The spring meeting of the United States Catholic Bishops took place this past week. This meeting, not surprisingly, focused most of its three-day work on administrative codes for the investigating of bishops alleged to have covered up abuse or engaged in criminal or scandalous conduct, and the establishment of a national hotline for the Church where anyone can make an anonymous report about a bishop. Those opposed to the final decree of the meeting complained that it is still “bishops investigating bishops;” I, on the other hand, share the hope that everyone—including diocesan and chancery officials--finally have a safe place to go with complaints of malfeasance or possible crimes.
The last meeting of the bishops in November 2018 also dealt with this issue, as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report had been released just a few months earlier. Thus, for an entire year the attention of the apostolic leaders of the United States has been diverted to the sexual abuse crisis, and certainly further back to at lease 2002. Clearly, the healing of victims and the safety of the Church enterprise should never be compromised. But the bishops are exhausted, as Peter Feuerherd writes in “After tumultuous year, bishops' meeting opens with palpable sense of weariness.”
The sad fact remains that as the Church copes with the sins of the past, there is little time or energy to face the issues of the present or the future. Guidance and directives from the nation’s bishops on American Church life are hard to come by, in large part because the bishops are divided along progressive-moderate-conservative lines (much like civil government) and because of other pressures, such as clergy shortages, changes in American culture, and falling church attendance. One matter that has fallen through the cracks is sacramental initiation, most notably the pastoral practice of Confirmation.
The last guidance from the USCCB on the age of Confirmation, for example, was issued in November, 2000: “The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 891, hereby decrees that the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Latin rite shall be conferred between the age of discretion  and about sixteen  years of age, within the limits determined by the diocesan bishop and with regard for the legitimate exceptions given in canon 891.” As I discussed in the last Saturday blog post, the differing ages of administering Confirmation across the country implicitly shifts the pastoral understanding of the sacrament and the way in which catechesis or instruction takes place.
When the bishops agreed to the current 7-16 age spread for the Confirmation of baptized Catholics in 2000, the result was inevitable, because the progressive wing of the conference, along with a large number of those in the religious education establishment in the U.S., held out for an interpretation of the sacrament as an early adult personal affirmation of vows previous made by parents and godparents. This was a position gaining strength when I became a pastor in the late 1970’s. The conservative or traditional position—and, in fact, the predominant one to this day—held that Confirmation was (is) a preemptive exercise of the Holy Spirit’s power for middle school children as they were entering puberty and the dangers of adolescent life. For traditional thinkers, it was not necessary that Confirmands “feel empowered” by the Holy Spirit; the celebration of the sacrament by the bishop insured that the protection of the Spirit was de facto present throughout life.
When Timothy Gabrielli’s 2013 book questioned the emphasis upon autonomy and personal subjectivity of the Confirmation age in the later teen years as a drift away from full participation of the Mystical Body of Christ, I was critical of his work then. We had a very fruitful exchange of correspondence, and it has come to my attention that critical research in the social sciences in recent years has undercut some of my certainties. If the idea of Confirmation in the late adolescent years is based upon better “maturity,” the consensus of the neurological psychology community has moved full organic/social maturity to as late as 26. [Actually, who among us has reached his or her maturity peak?] On the other hand, studies on young people leaving the Church in the United States indicate that the median age of “opting out” is 13, with the process beginning around 10.
In the United States we have a small but significant number of dioceses which have opted for the youngest age of celebrating Confirmation, i.e., 7 or the age of reason, currently permitted by ecclesiastical law. I have seen figures of about 30 dioceses of the 180 in the U.S. which have adopted the younger age, such as Fargo, North Dakota. One of the driving factors for earlier Confirmation is restoring its place in the order of sacraments of initiation, as is done in the RCIA program (i.e., Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist.) How this return to early Confirmation has been accepted by the rank and file is hard to say. The websites of dioceses like Fargo or Denver seem to do a lot of huffing and puffing to explain the rationale, and one diocesan website advised parish personnel, in so many words, to refer those with questions about the lower age of Confirmation to the chancery.
Anyone who has volunteered more than an hour in parish religious education is probably aware of the pragmatism that overrides much of parochial understanding of Confirmation. I am sure that in many households the move to a single second or third grade Confirmation/First Eucharist celebration would be welcomed as an early dispatch of Church obligations. Conversely, there would be parents disturbed by the early celebration of Confirmation, as this sacrament is frequently viewed as the last carrot on the stick for youthful continuing education in the Faith. They used to say that “Confirmation was graduation” from CCD, an expression which was and remains painfully true. Lest I forget, there is also a silent majority who wonder what the heck is going on. When is the last time you heard a sermon on Confirmation?
I am hopeful that Dr. Gabrielli is representative of new school theologians who are seeking to explore better understanding of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. [It is most encouraging this spring to see this scholar join what is probably one of the best schools of religious education in the country, the University of Dayton.] His 2017 work on the Mystical Body of Christ focuses upon “models of the Church” as vehicles for the work of Christ through his Holy Spirit. Some models now in use work better than others; none are working extremely well. If ten-year-olds are starting to cash their chips on the venture called “Church,” clearly there are multiple dysfunctions in the Christian family. Too much legalism and indifference, and fear of the cost of a lived Christian life seem like good places to begin a reassessment.
Gabrielli reminds the Church of the vision of early twentieth century liturgical reformers such as Virgil Michel, whose lifelong goal was “to make all members of the Church aware of the true meaning of the liturgy as the Church’s public worship system in which all must find ‘the primary and indispensable source’ of the Christ-life.” [Full Michel 1939 biography here.] For us in the 21st century, all Church worship, beginning with its sacraments, is a unifying experience of the risen Christ, which motivates a deeper love of the divine, a charity between all believers, and an energetic service to the world.
I note that on the final day of the bishops’ meeting, the members discussed the flight from the Church of the young. While Bishop Robert Barron made an intelligent presentation on the subject, one of his confreres took the floor urging his fellow bishops to be aware of the impact on sexual morality of Woodstock, an event that happened when some of the bishops were in parochial school. I don’t think that Santana, Richie Havens, or Janis Joplin have much to do with young people’s departures. I think the answer is better sought in an openness to the Spirit in a way that enlightens, loves, and serves. At every age.