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Reflections on the order of sacraments of initiation

Sacraments of initiation - The catholic weekly

The longstanding debate around the ‘correct’ order to receive the sacraments of Communion and confirmation was recently discussed in these pages by Simcha Fisher. 

However, we might do better by first asking why a change may or may not be needed.

Like Simcha, some may argue confirmation at a later age—which is the case in our Archdiocese of Sydney—unfairly requires young people to ‘earn’ the sacrament through attendance at Sunday Mass and catechism classes.

However, it should also be acknowledged that the current order of sacraments is faithful to the idea that participants can be fully initiated at the age of reason.

In the case of children, if their life of faith is not fostered by parents in the family, then the debate regarding the preferred order of confirmation and Communion becomes rather moot as little fruit will be born.

A better understanding of this debate about the order of the sacraments of initiation can be gained from a glance at key moments in history.

In the first centuries, baptism was generally followed by confirmation in the same celebration (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1290).

As the church grew, the Roman rite reserved confirmation to be administered by the bishop of the diocese to signify the apostolic unity of the Church, while the Eastern rites continued the tradition of baptism and confirmation by the priest (CCC, 1292).

This delay of confirmation introduced an opportunity to reorder the reception of sacraments of initiation for those baptised in infancy.

It was within the last 200 years that dialogue on this issue reached a peak. In the mid-19th century, several councils of French bishops between 1849-1851 legislated that communion should precede confirmation.

sacraments of initiation - The Catholic Weekly

The reasons for placing communion before confirmation then are seemingly similar to those given today: the faithful would obtain more abundant fruit from confirmation having been nourished by Communion; older children would bring more intelligence and belief to confirmation; the grace of confirmation would be received at an age when they are better prepared to witness the faith and proclaim the gospel; and to provide them with catechism at a more mature age.

However, in contrast, St Thomas Aquinas, Seraphic Doctor of the Church, teaches confirmation is necessary for young children: “those who are reborn spiritually must have the strength of the Holy Spirit which is imparted to them in this sacrament. In order that they become strong… They, therefore, who have the care of children should be very careful to see that they be confirmed.”

Thus, in St Thomas’ thought it would seem vital to not keep children from the spiritual armour necessary against the ever-growing challenges they face today.

The late Pope Benedict XVI also leaned toward this order in Sacramentum caritatis, citing the church’s teaching that “the holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation” (CCC, 1322).

One could argue that one of the benefits of restoring confirmation before Communion are that it does not tie down or correlate spiritual maturity to physical maturity.

Children can receive the Holy Spirit to help them face the challenges of today’s secular world, returning to the logic of the early church. Since it is considered the sacrament of maturity, the deeper formation received on the power of the Holy Spirit can lead to a greater appreciation of the Eucharist.

The sacraments are the free gifts of the Holy Spirit and are not “earned” though at times it may, through no fault of our own, come across as such.

So where does this all leave us today?

One insight that we can receive from this debate is to acknowledge that God’s love is always freely given; however, it is always man’s disposition that is in need of formation and growth to more fully receive his free gift.

In my experience, I have found this nuance to be vital for sacramental and RCIA coordinators. Sacramental coordinators help parents foster this disposition in their children and, when possible, help them understand the importance of living an authentic faith life for their and their children’s benefit and for the fruitfulness of the sacraments they receive.

This applies to all sacraments, not just confirmation. Engaged couples take marriage formation in order to be disposed to the sacrament of matrimony; seminarians study for seven or eight years to receive holy orders. The process is to open our hearts, develop the spiritual disposition, in order to be filled with God’s love and grace.

Certainly keeping the order we currently have greatly involves the ‘age of reason’ and provides time for spiritual maturity to be developed. The church teaches this but leaves it to the bishop of the diocese to determine since each diocese’s circumstances, environment, cultural differences, and other variables play a part in a child’s readiness. Whatever age the diocese instructs for confirmation is what the bishop of his flock feels is most prudent and of the most pastoral benefit.

In our own context in Sydney, we are taking great lengths to ensure that the current order is for our spiritual benefit.

As example, a young confirmand had begun to see her faith, ‘that pearl of great price’, was becoming more and more pressured, even under attack. In the school that she attended, the faith she shared with her family was becoming less important among her peers.

In the confirmation program, she learned that facing these situations was a part and parcel of growing up and developing resilience. She knew she would not be left alone but empowered by the Holy Spirit and supported by the church and its sacramental life to love God and her neighbour.

On the cusp of her teens, this was a welcome spiritual renewal for this young Catholic, and the continued reminder of God’s love and ongoing nourishment would continue to journey with her before and after Confirmation in the Holy Eucharist. While the debate may continue, we are invited to first and foremost consider our readiness for the grace of the sacraments, at any age, so that we might bear lasting fruit.

Simon Yeak is the Sacramental Life and RCIA Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Sydney.

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