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Introduction

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

For a number of years now there has been an ongoing discussion in the Church as to the order of the sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. I have sought the advice of the priests and catechists of the diocese as well as theologians, liturgists and other bishops and I am now ready, as the Church has recommended, to proceed in restoring the order of the sacraments of Christian initiation. In this pastoral letter, I will explain to you the reasons for this restoration and outline what this change entails.

Background

To fully appreciate the importance of and necessity for restoring the order of the sacraments of Christian initiation one needs to see them within an historical context. Over the centuries the Church with great care has initiated candidates into Christian life through Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. However, the sacraments of Christian initiation have been celebrated throughout Church history in slightly different ways and with varying emphasis due to the pastoral necessity of responding to various cultures and times. The Church, today again, wishes to renew its sacramental theology and practice so as to better preserve and express its central liturgical faith convictions.

The current movement to reform the sacraments of Christian initiation began some years prior to the Second Vatican Council in what was then referred to as the liturgical movement. This long work of research, deliberation, discussion, and prayer came to fruition in several encyclicals by Pope Pius XII and in several decrees of the Second Vatican Council. The liturgical reforms initiated by the Council then found specific application in liturgical directives, in revised sacramental rites, in the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in the provisions of canon law. The point made here is that the current process for restoring the order of the sacraments of Christian initiation is not something new; it has been discussed for well over fifty years and is just now in Canada beginning to affect local pastoral practices.

Historical Overview of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation

From apostolic times until around the fifth century, the sacraments of Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist) were celebrated in one flowing, continuous celebration presided by the bishop with the Eucharist being the culmination. This was the practice for persons of all ages, including children. Although celebrated in one continuous rite, these three sacraments remained distinct.

In the Middle Ages (5th to 13th centuries) the celebration in one continuous rite began to disintegrate. Due to a growing concern that infant Baptism not be delayed and due to the difficulty bishops experienced in trying to be present at initiatory celebrations in ever-larger dioceses, bishops were no longer able to be present to administer Confirmation in a unified rite of Christian initiation. As a result, Baptism and Eucharist were administered together in infancy, while Confirmation was delayed being celebrated by the bishop usually in early childhood. As a result, Confirmation now followed Eucharist where originally it had preceded it.

During the 13th to 19th centuries, infant Baptism continued to be the norm but now Eucharist came to be delayed until after the age of discretion and Confirmation began again to be celebrated in the original order of the sacraments that is before reception of the Eucharist.

The present practice of receiving Eucharist before Confirmation dates to the time of Pope Pius X who, in 1910, motivated by a pastoral concern that children were being needlessly delayed in receiving the Eucharist, again changed the order of the sacraments of initiation. Pius X in Quam Singulari established the pattern that persists to the present: children are baptized as infants, receive Eucharist around the age of seven and then receive Confirmation at a later date ranging anywhere from age seven to eighteen.

Theological Considerations

Historical and theological research has led the contemporary Church to appreciate more deeply her earlier initiatory practices. When an adult became a Christian in the early centuries of the Church, he or she participated in a highly integrated Christian initiation rite. Each stage of the celebration reinforced and took its meaning from the whole. Originally the rites were relatively simple and the community experienced them as a single celebration through which a person became a Christian.
The initiatory process had three stages: a person was baptized in water, was anointed and sealed with oil, and then received the Eucharist. This ceremony was presided over by the bishop. The meaning of Confirmation, the anointing and sealing with oil, was inseparable from its integral relationship to Baptism and Eucharist and like them was most clearly understood and experienced as a grace and a gift.

Today however, when Confirmation takes place at a later age, there is a strong natural tendency to place an undue emphasis, one that was not present in the practice or theology of the early Church, on the candidate’s maturity. The reception of Confirmation in the early Church was never understood as dependent on the maturity of the candidate.

Therefore, the decision to return to the original practice comes from a deeper appreciation of the sacrament of Confirmation: Confirmation is a grace

  • that completes, strengthens and deepens the grace of Baptism,
  • that invites the one who is confirmed to a stronger witnessing of Christian life,
  • that is source of courage,
  • and that is to flourish in a Christian life anchored in the Eucharist, the Eucharist being the source and the summit of Christian life and of the mission of the Church.

The reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is not dependent upon the age or the knowledge of the one who is confirmed. The grace that is conferred is a free gift and “does not need ratification to become effective,” (CCC 1308). The common practice of Confirmation at a later age gives the impression that the reception of Confirmation depends on one’s volition and maturity in order to be effective. In truth, the sacrament of Confirmation is an effective vehicle of grace at any age as long as it is validly conferred. Confirmation, like all sacraments, is a gift, which we receive and which perfects us.

It is not accurate therefore to connect Confirmation with maturity in the psychological sense thereby necessitating its reception at the age of social maturity. The sacrament of Confirmation indeed strengthens a person to bear witness rather than expresses a person’s determination to bear witness to the faith. This strengthening is something that can be fittingly received at any age. Confirmation, which is intimately united to Baptism, is, like infant Baptism, a gift, a grace and a treasure.
When seen as an expression of maturity, the reception of Confirmation can inappropriately be conceived as a type of graduation into an adult faith. This misconception can cause one to falsely assume that our ability to do good is a result of our own innate ability rather than a result of grace. Confirmation is not about an individual deciding to embrace the faith of Baptism. Sacraments choose and embrace us not the other way around. For instance, in Baptism, God marks us unconditionally as a member of his family and coheir with Christ; we become children by adoption (Galatians 4:5-7). Once baptized, at whatever age, we can no more choose to cease being a child of God than could the child born of a mother choose to cease to be her natural child. Similarly, Confirmation is not our “confirming” Baptism or our faith in Christ; it is Christ confirming in us by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life we have already been given in Baptism.

Church teaching

This approach to Confirmation is one that restores the intimate link that Confirmation has with the other initiatory sacraments. In referring to the sacraments of Christian initiation, Church documents consistently use the order Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist and direct that their intimate relationship to each other is to be stressed. Some recent examples include:

  • The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, par. 71:
    • “The rite of Confirmation is to be revised and the intimate connection which this sacrament has with the whole of Christian initiation is to be more lucidly set forth.” (Walter Abbot, Documents of Vatican II, (America Press, Piscataway N.J. 1966) p 160.)
  • The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, par. 14,
    • in referring to the catechumenate process, states: “Then when the sacraments of Christian initiation have freed them from the power of darkness, having died with Christ, been buried with him and risen with him, they receive the Spirit who makes them adopted sons and celebrate the remembrance of the Lord’s death and resurrection together with the whole People of God.” (Walter Abbot, Documents of Vatican II, (America Press, Piscataway N.J. 1966) p 601.)
  • The Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation
    • refers to the sacraments of Christian initiation as being so closely linked that the rites and words by which Confirmation is celebrated should be closely associated with Baptism and Eucharist: “In baptism, the newly baptized receive forgiveness of sins, adoption as sons of God, and the character of Christ, by which they are made members of the Church and for the first time become sharers in the priesthood of their Saviour. Through the sacrament of Confirmation, those who have been born anew in Baptism receive the inexpressible Gift, the Holy Spirit himself, by which they are endowed with special strength. Moreover, having received the character of this sacrament, they are bound more intimately to the Church and they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith both by word and deed as true witnesses of Christ. Finally, Confirmation is so closely linked with the holy Eucharist that the faithful, after being signed by holy Baptism and Confirmation, are incorporated fully into the body of Christ by participation in the Eucharist.” (Rite of Confirmation, Ritual and Pastoral Notes, (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, 1987) p. 5.)
  • The Rite of Confirmation:
    • The revised rite speaks of Baptismal initiation into Christian life being completed by Confirmation and also requests that Confirmation’s intimate connection with the whole of Christian initiation be made clear. It also notes in paragraph eleven that “children who are baptized at an age when they are old enough for catechesis should ordinarily be admitted to Confirmation and the Eucharist at the same time they receive Baptism.” (Rite of Confirmation, Ritual and Pastoral Notes, (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, 1987) p. 13.)
  • The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, par. 208:
    • “According to the ancient practice maintained in the Roman liturgy, adults are not to be baptized unless they receive Confirmation immediately afterward provided no serious obstacle exists. This connection signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close relationship between the mission of the Son and pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the joint celebration of the sacraments by which the Son and Spirit come with the Father upon those who are baptized.” (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, 1987) p. 119.)
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
    • Affirms the order of the sacraments of Christian initiation (1211, 1212) speaks consistently of Confirmation as the completion of Baptismal grace (1285, 1302-1306, 1314 and 1316) and also states that Confirmation is not dependent for its efficacy on the faith choice of the recipient (1302, 1303, 1308 and 1316). Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, 2000).
  • Code of Canon Law:
    • Canons 842:2, 852:1, 866 and 891 presume the close interrelationship of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist and states that children at the age of discretion who are baptized at the Easter vigil should receive Confirmation and Eucharist during the vigil. (Code of Canon Law; English Translation, (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, 1983).

In summary, renewed historical research, theology, church teaching, and canon law all support a restoration of the traditional order of the sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. This restoration enhances the centrality of the Eucharist as the summit and source of the life and the mission of the Church while providing a context in which the meaning of Confirmation is properly understood. Therefore, this is the

Diocesan Policy:

In the Diocese of St. Paul, all who have been baptized should appropriately prepare for and receive the sacrament of Confirmation before their First Communion. This norm is effective immediately.

A transition period will be necessary for most of our parishes to observe this norm. I will do all that I can to assist each parish in adopting this policy. As of September 2007, all parishes will begin to implement the restored order of the sacraments of Christian initiation with the result that by 2009 all children will be confirmed before receiving first Communion.

However, a word here on reconciliation: because it must be celebrated before the reception of the Eucharist (CCL 914 - CCC 1310) it will also be celebrated before Confirmation.

After Baptism, children will receive first Reconciliation in grade two or at the beginning of grade three followed by Confirmation and first Communion in grade three. One of the following two options is suggested:

Option A

Grade Two – first Reconciliation would be celebrated during the Advent and or Lenten season. Preparation for the sacrament would take place before Christmas or after Christmas. However, it could also involve a full year process.

Grade Three – Confirmation/first Communion would be celebrated during the Easter season. Preparation for both sacraments would take place before Christmas or after Christmas. However, it could also involve a full year initiation process.

Option B

Grade Three – first Reconciliation would be celebrated during the Advent season. Preparation for the sacrament would only take place before Christmas.

Grade Three – Confirmation/first Communion would be celebrated during the Easter season. Preparation for both sacraments would take place after Christmas.

Other options could be possible but only after consulting with me. But these options should respect the proper order of the sacraments of Christian initiation.

The Role of the Parents

I would like to thank in advance the parents, the parishes, the schools and the catechists within the diocese for their cooperation and their effort in helping to restore the order of the sacraments of Christian initiation.
But let me insist on the irreplaceable role of the parents in the faith journey of their children.

When a child has reached the age of reason, he or she is capable of being a disciple and a witness of Jesus. However, it is obvious that parents must assist their child in developing a life of holiness. The initiation of children into the sacramental life of the church is primarily the responsibility and concern of parents (CCL 774.2).

Parents are the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith. In the Baptismal liturgy, parents are urged to make it their constant care to educate their children in the practice of the faith as well as to see that the divine life which God gives their children is kept safe from the poison of sin and that this life grow always stronger in their hearts. Active participation in the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist, regular Reconciliation, daily family prayer and Scripture reading are but a few examples that enable families to live the Gospel life of Jesus.

The Role of the Sponsors

The sponsors of Baptism and Confirmation also have a role to play. It is desirable that the sponsors of Confirmation be the same as at Baptism. This signifies the close link of the two sacraments. If that is not possible, one sponsor is sufficient but that sponsor is to meet the following qualifications:

  • be sixteen years of age,
  • not be the adoptive parents of the confirmed,
  • be fully initiated into the Catholic faith (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist),
  • be leading a life in harmony with the faith,
  • be free of any canonical impediment.

The Role of the Bishop

I would like to offer a final word on my role as the ordinary minister of Confirmation. The Bishop is understood in the Catholic tradition to be a successor of the Apostles and thus who has received the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The Bishop presides at Confirmation and is the one who is the ordinary minister of Confirmation (CCL 882). This demonstrates most clearly that the effect of Confirmation is to “unite those who receive it more closely to the Church, to her apostolic origins and to her mission of bearing witness to Christ” (CCC 1313). For these reasons, here in the Diocese of St. Paul, I will continue to celebrate Confirmation.

However, if for some grave reason, I am impeded to do so, I am able to delegate the pastor (or another priest) to preside. In this case, the apostolic aspects of the sacrament are maintained by the use of chrism oil consecrated by the Bishop during the Chrism Mass and by the fact that the priest exercises the apostolic ministry through of his ordination by the Bishop. The pastor (or the priest) must, however, obtain delegation either orally or in written form before doing so. Otherwise the Confirmations would be illicit and invalid. He cannot presume that this delegation is already granted.

All priests, however, do have permission to administer Confirmation to any baptized person in danger of death regardless of age and to adults during the Paschal Vigil.

Conclusion

The challenge that this restoration presents to us will be rewarded as we all come to recognize that the Eucharist is the culmination of the sacraments of Christian initiation and the source and summit of the life and the mission of the Church. The ongoing formation to holiness and the witnessing of the Gospel that follow will always remain a constant endeavor for all who have been initiated into the Christian life by Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. From grace flows responsibility. But without grace we can do nothing. May we always be attentive to that grace so that it bears fruit for eternal life in all of us!

† Luc Bouchard Bishop of St. Paul