed that after children receive the sacrament of reconciliation in second grade, they should receive confirmation and First Eucharist in the third grade during the same Mass.
The bishop’s July 6 remarks surveyed the history the sacrament. Originally, confirmation was part of a “continuous rite of initiation” leading up to the reception of the Holy Eucharist. This is still the practice in the Eastern Catholic Churches.
After the fifth century, Bishop Aquila said, it became difficult in the West for a bishop to travel to all parishes to baptize and confirm all at once and so the administration of the sacraments became separated.
The custom of receiving First Communion as a second grader and later receiving confirmation in middle or high school is “a recent practice of the Church” and the Second Vatican council had called for a revision of the rite of confirmation.
Turning to the present administration of the sacrament, Bishop Aquila questioned whether the common placement of confirmation in late adolescence treats it as “a reward, or worse, as something earned or deserved for attendance and work in a parish catechetical program.”
“Should the fear of not receiving a sacrament ever be used as a means to keep a young person involved in the life of the Church? Should the gift and strengthening of the Holy Spirit be denied young persons in their most formative years?” he asked.
Bishop Aquila also wondered whether the special attention and length of preparation given to confirmation makes many perceive it to be more important than baptism and the Eucharist.
The view that confirmation is a way for young people to make a personal commitment to their faith “distorts” the sacrament, he said.
“Confirmation is not marked by a choice to believe or not believe in the Catholic faith. Rather as disciples we are chosen by God to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit generously bestowed by God, and we are called to cooperate with that grace,” he explained.
Confirmation confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that is ordered to “the life of worship,” the bishop said while summarizing Catholic thought. It helps the person achieve a “more perfect integration” into the Body of Christ. This helps us understand how confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist.
In this light, it appears “odd” to have someone participate in the Eucharistic life of the Church if he or she has not received “the seal of the Holy Spirit which perfects the personal bond with the community.”
While some have said that maturity is necessary for the sacrament, the bishop said that children can be mature spiritually.
“If they are mature enough to receive the Eucharist, the crown of the sacraments, are they not mature enough to receive a sacrament that is ordered to it?” he asked.
“I have found the third graders to be most receptive to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and their childlike trust and wonder is beautiful to behold. Many times their ability to see the truth and have complete trust in God is strikingly better than our own. It allows for a deeper receptivity of the graces of the sacrament.”
By contrast, too many young adults have regressed spiritually into a state of indifference or despondence towards God.
He suggested that restoring the order of the sacraments of initiation will aid the local community in forming effective catechesis which acknowledges growth in faith as a life-long process.