.- 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.