I had a refreshing day yesterday, occupied primarily by a lunch that extended well into the afternoon and then grocery shopping. (What is the old rule? Do your grocery shopping on a full stomach?) In any event I had the chance to talk for several hours and keep up on the diocesan and national religious education scene.
On Monday I had noted the announcement in the National Catholic Register that the Archdiocese of Denver was changing its sacramental initiation policies to early completion of the sequence: Confirmation and First Eucharist will now be conferred upon third grade baptized candidates. (Somehow I neglected the bigger religious news story, that Catholic Ireland had passed a measure legalizing same sex marriage; I will talk about that on “Morality Friday.”) I am repeating the Denver link here, though since its publication I have heard from multiple sources that the number of dioceses in the U.S. who have actually done this is hard to nail down. My chancery connections tell me that as many as 29 dioceses have gone in this direction. But on the other hand, at least two have changed their minds according to NCR.
Archbishop Aquila of Denver had begun the earlier practice of the third grade Confirmation/Eucharist about fifteen years ago when he was bishop of Fargo, North Dakota. A check of the Fargo diocese webpage indicates the practice is still policy, and of note is a rather helpful Q&A for parents explaining the theological and pastoral reasons for the earlier sacramental rites. Aquila recalls that in 2008, during his regular visit to the pope (all bishops meet privately with the pope every five years for what is called an ad limina visit) he told Benedict what he was doing in Fargo. Benedict urged him to share his experiences with other American bishops, and then said to Aquila, “You have done what I always wanted to do.”
Greensburg, PA, is one of the dioceses that reverted back to a later date for Confirmation. In looking at secular news coverage of the 2010 reversal, the change was included in a master plan that was drawn up by a number of regional listening sessions. I could not help but wonder if there was some discontent voiced from parents and priests about the earlier age of Confirmation. Marquette, MI, by contrast, seems to have a bishop with very strong ideas about the advantages of intensive late adolescence learning and sacramental experience.
The varying diocesan standards for the age and sequence of the sacraments of initiation for minors are a critical issue for many more reasons than I can possibly unpack today (May God give me more years!) My first impression is one of disunity and failure of purpose on the part of American bishops. Advocates for victims of clerical child abuse have complained bitterly for years that the bishops do not discipline or police their own (Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz refused to allow auditors into his Lincoln, Nebraska, diocese, and his was the only diocese of the 195 in the U.S. to reject the Dallas Charter.) Probably more egregious was the arrest and conviction of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, MO, for failure to report abuse. But no formal action of any kind was initiated by the USCCB, not even a press release.
The American bishops, as a whole, are probably unable today to speak with a unified voice, which encourages or necessitates individual bishops to function as their own lights see best. There are a fair number of bishops who genuinely believe that the pressures on teenagers today are so morally decadent that a late adolescent push, such as the two-year “Confirmation catechumenate” in the Marquette diocese, is a necessity to keep them in the Church. They do have a point: ministry for teens and young adults is staffed with a pretty thin bench and an even thinner playbook. Multiple studies earmark this age as one of significant departures and defections from the Church.
There are also a growing number of bishops (‘the quiet revolution”) who would agree that ministry to the late teen/young adult population is a serious worry, but they do not believe that altering the essence of a sacrament dating to Apostolic times is the answer to a pastoral problem. In dioceses such as Denver and Fargo bishops—or more likely, their staffs—have attempted to develop new enriched approaches to post initiation faith life. Engagement of parents into the faith development of their children is getting a lot of attention; life-long adult faith formation is a term bandied about. Certainly the publishing houses have jumped on such concepts. I would like to see them work, that is, I would like to see vibrant faith formation for those who no longer have the ‘carrot’ of Confirmation dangling in front of them in 7th, 9th or 11th grade.
Nor can we overlook the concerns of parents. I don’t know how it is today, but as a pastor in the 70’s and 80’s (that’s calendar years, not my age) it was quite common for a parent to bring an errant child by the scruff of his neck to the rectory/office at any hour for a talk with Father, or to go to confession. I had no illusions about my effectiveness in these situations, but I think there was good recognition by my team that the parents saw the priests, sisters and lay professionals as allies in the effort to help their children group up appropriately. Yes, it is true that we still get the loudmouth parent who wants early Confirmation to “get this religion deal over with,” (as I hear frequently from annoyed catechists in my classes) but I would be more inclined to address my thinking toward the parents who want to make faith formation a joint venture, including their own. Remember too that the typical Catholic parent suffers from a faith formation impoverishment that is at least as much our fault as theirs.
Now, if I had little kids today, do I move to Denver or Marquette?