Tuesday 1 February 2011

More on initiation

I've been turning my mind over the last few days to this question of the sacraments of initiation.

Historically, of course, the three sacraments were celebrated in one ceremony—in Patristic times, I mean. In the east this continues, whereas in the west we have spaced the sacraments out, no doubt mostly for pragmatic reasons. When St Pius X permitted children to receive our Lord in Holy Communion once they had reached the age of reason, he made no prescription concerning Confirmation, and so it continued to be celebrated when it had been in the more recent past, which is to say, before the onset of puberty.

The change to adolescent Confirmation is a much more recent thing, and is still not done in all dioceses. My own diocese was one of the first to administer Confirmation to those 14 and over (readers won't be surprised to read that it was the initiative of the then Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor). I am not one of those who see this as entirely a negative move; there are some positive features.

For a start, there is an element of Confirmation that is about conversion. Some churches in the East, I understand, will even re-Chrismate where there has been a change in one's life for the good, a turning to the Lord. To that extent, a degree of the exercise of free-will is a good thing. 14-year-olds have a degree of freedom that 10-year-olds do not have.

14-year-olds also have another thing which can be turned to advantage. They are often passionate, in every way. As the lives of the saints have shown, this is often the age when important life-decisions are made. To be part of that decision-making process is a good thing. It is often argued that this is also a very emotionally confused age, and this can be true. But messages of all sorts sink in deeply as the teenagers are trying to work out who they are; it is important that our voice be strong among these.

Catechesis at this age is a very different thing to catechesis either before or after. Information tends to go in one ear and out the other, but impressions remain strong. In my catechesis, I try to cover with the young people the normal things; the Creed, the Sacraments and the 10 Commandments. I am well aware that the kids aren't going to retain 90% of what I say. But they listen, and what I hope they will retain is an impression that the Church does have sensible things to say about what she teaches, and also the things that matter to them, and will be inclined therefore to trust her. When they were there at the meeting, I mean, the whole thing made sense, and I hope that they will remember that. It is a different method of catechesis to that employed at First Holy Communion which, realistically, is the last time that many of them ever had anything given by people who really believed this stuff.

Calm, authoritative reassurance, a preparedness to treat them as human beings with brains, an appropriate friendship, all these make teenagers inclined to trust and listen, and they can benefit far more than they would at even twelve. Only a generation ago, most 14-year olds left school and went out to work. Now they all face the prospect of continuing to live not that differently from a 9-year-old until they are 18 or more. There is no wonder that many of them get stroppy and difficult.

I hope I've made the case for a catechesis of teenagers, but that doesn't answer why it has to be accompanied by Confirmation. Well, partly it's to give them a reason to be catechized. To get them there. Yes, yes, I know that that isn't what the Sacrament is for, but neither is it contrary to the Sacrament, and, as I wrote earlier, the Sacrament does have an element of conversion, choice. Becoming a soldier in Christ's army. At my confirmation (aged 9), we sang:

I'm a soldier in Christ's army,
Confirmation made it so;
I'm a soldier in Christ's army,
I will spread the Faith wherever I go.
Oh the devil shall not harm me,
I'm the captain of my soul,
I'm a soldier in Christ's army,
marching to my heavenly goal.

Shakespeare it ain't (and the tune wasn't Mozart, either). But the implication of connecting Confirmation with Pentecost is that there is at least an element of consecration-for-mission in it.

And, after all, the Apostles were confirmed after their First Communion, weren't they?

I hope to write something on First Holy Communion soon.


GOR said...

No doubt Confirmation as an Initiation Rite to be administered in conjunction with Baptism can be argued from Patristic times. However, I do see some value in saving it for ‘more mature’ years. The rationale used to be that at Baptism as an infant the profession of faith was made for you by others, but with Confirmation you were not only confirmed but you personally confirmed your faith. Added significance - pace the ‘slap on the face’ - was conveyed by the fact that it was the bishop in person who administered the Sacrament.

The loss of the episcopal component, so common today, is for me the most lamentable thing, not the issue of timing. Though, it could be argued that there was an interval before the Apostles themselves received the Holy Spirit…

Igumen Gregory said...

I would have to disagree that in the East Chrismation is repeated when a significant conversion takes place. In fact it is only repeated in the case of someone returning from apostasy from the Faith. perhaps the reason this issue really exists is due to the imprecision of the understanding of Chrismation, in both the East and the West. perhaps if we more clearly taught Chrismation being akin to the anointing of a new priest's hands, we could see it as the initiation into the royal priesthood of all believers. I have often opined on the reason no chrismation of the newly ordained hands exist in the East is that it was done earlier in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Fr William R. Young said...

Being freed from the constraints of preparing candidates for the Sacrament of Confirmation, (either its true content or a content concocted for the mid-teen years) would allow gifted catechists/teachers to speak to the hearts and minds (and addressing the passions) of those under instruction, and instill in them the idea that they each have a unique vocation, while giving a general catechesis appropriate to the age of those involved. It could be informal in a way that catechesis for the Sacraments cannot be. It could involve retreat experiences, and in older groups, would surely include some input about marriage, religious life, and the priesthood, but without being "churchy". It could be focussed on young people at an age when they are receptive, whenever that is for that person, and not necessarily at 14+, 16+ or 18+. If catechesis in the teenage years needs to be geared to a Sacrament, it must surely be Confession.