Gabrielli said no one has thus far conducted a study with metrics about the effectiveness of restored order of the sacraments compared with the status quo in other dioceses. Two dioceses – Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and Marquette, Michigan – had originally restored the order of sacraments, but later reverted to the baptism-first Eucharist-confirmation sequence.
Restoring the order requires a diocese facilitate “quite a cultural shift for it to sink in,” according to Gabrielli. But he said that at whatever age dioceses confirm, they need to get away from the idea that this is a sacrament of maturity and back to the understanding that confirmation is a free, unmerited gift of God’s grace.
The Archdiocese of Denver moved to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation in 2015. It was the second time for Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who had restored the original order when he was bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, in 2002.
In a March 2015 interview with the National Catholic Register, the archbishop said Benedict XVI had strongly encouraged his efforts during his 2012 ad limina visit, where bishops are required by the Church to report to the pope on the status of their dioceses.
Scott Elmer, director of evangelization and family life ministries at the Denver Archdiocese, told the National Catholic Register that parishes are on track to make third grade the normative age for confirmation by 2020. Constant and consistent communication, he said, has been key to educating the faithful about the reasons for the change.
“After a couple of weeks, most people were receptive to it,” he said.
The challenge for the archdiocese in making the transition was lack of catechetical resources on confirmation, followed by first Eucharist, for third graders.
At first, staff set out to make their own supplemental resources. However, they ended up developing a four-semester, two-year curriculum, covering reconciliation, confirmation and Eucharist, which parishes can adapt to their needs.
The second edition reflects suggested improvements based on field-testing and is set to come out this fall.
“We’ve been getting a lot of great feedback,” Elmer said.
The archdiocese has also seen the need to make confirmation and first Communion an opportunity to evangelize the parents – if the parents see the faith as important, they will encourage their children to see it as important.
The archbishop, Elmer said, has mandated that parishes make some kind of ongoing adult faith formation program, such as Christ Life or Alpha, available to parents while their children are getting ready to receive the sacraments – preferably in an environment that looks less like a classroom and more like a small group study in a living room.
At the end of the day, the goal is to cultivate a religious culture in families that will sustain their life in Jesus Christ.
Beyond Restored Order
The Diocese of Portland, Maine, has had restored order of the sacraments for 20 years, but Maryanne Harrington, the diocesan director of the Office of Lifelong Formation, said they recognize families are in a different place than they were 20 years ago.
Back then, they focused on retooling youth ministry; today, she said, “our concern is helping parents and children grow in faith together.”
Many families coming for the sacraments today have little in the way of a lived, everyday experience of faith in their lives, Harrington said. But the Church knows from its own reports that a regular sacramental and prayer life as a family correlates strongly with improved home life.
So Portland created a two-year sacramental preparation program for children receiving confirmation and first Eucharist for first and second grade, or second and third grade. And parents are required to go to six adult-formation sessions each year that teach them how to discuss with their children who Jesus is, how to have him in the home, and understand the Mass, as well as the importance of sacramentals in the home (a crucifix, holy water or other religious items) and having family rituals and praying together with their children.
“Each of the lessons really focuses on the parishes having a relationship with Christ, meeting them where they are, and moving them forward in their faith,” she said.
Harrington said this approach forms friendships among the parents whose children are receiving the sacraments.
She is also suggesting to parish leaders that they identify the natural parent leaders in these sacramental groups and invite them to build that parent community and determine the next step they would like to take together in the life of the parish.
“Building that kind of community among them is really a good piece,” she said, “because one of the things that is really important is that it’s not just simply about just going to church today – it’s about being in a community and that sense of belonging that young parents want.”
This article was originally published by the National Catholic Register.