Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Should All Three of the "Sacraments of Initiation" -- Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion -- be Conferred During Infancy?

In the United States and many other countries, the Sacrament of Confirmation is not administered until the early to mid teen years (7th to 10th grade). Why not do it earlier? Why not confer Baptism and Confirmation together, as they do in the Orthodox and some Eastern Churches?

Indeed, following recent comments by Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, that perhaps we might allow children to make their First Communion at an earlier age than the current 6-7 years old, some people have even advocated administering all three of the "sacraments of Christian initiation," Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist, during infancy.

But unless it involves someone coming into the Church via RCIA, doing all three at the same time does not seem to be a very good idea, and the Church proves herself to be wise in the current age structure for these sacraments.

Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are three separate sacraments for a reason. If Jesus wanted to lump everything together, He wouldn’t have bothered to come up with seven of them. Doing them at the same time, at least with children, tends to lead to confusion and an inability to differentiate (especially between Baptism and Confirmation).

And since the Last Supper preceded Pentecost, having First Communion before Confirmation is appropriate. It was good enough for the Apostles.

Confirmation and the Eucharist do indeed grant us certain graces, or more technically, they provide an increase of graces, but grace works upon nature, grace is the seed thrown upon the ground, and if the ground is not properly prepared, those graces, although received, can go totally for nought. (cf. Mt. 13:3-23; Lk 8:5-15)

For example, with Confirmation, probably 99 percent of people fail to fully benefit from the graces imparted thereby largely because they have no clue as to what they are or why they are. Consequently, those graces are like the gift received and stuck in the back of the closet, unopened and unused.

Jesus could have simply made one sacrament for Baptism and Confirmation, which is effectively how they are treated when done together, but He didn’t make one, He made two, so they should be treated as two.

Canon law currently provides that, except in the emergency situation where there is a danger of imminent death, the person to be Confirmed must be of an age when he has the use of reason and discretion, and that he be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises. (Canon 889, 891)

Moreover, Confirmation is not merely for one's own personal benefit. Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, but it is not initiation into the Church herself -- that is accomplished in Baptism. Rather, it is an initiation into the mission of the Church. As Canon 879 states, the Sacrament of Confirmation imposes an obligation on the recipient to more firmly be a "witness of Christ by word and deed and to spread and defend the faith." (see also Lumen Gentium 11) And in order to comply with this obligation of being an active participant in the mission, and not merely a passive member, one must necessarily be of an age to be able to fulfil those duties of witness and defense of the faith.

With respect to First Communion, Canon 913 states that "administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion."

Those who advocate for infant reception of Confirmation and First Communion, so that these infants might obtain the graces from those sacraments at an early age, tend to overlook the necessity for proper preparation and some level of understanding by the recipient. To see why this is so, one need only look at the Sacrament of Matrimony.

We would be vastly better off if more priests said to couples, “no, I will not marry you, you are not ready yet.” Instead, couples zip through a couple marriage prep classes and, even if it is obvious that they are not properly prepared, there is the argument made that the priest should go ahead with the wedding because at least they will gain the benefits of the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony, which they would not receive if the priest said “no.”

And we all see how well that has worked these last 40-50 years. That is to say, it has been scandalous. A total scandal given the number of annulments that are given in the United States following those weddings on the grounds that they were never truly “sacramental” marriages.

You don’t get the benefit of those graces if you are like the hard and rocky soil. (cf. Mt. 13:3-23; Lk 8:5-15) The seed thrown down will never take root and will instead be eaten up by the birds. Why? Because the soil was never properly prepared. People were not fully and adequately catechized.

Giving the sacraments to the ignorant is an invitation to disaster. Even if there are a small handful of people who would benefit from infant reception of Confirmation, everyone else would end up having those graces left unused because of their utter lack of preparation, resulting in ignorance, rather than understanding. They would be in a worse position than before. And a baby obviously cannot fulfil his Confirmation duty to participate in the mission of the Church to be a witness for Christ. As for the Eucharist, following Baptism, a baby is already in a perfect state of grace until shortly before the traditional time for First Communion, given an infant's incapacity to commit sin before the "age of reason."

Jesus took nearly three years to instruct the Apostles and other disciples before He gave them the Eucharist, and He took another 53 days to give them Confirmation in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And before that, God in heaven took about 2000 years to prepare mankind for Jesus. The early Church also insisted on a significant and substantial period of instruction for catechumens.

This is all because ours is a faith that seeks understanding, it is a faith of reason, not a faith of ignorance. Grace builds on nature, and if the nature is not well-disposed, if the soil has not been prepared, it withers and can even die. Grace is next to useless if the person is unable to accept it because of ignorance.

We see that with the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony already. We should not do the same thing with the First Communion and Confirmation.


Here are Pope Benedict's thoughts on the matter, with which I agree. We should not be unduly harsh and strict, but there is a need for some level of preparation, as indicated by the Holy Father here and in many other addresses on the matter of catechesis.

Meeting of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
with the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, Italy

August 6, 2008

Fr. Paolo Rizzi, parish priest and lecturer in theology at the Higher Institute for Religious Sciences: Holy Father, I am parish priest and lecturer in theology at the Higher Institute for Religious Sciences. We would like to hear your pastoral opinion about the situation concerning the Sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation. Always more often the children, boys and girls, who receive these Sacraments prepare themselves with commitment to the catechetical meetings but do not take part in the Sunday Eucharist, and then one wonders: what is the point of all this? At times we might feel like saying: "Then just stay at home". Instead we continue as always to accept them, believing that in any case it is better not to extinguish the wick of the little flickering flame. We think, that is, that in any case, the gift of the Spirit can have an effect beyond what we can see, and that in an epoch of transition like this one it is more prudent not to make drastic decisions. More generally, 35 years ago I thought that we were beginning to be a little flock, a minority community, more or less everywhere in Europe; that we should therefore administer the sacraments only to those who are truly committed to Christian life. Then, partly because of the style of John Paul II's Pontificate, I thought things through again. If it is possible to make predictions for the future, what do you think? What pastoral approaches can you suggest to us? Thank you.

Pope Benedict XVI: Well, I cannot give an infallible answer here, I can only seek to respond according to what I see. I must say that I took a similar route to yours. When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priest when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open - according to many official authorities - with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion.

Therefore I would say substantially that the sacraments are naturally sacraments of faith: when there is no element of faith, when First Communion is no more than a great lunch with beautiful clothes and beautiful gifts, it can no longer be a sacrament of faith. Yet, on the other hand, if we can still see a little flame of desire for communion in the faith, a desire even in these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems to me that it is right to be rather broad-minded. Naturally, of course, one purpose of our catechesis must be to make children understand that Communion, First Communion is not a "fixed" event, but requires a continuity of friendship with Jesus, a journey with Jesus. I know that children often have the intention and desire to go to Sunday Mass but their parents do not make this desire possible. If we see that children want it, that they have the desire to go, this seems to me almost a sacrament of desire, the "will" to participate in Sunday Mass. In this sense, we naturally must do our best in the context of preparation for the sacraments to reach the parents as well, and thus to - let us say - awaken in them too a sensitivity to the process in which their child is involved. They should help their children to follow their own desire to enter into friendship with Jesus, which is a form of life, of the future. If parents want their children to be able to make their First Communion, this somewhat social desire must be extended into a religious one, to make a journey with Jesus possible.

I would say, therefore, that in the context of the catechesis of children, that work with parents is very important. And this is precisely one of the opportunities to meet with parents, making the life of faith also present to the adults, because, it seems to me, they themselves can relearn the faith from the children and understand that this great solemnity is only meaningful, true and authentic if it is celebrated in the context of a journey with Jesus, in the context of a life of faith. Thus, one should endeavour to convince parents, through their children, of the need for a preparatory journey that is expressed in participation in the mysteries and that begins to make these mysteries loved. I would say that this is definitely an inadequate answer, but the pedagogy of faith is always a journey and we must accept today's situations. Yet, we must also open them more to each person, so that the result is not only an external memory of things that endures but that their hearts that have truly been touched. The moment when we are convinced the heart is touched - it has felt a little of Jesus' love, it has felt a little the desire to move along these lines and in this direction. That is the moment when, it seems to me, we can say that we have made a true catechesis. The proper meaning of catechesis, in fact, must be this: to bring the flame of Jesus' love, even if it is a small one, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time.


1 comment:

Jan said...

You might be surprised at what age some parishes Confirm. There is one in Miles City, Montana that Confirms in 2nd grade.

I was in 4th grade when Confirmed. I knew nothing. They don't Confirm that young anymore, though.

The last Confirmation class in my parish that I participated in (under duress)consisted of 11 - 15 year-old kids, some of whom couldn't pass the final test on the first try. Well, the questions were hard, like, "How many Gods are there?"

As my priest is fond of saying, "We confer a sacrament, hand over the certificate, have a party, and never think of it again."