I am grateful to Mark, one of the Café regulars, for expressing an interest in the Sacrament of Confirmation. In my Amazon review of Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium posted on Tuesday, I had summarized the book’s treatment of Confirmation in two sentences. [There is a 1000-word limit for Amazon submissions.] For better or worse, Café posts are limited only by me and vary depending upon the amount of coffee consumed over the past few hours.
Mark was responding to Chapter 7, “The Sacrament of Confirmation and its Role in the Ecclesiology of Communion.” The author, Moira Debono, was attempting to explain the role of this sacrament in the building of the body of Christ on earth, the Church. One of the principles of modern theology is the understanding that all sacraments are given by Christ to build the holiness and unity of the Church. Thus, when one receives the Sacrament of Confirmation, one is not receiving the Spirit simply for personal edification, but for the strength to bring holiness, wisdom, enthusiasm, prayer, and good example, etc. to the Church at hand. Even Penance, which appears to the eye as the most solitary of Sacraments, is a public gift to the Church. If I am truly sorry for my many sins, my newfound humility in confession enriches the immediate Church around me, and beyond that, my conversion away from sin becomes part of the Church’s mission to the unchurched and/or the unbaptized. Faithful living is mission, part of what we mean when we speak of the priesthood of the faithful shared by all baptized Christians.
In her essay, Debono is seeking to put meat on the bones of the Church’s understanding of Confirmation. We tend, in church work, to use too many generic and fluffy words without concrete precision. Thus, the specific definitions and rites of the sacraments are very important, or else religious life becomes a game of Vulcan mind-melding. Speaking concretely, the Church has always understood Confirmation as a pouring out of God’s Spirit which occurs in the sequence of conversion. An adult convert embraces three sacraments—Baptism, the bath which washes away the sins of the past and marks the definitive turning point of becoming a new being; Confirmation, the laying on of hands by the bishop, successor of the Apostles, who shares the Spirit of God poured out at the first Pentecost; and Eucharist, the table feast to which one is invited to the fellowship of eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ, the bread and cup of eternal salvation.
Confirmation, then, is a sacrament of initiation into the Body of Christ in tandem with Baptism and First Eucharist. Today, when unbaptized adults enter the Church, these sacraments are celebrated together at the Easter Vigil. With children and minors, however, the situation has been different. Without reviewing two thousand years of history, suffice to say that since the influence of St. Augustine [354-430 A.D.] and his clarification of what we call today original sin, there was increasing pressure to baptize infants as soon after their birth as possible, lest they die without baptism and face an eternity without the vision of God. Confirmation [and Eucharist] could be postponed until later when a bishop could confer the laying on of hands and the sacred anointing.
Once the three sacraments of initiation became separated over time, each one developed its own rationale, catechetics, and timing. In 1900, for example, a child would be baptized at birth, confirmed around seven, and make first communion in the teen years. Poor theology of the time discouraged frequent communion at any rate; Church law mandated that a Catholic receive communion at least once a year, the “Easter Duty,” setting the bar rather low. Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] revolutionized the Church’s practice of receiving communion by moving First Communion to the “age of reason” [age seven or thereabouts] and encouraging everyone to receive frequently. Confirmation was subsequently postponed; I received communion in the second grade in 1956 and was confirmed in sixth grade in 1960 with the idea that the Spirit would make me a “soldier of Christ” ready to die for my faith.
The Council Vatican II [1962-1965] attempted to restore the ancient understanding and dignity of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, Confirmation, in its document on the Church, Lumen Gentium . Debono summarizes: “A Catholic, already an integral member of the Body of Christ by Baptism, is effectively brought into active relationship with the other members of the Body; that is, in a new kind of communion with others through the Sacrament of Confirmation. This new way of relationship within the Church for the individual cannot but enhance the communion the Church lives and expresses.” [p. 113] However, Debono shows that after the Council there was very little emphasis by the Church on Confirmation’s role in building the Christian Community. It was not until 2016 with Iuvenescit Ecclesia that any formal Church document talked about this important aspect of community-building as a purpose of Confirmation.
However, in the years since Vatican II there has been much written about the nature of the Church. Debono summarizes in her essay the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the nature of the Church [“ecclesiology”] and its relation to God. The major theme which emerges is that of unity. God is Triune [a perfect unity of love between Father, Son, and Spirit.] In the act of the Incarnation, whereby the Divine Son became man, humanity has taken on this Trinitarian quality of perfect communion of love, though imperfectly. Consequently, Christianity identifies itself by its love and unity in everything that we do, including our worship and sacraments.
Pope Francis, addressing an audience on Confirmation on May 30, 2018, said this: “In Confirmation it is Christ who fills us with his Spirit, consecrating us as his witness, participants in the same principle of life and of mission, according to the design of the heavenly Father.” [p. 119] Francis continues the themes of his predecessors. However, this still leaves two critical tasks in the study of Confirmation. First, how do we concretely talk about this sacrament from the pulpit and our education programs, and second, how do we celebrate this sacrament in a way that best illuminates the unity of the baptized and the Church’s unity with Christ? Finding a common ground of understanding will address such glaring divides as the varying ages of Confirmation, which currently range from age 7 to 16 or thereabouts, or even at infancy in some cases.
Debono turns to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Doctor,” [1225-1274 A.D.] and the father of modern Catholic theology. Aquinas write that in Confirmation a Catholic is no longer living an “individual life” but is meant to be in relationship with the other baptized. Confirmation strengthens the baptized for the mission of loving union. [p. 112] Aquinas does not mention a chronological age for Confirmation. “For him, the perfect age of the spiritual life is when ‘he [the believer] begins to have communication with others.’” [p. 120] Debono uses the first Pentecost event as an image of “the perfect age.” “Before the tongues of fire rested on them, there was a personal relationship that they [the Apostles] were nurturing with their Lord….In the Pentecostal event, the young Church was spiritually galvanized as a community for the sake of the mission of Christ…The sacramental character of Confirmation gives Catholics not only a similar responsibility for the salvation of the world, but the spiritual means (gifts and graces) to carry out the mission of Christ that continues to this day.”
Debono says this about the sacramental character of Confirmation: “We are given a new rank or role in the Church to more visibly extend the Mission of Christ to bring the saving Good News of Christ to others. The power to accomplish this is also made available to us.” [p. 123] The New Testament offers several powerful teachings on this power of the Spirit within us. Romans 8:26 reads: “Now in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Galatians 5: 22-23 lists the qualities of one living in the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” In closing her essay Debono has put before us the principles of how to speak of Confirmation, how to celebrate it, and how to nurture a full adult life in the Spirit.
However, we are still stuck with the realities of everyday parish life. I follow several blogsites of Catholic religious education directors and teachers, where frustrations with Confirmation practices are frequent streams of conversation. The primary frustration is irregular or nonexistent participation in the weekly Eucharist by the young candidates for Confirmation and their families. This is a sad condition in that the Eucharist is the highest visible union we have as a Church family, and Confirmation is the empowerment to the communal family of Christ. The second is the prevailing attitude that Confirmation is “graduation” from Catholic faith formation. [I started the Catechist Café eight years ago for adult faith formation, in part to counter the idea that faith learning is just a childhood exercise.]
Catholicism—all of Christianity, really—is an inseparable marriage of mind and heart. The mind comes into play as we learn about Jesus of Nazareth and how his believers ahead of us have understood him and tried to walk in his footsteps. The heart is the love and affection for our God who loves us beyond definition and who resides in every created person, many times simply waiting to be brought to consciousness. The Spirit is the very breath of God’s love. After studying Debono’s text again this week, I did something I haven’t consciously done in a long time. I prayed specifically to the Spirit to fire up my heart again. If we as the Church cry out for that Spirit, the way will be shown to heal the broken Body of Christ, the Church.
There is no denying it: the Church has been in the news a lot this summer, and not always in the most favorable light. There was heated discussion this summer among bishops in the United States over the suitability of President Biden presenting himself for Communion; nearly one thousand unmarked graves of children were discovered on the properties of Catholic orphanages in western Canada; a number of Catholic Churches were desecrated this summer across North America; and, as I write this, Pope Francis is recovering from surgery, a reminder that the Bishop of Rome is subject to the laws of mortality and that the transition of authority in the Church is a delicate but necessary consideration. On this last note it should be recalled that Pope Francis recently convoked a universal synod in 2023--on the very subject of snynodality or grassroots involvement in the mission and vision of the Church.
The polarity that currently afflicts Catholics across the country is complex and made more so by the recent “culture wars” in American society. But ever since the closing of the Council Vatican II in 1965 there has been a rift between those who believe that the Church is moving too slowly in reinventing itself to meet the challenges of the modern age and those who believe that some reform strategies and ideologies have outrun the sacred deposit of Revelation received and promulgated by the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. It can be argued, of course, that this ying and yang is a helpful corrective for a body that sees divine truth only dimly, as through a glass, to cite St. Paul. Unfortunately, the absolutism of those on both sides advocating ecclesiastical reform has had the unfortunate effect of dividing the Church at all its levels.
This summer I have turned the attention of one of the Café website streams to Ecclesiology, the branch of theology that studies the origins, structures, and works of the Church. I have referenced the text Ecclesiology and the Beginning of the Third Millennium  in recent posts as a good example of how theologians in this field do this work, in this case a collection of essays by about a dozen Australian theologian-ecclesiologists. If you have a moment, peruse the free on-line sample provided by the book’s site on Amazon to give yourself a flavor of ecclesiological study [many good books on Amazon provide this kind of free sampling.] I will be using the outline of this work through the summer as I file posts on the Church on the liturgical stream, as the Church is defined as the ultimate sacrament of the presence of Christ in the world.
This Australian book on the Church begins with an introductory essay by Tracey Rowland of Australia’s Notre Dame University. [See her publications here.] Rowland introduces the reader or novice student to trends in ecclesiological theology over the past 150 years or so. She observes that there are three ways of proceeding with contemporary study of the Church. First, one can examine the official teaching Church documents of the last century, notably the Council documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II and several major encyclicals of popes, starting with Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi or “Mystery of the Body of Christ”  and continuing through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Second, one can “trawl through the publications of the big [scholarly] names” as Rowland puts it, from Cardinal Newman of the nineteenth century to the western theologians of the twentieth century, primarily from Germany and France. The third approach is through controversial Church issues which have arisen in recent times. [p. 2]
Ecclesiology involves the Church looking into a mirror and describing what it sees. In St. Mark’s Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [last weekend’s text] the evangelist sees a primitive body of poor disciples dispatched by Christ to go forth into the world with nothing but a staff, trust, and a call to repentance with the arrival of the kingdom of God. Clearly the Church’s self-portrait in the mirror is more complex today, for better and worse. For myself, I have found it useful for my own faith’s ecclesiology to study the conversion process of great minds who sought admission to Catholicism at the height of their careers—Augustine, Cardinal Newman, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thea Bowman—who identified something about the Church body as they experienced it that compelled them to embrace it. For Augustine, for example, it was the powerful example of the bishop of Milan, the future Church doctor St. Ambrose, whose faith and erudition was matched by physical courage in protecting his Milanese Church from threats of harm at the hands of a heretical emperor.
In my youth the practical ecclesiology of my parish and education was the role of the Church as juridical gatekeeper to the world of the infinite. The thrust was otherworldly, and Church life was understood, as the Memorare prayer reminded us, as a veil of tears. But even then, there were scholars who understood that the Doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming man—had significant implications for the Church and its members. In some way the Church was Christ, not simply his bodyguard. Both Newman and Pius XII opened the door to this new emphasis in the study of the Church--the relationship of the spiritual/mystical with the concrete world of the real. However, Vatican II, in its teaching on the identity of the Church, retrieved the ancient Biblical understanding of Baptism and the Church. In Baptism, we are changed and become living sacraments of Christ. The Church is the living and acting persona of Christ on earth, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit outpoured after Easter. The Gospel promise of Jesus that “I am with you all days, even to the end of the world” is more than just encouragement. It is a statement of fact that he who sees the Church sees Christ who animates it. This dictum applies corporately and individually.
Given that the theological and catechetical community has had many decades now to reflect upon God’s plan of sanctity for the Church, Rowland correctly points out that the leadership of the Church has been rocked by scandal which has wounded its witness power significantly. She believes that scholars and leaders will need to address this conflict between the Church’s glorious identity and its less than stellar witness. [Australia was rocked in recent years by the imprisonment of its leading churchman, Cardinal Pell.]
During Vatican II, the Council fathers’ ecclesiological document on the Church, Lumen Gentium or “Light to All the Nations” described the Church in the Biblical image of the Chosen People of God in the wilderness, wandering together so to speak until arrival in the eternal promised land. The metaphor “People of God” is one of the most enduring titles of the Church since the Council. It is also something of a reversal of the older model used in my youth—the “pyramid” with pope on top, then bishops and priests, then religious, and finally the laity. In today’s baptismal rite the new Catholic—regardless of age—is announced as sharing in the royal priesthood of Christ. However, precisely how this royal priesthood of baptism relates to the institutional priesthood of Holy Orders is another question, another of ecclesiology’s tasks of the third millennium which is related to but not limited to issues of women’s ordination, married clergy, etc.
Similarly, the issue of authority in the Church is another of theology’s tasks. Lumen Gentium went to great pains to restore the independent identity of bishops as successors of apostles whose authority as teachers is derived from their sacramental identities as successors of the apostles. The older texts often described bishops as simply sharing the judicial powers of the pope. LG describes the world’s bishops as a college in communion with each other and with the Bishop of Rome; it is the office of the episcopacy that binds them together. On the other hand, LG describes the pope as having “full, supreme and universal power over the Church” and the bishops having such power only when acting with the consent of the pope.
One may legitimately ask: if all the baptized share in the Church’s evangelical mission of Christ, how are the laity to contribute their insights and vision? In truth, Pope Francis is the first pope in modern times to address this question, and if his health holds steady, we may see a true ecclesiastical experiment in Church communication. Francis’ immediate predecessors drew from LG’s priority of unity [or communio in Latin texts], the principle of full union of God and unity among his people. The concept makes eminent sense and is drawn from the Gospel of St. John’s Last Supper Discourse where Jesus prays that “They all may be one, as you Father and I are one.”
The ecclesiastical problem, at least as I have observed it over my lifetime, is the absence of a vehicle to raise respectable and good intentioned questioning throughout the Church. Critique is heard as “dissent.” If a priest were to share with his bishop back in 1968 that the papal declaration on artificial birth control was causing significant stress among those sharing their plight in the confessional, a bishop could interpret the priest’s pastoral concern as disobedience to either papal authority or natural law. It is no secret that for years the Vatican forbade the raising of certain topics at the universal bishops’ synods on the grounds, among others, that the airing of disagreement was a breech of communio and “confusing to the simple faithful.” In the present-day pastoral distress over the term “disordered’ to describe homosexuals is another specific example where many good Catholics would like an opportunity to explore—for personal and pastoral reasons—alternatives for this language in the Catechism.
Jorge Bergoglio brought a somewhat different disposition to the papacy when elected in 2013. As Rowland writes, “One gets a sense...from the history of the Bergoglio papacy to date, that Pope Francis does not regard conflict as necessarily a bad thing.” [p. 23] In truth I believe that Rowland herself is a bit flustered by what she sees as an untidy papacy, in terms of the latitude that the pope allows for interpretation of pastoral practice. Pope Francis’ description of the Church as a field hospital inspired the author to quote Robert Spaeman that “the Church cannot be a mere booth in the fairground of postmodernity or just another institution trying to provide social welfare.” [p. 24]
No pope sacrifices communio, but Francis understands that union/unity is a project as much as a principle; a marriage, for example, is a legal and sacramental reality but it is also a dynamic relationship which is richer at the end than in the beginning. Taking the long view, the pope has engaged the Church on a two-year process of learning cross-current communication, the synodal model. I do not expect to live long enough to see its impact upon the life of the Church in the United States or elsewhere. But in the years I do have, I would like to be a part of a synodal experiment, for the responsibility of the Church would make me a better member.
It is hard to jump back into routine after three weeks on the road. Although I downloaded Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium  to my Kindle for the trip to review and share on the Professional Development stream of the blog when I got home, it was not until I got to the airport to come home that I broke out some serious theological reading. As my trip home originated in Las Vegas, I could safely assume I was the only person in McCarran Airport reading up on Catholic ecclesiology, no small feat considering that this airport is full of slot machines as well as the usual distractions.
I did find auto traveling from Omaha to Las Vegas to be captivating and exciting. Our primary targets were natural ones, places for hiking like the great national parks of the West, such as Badlands in South Dakota and Arches and Zion in Utah. But we had opportunities to visit Father Flannagan’s Boys Town, several noted schools and cathedrals, some major cities in states we had never visited before [hello Omaha, Bismarck, Casper and Las Vegas], and a countless number of small-town gas stations and coffee stops as we avoided the interstate system as much as possible. I can honestly say that I encountered nothing but genuine hospitality and some surprisingly good coffee over the broad central expanse of our country.
As noted, I did not do much book reading, though I followed both national and Catholic media online throughout the trip. When sunset rolled around after a full day of travel and outdoor activity, we were too tired and heat exhausted for heavy literary pursuits. I am embarrassed to admit that my wife Margaret coaxed me into binge watching “The Gilmore Girls” on NETFLIX across the country. At least the writing is clever, though in every episode I quietly mumbled to myself, “Is there a decent therapist in that town? Or even a mediocre one?”
One of my great pleasures in traveling is visiting churches. Naturally, celebrating the Eucharist in a new community is always a lift for me and a lesson in the vitality of the Church. One of the most overlooked catechetical opportunities for children and adults is the chance to encounter other ecclesial settings while traveling, and when I look back over my vacation albums, I can recall nearly all the churches we visited and particularly where we had the opportunity to attend Mass. On this last vacation we traveled over three weekends and thus celebrated in three quite different settings.
In Omaha we were the guests of the principal of Mount Michael Benedictine School, an outstanding high school establishment of the Benedictine monks. Monastic liturgies are remarkable for their simplicity and focus, among other things. The chapel had recently reopened for Sunday Mass to the lay community of supporters as the Covid restrictions were just mitigated. Here, as in Mepkin Abbey, SC, where Margaret and I go for retreat each year, the community Mass is offered with devotion in about forty minutes. The monastic tradition has much to teach our parishes about focus and simplicity; my sense is that parochial liturgies get “cluttered”, and this is what makes them feel “boring” to participants of all ages.
Our host suggested that we may want to visit the Omaha Cathedral later Sunday. After Margaret and I walked across the Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the late afternoon heat we decided to take up the suggestion. As luck would have it, I messed up the directions and we visited or passed four churches in the Omaha city limits in our quest to see the church. All the churches were celebrating 5:30 PM Sunday liturgies. The Cathedral itself resembled most inner-city churches, but it was interesting to see the early twentieth-century construction of several parish campuses which featured large edifices for schools, rectories, and convents. Many of these buildings have been converted into social outreach centers or childcare facilities. Again, a catechetical opportunity to see and appreciate the development of twentieth century Catholic parish mission in the United States.
Before I leave Omaha, I need to add that Margaret and I had the opportunity to tour the above-mentioned Mount Michael Benedictine School and the famous Boys Town of Father Flannagan fame. While these institutions address distinct populations, it was most encouraging to see well financed and excellently managed ministries at a time when there is a mood of gloom and discouragement in many quarters regarding the future viability of parishes, schools, and social outreach agencies.
After a week in Wall, South Dakota, Badlands State Park, and Mount Rushmore, we found ourselves the following weekend in Bismarck, North Dakota. We took a walking tour of the city and came upon the Cathedral of the Diocese of Bismarck. It was a large but unpretentious church; one would not guess that it is a cathedral. I was impressed with a large and well-appointed social gathering room accessible to the church vestibule. As the cathedral was close to our Hampton Inn, we decided to attend the Saturday vigil Mass later in the day.
I was impressed again by the appropriate simplicity of the Mass here. The parts of the Mass, including the music, were undertaken with devout simplicity and community engagement was energetic. I felt compelled to sing, which is not true of Mass in my home parish which tends toward the theatrical. What I most remember, though, was being surrounded by little children. We were in the third row, and it was evident that the little members were not routinely shuffled off to a noise-insulated designated site. I was particularly moved by the mother who sat behind me. She appeared to have four or five little children under her wing. The oldest curled up in a corner of the pew for his afternoon nap, but the others engaged with the children from other families in the vicinity, much in the fashion of the prairie dog villages we had seen at Badlands Park. None of the adults seemed unduly disturbed, nor did the celebrant.
Again, I was struck by a contrast with my own parish, where little children are by far the exception and not the rule at the Saturday vigil Mass. Why the difference? I cannot honestly say, though we noted in our earlier walk through the neighborhood that the cathedral sat in a middle-class neighborhood with the homes near the church. This is precisely the kind of neighborhood I lived in, just a half block from my church and school. For just about all my elementary school years I virtually lived on the church grounds for my sacraments, school, sports, and CYO activities. My dad was an officer in the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic War Veterans. My first crush and my first “date’ involved a parish girl.
The Bismarck cathedral church had that sort of feel. If I lived there, I would probably become active in that sort of parish. In any event, at the end of Mass I felt compelled to say something to the mother behind me, who was gathering her miniature quintet to go home for supper. I told her that I was inspired by her efforts to bring her little children to Mass by herself and that God would bless her for the effort.
Our final weekend of vacation found us in the beautiful mountainous village of Springdale, Utah, less than a mile from the entrance to Zion National Park. Our accommodations there took the colorful name of “The Bumbleberry Inn.” We checked in on a Friday and inquired about Catholic Mass. We were given a welcome sheet to a “Catholic Service” in the Canyon Community Center at 8 AM on Sunday. I should point out here that while all the national parks are very crowded this summer, Zion was extraordinarily full. Given the heat and the number of visitors, Margaret decided that we would not even attempt a morning entry. Our neighbors at Bumbleberry told us of going to the park at 5 AM or 6 AM to do serious hiking.
Even with these challenges, I was a bit surprised with the attendance at a Communion Service held in the community center. Led by a local lay woman who read a brief reflection in place of a homily, there were eight of us in attendance—six locals from Springdale and two tourists, i.e., Margaret and me. I do not know what to make of that, as the city was teeming with tourists. Later in the day, we encountered a boy in the park with a “Loyola” tee shirt. Margaret quipped, “I didn’t see him this morning.” [School principals never die; they just go on doing their thing.]
I noted in the beginning of this entry that I am currently reading up on ecclesiology, the branch of theology that studies the nature of the Church itself. It is a timely subject that covers a lot of territory, but the theologians who work this discipline agree on several points. First, the mission of the Church is to live as the sacrament of Christ himself on earth. Second, our spiritual strength as a Church resides in our unity. And third, the heart of our unity on earth is the weekly Eucharistic sharing of the bread and the cup. Any amount of travel opens our eyes to the unity we share and the work that remains to be done.