Brian Niemec’s post on confirmation is a welcomed invitation to converse about the sacrament and its health in American church life today. As his article indicates–and as I think any honest assessment of the state of affairs today would agree–its health is poor. Many young Roman Catholics experience the confirmation process as a painful ordeal that in no way convicts their hearts and minds. The relevancy of the religion to their lives, as Brian relates, is lost on them. No sooner has the bishop’s oil dried on their foreheads than they bolt from the church, never to darken its door again. What to do?
Brian asks how we might change the content of religious education to counter this generational apathy. But before we ever get to the pedagogy of confirmation programs, I think we need to overhaul the entire system and understanding of sacramental initiation into the church. This reform would not be a reinvention but rather an innovative restoration in light of early church practice and a renewed theology of baptism and discipleship.
Part of the problem in teaching confirmation to young people is that it’s a sacrament without a theology, as more than one commentator’s observed. We talk about it as an experience of being sealed in the holy Spirit, yet that seems to imply the Spirit was only partially present at baptism. And we describe it as a process of reaching full membership in the church–but first communion already effects this unity both symbolically and theologically.
My proposal is twofold: Firstly, restore confirmation to its proper place–as the second in a triad of rites of initiation (between baptism and eucharist), all celebrated at one and the same liturgy. Catholics who’ve worshipped at the Easter Vigil no doubt have witnessed this practice already, as adult converts to the faith are baptized, confirmed, and welcomed to the eucharistic table in one sweeping, dramatic ritual. Secondly, we should move the age of these rites up to that of reason and adulthood–in American society, 18 years at least. Sacramental commitment to the church would become a decision of free, eager adults rather than an imposition on pressured, disaffected minors.
These changes have sound precedent. They were standard practice for the church in its first two centuries; only adults were baptized, undergoing a three-year catechesis beforehand. And after their full, naked immersion into the baptismal waters, they were immediately welcomed to the eucharistic meal. Changes began in the fourth century, when the church experienced an enormous influx of new converts–thanks to Constantine, Christianity was suddenly in vogue. Whole families began requesting baptism, something the church hadn’t seen, including children and infants. The deeper, lengthier preparation for becoming Christian became impractical. Thus by Augustine’s time, he felt compelled to offer a theological rationale for the baptism of babies. He didn’t invent the doctrine of Original Sin so much as appropriate it to explain why a pre-rational person stood in need of the sacrament. Theology followed practice. But celebrating the three rites of initiation together never changed in the Eastern church; to this day, even children are baptized, confirmed, and welcomed to the Lord’s table together. And since Vatican II’s liturgical reforms, many theologians have argued that the Latin church has made the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (in which all three sacraments run together) the normative practice in the West, too–on paper if not in actuality.
Establishing it in fact would yield several positive consequences. Firstly, it would express the liturgical and theological sensibility of Vatican II. Liturgically, confirmation would form part of a seamless ritual of becoming Christian, in which baptism (individual rebirth in Christ) would lead directly into confirmation (in which the holy Spirit completes the baptismal action) and in turn into eucharist (where the community welcomes its new member). This ritual flow has logic and consistency, emphasizing the holy Spirit’s activity across one action with three distinct parts. Theologically, initating only adults would temper quasi-superstitious ideas of a magical wiping out of Original Sin and emphasize participation in the paschal mystery, immersion into the community, and commitment to following Christ in discipleship. For that matter, the sacrament of first reconciliation should be pushed to a time after these rites of initiation. This placement would emphasize that sin applies to our reason, and separates us from God and the community we fully entered during the rites of initiation.
Secondly, increasing the age of that initiation to adulthood would allow for a holistic religious education for children. The church could encourage new rituals that would correlate in form, meaning, and timing with the child’s psychological development. The desire of parents to mark their child’s birth with a religious ritual–and the community’s impulse to welcome its youngest members into the fold–could be met by a liturgical blessing of the infant or other ceremony. This practice would highlight God’s presence in the child’s life from birth, without diluting the meaning of the sacraments of initiation (reserved for a choice made in reason and freedom). Meanwhile, the content of religious classes for children could shift in focus away from the sacramental system (which, surveys show, has little hold on adult or child Catholics) toward spirituality and personal relationship with Jesus (which, the same research reveals, people hunger for above all). Pedagogy could move from learning abstract concepts to falling in love with God and caring for others. In this respect, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a sound model. Parents would still be able to pass on the faith; the formation of children would become more creative and enriching for them.
Thirdly, moving confirmation to adulthood would improve the church’s faith formation of adults. As grown individuals, catechumens would be able to grasp conceptual theology, which would build on their primal experience of divine love. And since they would be actively seeking and enthusiastically choosing Christian initiation, preparatory classes would feature a receptive audience right off the bat–rather than having to pull teeth, catechists could hit the ground running. They’d be dealing with young adults who actively desire baptism, not kids going through the motions only to satisfy their parents. These catechumens should study systematic theology and scripture; the teachings of the patristics on Christology, and of moderns on ecclesiology and Vatican II, should not be reserved to academia, but be disseminated to all Catholics. The whole preparation would aim toward appropriating the faith as an adult, and viewing confirmation and the other sacraments as the beginning of following Jesus Christ as a mature disciple–not graduating some program so as to do anything but think of God. For catechumens at 18 or 19, the preparation and liturgy itself could also be tailored to emphasize their coming of age and transition into adulthood in other areas (the insights of Richard Rorty on cross-cultural initiation rituals would be particularly fruitful here). Incidentally, making the very act of becoming Christian more adult and serious would meet the desire some young people harbor to follow Christ in a dramatic, intentional manner, without leaving vowed religious life as their only option. They could be encouraged to learn about ecclesial movements like the Community of Sant’Egidio (my personal favorite) as viable options for living out their baptismal promises.
Christ calls us to follow him in freedom–the church can’t compel believers. And no one benefits from confirming people in the faith who don’t actually desire it. Statistics show that many people return to their religious roots in their later adulthood; these people would always be welcomed to baptism when they’re personally ready to own the faith. My home parish confirmed its young people when they were juniors in high school. While most of my classmates were non-plussed to be in church, a few of us (myself included) felt happy about the process. Today, the memory of my sixteen-year-old self experiencing the sacrament means much to me: it was the moment I started to own my faith. I wish I had that memory of my baptism and first communion. The aforesaid changes to confirmation would represent and facilitate an exciting renewal of ecclesial life, carried out through a human creativity that reflects life in the Spirit.
Nick Coccoma studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he lives in Boston, where he’s worked as a middle school religion teacher, hospital chaplain, and currently writes movie and cultural reviews for Critics at Large.