Bishop Restores the Traditional Order of the Sacraments of Initiation

silva_200x299In late April, Bishop Larry Silva of the Diocese of Honolulu announced in a letter to his diocese that he plans to restore the sacraments of initiation to “their proper order.” His letter is the start of a larger educational program planned for the diocese.

Bishop Silva begins his letter by saying:

I am writing this letter to invite you to take an active role by reading the articles regarding the plan to return the sacraments of initiation to their proper order in our diocese, that is: Baptism, Confirmation, and then First Holy Communion. A series of articles explaining the history of the sacraments of initiation, changes to the way children will prepare for these sacraments, and the importance of having comprehensive youth ministry programs in our parishes will be published in the next issues of our Hawaii Catholic Herald.

Bishop Silva’s letter mentions the extensive consultation that was conducted prior to this letter. Both the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council were both consulted on this change and “strongly favored the plan.”

According to Bishop Silva, the reason for the change is quite simple:

Some may point out that we have been doing what we are doing for 100 years, so why change now? The reason is simple: What we are doing is not working very well. Confirmation is often experienced more as a graduation from the Church than as a free gift of God’s grace.

The dispute about Confirmation has led many to say that Catholic youth need a rite of passage. Many liturgists agree that the youth need a rite of passage, but believe that Confirmation should not be that rite. The argument for retaining our current practice of Confirmation is that this sacrament provides the Church with a rite of passage for youth and young-adults. But I think Bishop Silva’s observation is quite profound: Confirmation in many cases is not seen as a rite of passage deeper into the Church, but a graduation from it!

Bishop Silva addresses the concerns of those who feel that moving up the age of Confirmation will mean a further decline in youth attendance and participation in Church:

Confirming children at the time of their First Holy Communion will increase the numbers of those being confirmed and receiving the grace of the sacrament. Some may fear that the children will not come back after that. Anecdotal evidence shows that family involvement is the most likely indicator of retention in faith formation programs, not the age of Confirmation.

But Bishop Silva is clear that the upcoming change to the order of the sacraments of initiation and the development of new youth programs…

is not just to put the sacraments into their proper order. The challenge is to provide a transformed youth ministry approach that empowers young people to live as disciples of Jesus in our world today, draws them to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Catholic Church, and fosters the personal and spiritual growth of each young person.

To help with this renewal, Bishop Silva is turning to the plan outlined in “Renewing the Vision,” a program sponsored by the USCCB.

Bishop Silva notes that this change and the implementation of new youth programs will result in many questions. In order to answer those questions and generate dialogue in the diocese around these changes, Bishop Silva announced that listening sessions will be held where people can come and discuses the design of this new program. It is his hope that these sessions will give the diocese a chance “to hear from those who will be most directly impacted by this change.”

It will be interesting to see how this shift in the order of the sacraments of initiation is implemented in the Diocese of Honolulu.

Below you can find the full text of Bishop Silva’s letter. You can also read it at the Hawaii Catholic Herald.

Dear parents, priests, deacons, youth ministers, faith formation staff and Catholic school administrators,

I am writing this letter to invite you to take an active role by reading the articles regarding the plan to return the sacraments of initiation to their proper order in our diocese, that is: Baptism, Confirmation, and then First Holy Communion. A series of articles explaining the history of the sacraments of initiation, changes to the way children will prepare for these sacraments, and the importance of having comprehensive youth ministry programs in our parishes will be published in the next issues of our Hawaii Catholic Herald. Education plays a most important role in this process, so I invite you to be part of the process. The proposal to return the sacraments of initiation to their proper order has already been discussed with the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Both groups strongly favored the plan.

If one looks at the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” one notes that the first three sacraments are covered in the proper theological order. Our baptismal covenant with God is sealed in Confirmation; the two sacraments go together like Easter and Pentecost. Received third, the Holy Eucharist is then seen as the summit of initiation. “The Holy Eucharist completes our Christian initiation” (“Catechism” 1322).

Over the course of history in the Western (Latin) Church, great emphasis was placed on the importance of Baptism soon after birth, opening the door of salvation to our youngest members. Unfortunately, delays started occurring with the reception of Confirmation and First Holy Communion. Pope St. Pius X in 1910 addressed the problem of children receiving First Holy Communion at too late an age and directed that children be given Holy Communion at the age of reason, that is, about age 7. This resulted, however, in the sacraments being given out of order. Current practice is like counting 1, 3, 2.

Some may point out that we have been doing what we are doing for 100 years, so why change now? The reason is simple: What we are doing is not working very well. Confirmation is often experienced more as a graduation from the Church than as a free gift of God’s grace. Pope Francis acknowledged this: “There was this experience: the sacrament of Confirmation — what is this sacrament called? Confirmation? No! Its name has changed: the ‘sacrament of farewell.’ They do this and then they leave the Church. … Many young people move off after receiving Confirmation, the sacrament of farewell, of goodbye, as I said. It is an experience of failure, an experience that leaves emptiness and discourages us. Is this true or not?” (Sept. 22, 2013).

Sadly this is true in the Diocese of Honolulu, as it is true in many other places. While Confirmation programs do meet with success in many of our young people, who do become faithful disciples of the Lord, we are still missing the mark with many others. It is apparent that we are not accomplishing the goal of converting the hearts of all our young people to the Lord. Still the problem is bigger than that. A review of statistics shows that half of the children we baptize are never confirmed. Confirming children at the time of their First Holy Communion will increase the numbers of those being confirmed and receiving the grace of the sacrament. Some may fear that the children will not come back after that. Anecdotal evidence shows that family involvement is the most likely indicator of retention in faith formation programs, not the age of Confirmation.

The challenge, though, is not just to put the sacraments into their proper order. The challenge is to provide a transformed youth ministry approach that empowers young people to live as disciples of Jesus in our world today, draws them to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Catholic Church, and fosters the personal and spiritual growth of each young person. The Church has a plan for this. It’s called “Renewing the Vision” and information is available on the U.S. bishops’ website: usccb.org. Just view it on the web, and you will see that it is quite comprehensive.

In looking at the eight components of “Renewing the Vision,” clergy, youth ministers and parishioners will see that they are already doing many of the components in their parishes — catechesis, engaging young people in the liturgy, service to the needy. Many of the components will simply shift from being part of a Confirmation program to being part of comprehensive youth ministry. It will be a matter of supplementing what is lacking. This will require work to achieve. It will require a new way of thinking. But it is worth it because it will help bring about the participation of greater number of young disciples in building up the Kingdom of God.

Such a plan requires that we trust in the Holy Spirit. We believe that Confirmation gives the gifts of the Holy Spirit — wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord. Young people need these gifts as they grow up, not when they are nearly done growing up. So we will need to trust that the Spirit will fervently work in our young people from an earlier age and work in all of us as we strive to engage our youth in the life of the Church.

Let me take this opportunity to thank the dedicated women and men of our parishes who give of their time and talent to prepare our youth for the sacrament of Confirmation and in other forms of youth ministry. By no means are we judging your work a failure, since all that is done for the Lord will bear fruit in its own time. Your dedication itself is a great witness to Jesus.

There will obviously be many questions about how we move from our present model to another model of restoring the sacraments of initiation to their proper order. In addition to the articles I mentioned above, our diocesan staff will be holding various listening sessions throughout the diocese to discuss these issues with you so that the design of our programs can be as effective as possible. The dates/times/locations for the listening sessions will be announced in the Hawaii Catholic Herald and in our diocesan eNews at a later time. We look forward to seeing you at one of these sessions! It would be the time for us to hear from those who will be most directly impacted by this change.

May the Lord continue to bless you as you show forth the gifts of the Holy Spirit you have received!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Rev. Larry Silva

Bishop of Honolulu

 

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23 comments

  1. It is clear that a lot of thought and planning went into this decision, but color me skeptical as to whether it really works to achieve the stated goal. I will be interested to see what happens.

  2. Is he talking about following Orthodoxy and the Byzantine churches in communion with Rome and providing Baptism, Confirmation/Chrismation, and the Eucharist to infants? Or is this going to be another turn at drawing out the sacraments of initiation in the Roman Church? I suspect “restoring the proper order” does not mean following the practice of Orthodox Church, but I’m not sure what the point is of restoring the proper order if initiation is still a drawn out process in three parts.

  3. I believe the Spokane diocese made this change some years ago. It would be interesting to know how many other dioceses have done likewise, and how the change has worked out.

  4. Whether it “works” or not, from a Sacramental AND a canonical point of view, the US Church is not following the universal discipline.

    One would not believe what I had to go through to get my first 8 year old confirmed. Now the BIshop just authorizes my family to add them to a middle school group of kids receiving confirmation.

  5. It is also hard to have a conversation about this without recourse to the canons and the most recent public interpretative documents.

    Can. 889 §1. Every baptized person not yet confirmed and only such a person is capable of receiving confirmation.

    §2. To receive confirmation licitly outside the danger of death requires that a person who has the use of reason be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises.

    Can. 890 The faithful are obliged to receive this sacrament at the proper time. Parents and pastors of souls, especially pastors of parishes, are to take care that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the appropriate time.

    Can. 891 The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion unless the conference of bishops has determined another age, or there is danger of death, or in the judgment of the minister a grave cause suggests otherwise.

  6. Others may have a more updated list, but I believe the following are the US dioceses who observe the baptism-confirmation-Eucharist sequence:

    Phoenix, Ariz.
    Tyler, Texas
    Gaylord, Mich.
    Honolulu, HI
    Marquette, Mich.
    Fargo, N.D.
    Spokane, Wash.
    Portland, Maine
    Great Falls-Billings, Mont.
    Saginaw, Mich

    Greensburg PA adopted that sequence but has since switched back to baptism-Eucharist-confirmation. There is at least one other diocese that went back and forth but the name escapes me.

  7. I applaud the bishop for this change in policy. Now if we could find a way to delay first penance, confirmation, and first communion to 4th grade we will be well on the way to a true reform of sacramental initiation of children. 2nd graders may be cute, innocent, and precious but lack sufficient use of reason to celebrate these sacraments in a way that leads them to intentional discipleship.

    1. Father Jack (#7), couldn’t it also be said that the sacrament of Confirmation also, like all sacraments, imparts grace and strengthens the soul against sin? It is true that for many years Confirmation was (and is still sometimes) viewed as a conscious and mature affirmation of baptism. I don’t doubt that perspective. However. there is also a good argument that the grace of the Holy Spirit is so efficacious that it should not be delayed.

      1. Surely, “the conscious and mature affirmation of baptism” happens not once but at every Sunday Eucharist, and especially at the Easter Vigil. To attach it to Confirmation, and then to expect it of teenagers (for whom the conscious and mature affirmation of anything is the stuff of comedy), seems wilfully to miss the point. I have no doubt that this will be one of those things that future generations will look back on with disbelief.

  8. I wonder how Bishop Silva’s colleagues at the USCCB are reacting to his letter. By saying he is restoring “the proper order” to these rites, he is indirectly saying that every other bishop who does not use this order is acting improperly.

    Leaving aside the wisdom of this change, the manner in which he has introduced it leaves a bit to be desired.

  9. Denver is on the way.

    Has anyone heard rumblings about this in Chicago? I have no evidence to suggest that this is a possibility in Chicago, but…

    +Cupich didn’t start this in Spokane (Skylstad did, in 1997), but +Cupich lived with it for many years…and didn’t change it…and has an extensive background in sacraments and liturgy…

    If Denver and Chicago both adopted this…well…

    However, I recall a talk a few years ago at FDLC in which +Aquila extolled the virtues of the “restored order” but freely admitted there was no consensus in the USCCB…as he said “there’s no consensus about the age of Confirmation; how could we agree to such a radical shift as this?”

    Yet, I remain hopeful…

  10. As you know the celebration of sacraments involves the principles of ex opere operatis and ex opere operantis. The grace of the sacraments of initiation, then, is one that elicits a response. My experience teaches me that 4th graders are significantly more ready to respond to the grace of these sacraments than when they were in the 2nd grade. And while it is true that they would be even more ready in the 6th grade, I think that would involve an undue delay. I appreciate your observation.

  11. There is no question that the proper order is indeed Baptism, Confirmation, and then Eucharist. However, if one is to speak of restoration, it means then to undo the change of Pius X, which was not to raise the age of confirmation to a point after first communion, but to lower the age of first communion to a point before confirmation.

    In other words, to restore the previous practice and order would mean confirmation and first communion together at about the age of 14-16.

    Of course, going back to a full initiation model, with the RCIA as the effective norm for all cases, would be even more preferable, but getting people away from infant baptism would take a few lifetimes of dedicated formation!

  12. Would a proper restoration of order likewise include a proper restoration of age?

    The way we properly restore the Sacraments of Initiation is to bring them all into adulthood. Until the Church wants to challenge infant Baptism, then Confirmation, and Communion could be rightfully restored.

    We use Sacraments as tools of inclusion/exclusion and by equating lowering the age of Confirmation to “increasing the numbers of people receiving the Sacrament” drives the “we own the power to distribute grace” argument into a new realm.

    We are now saying that placing the Sacrament of the Holy Spirit, with gifts fully exposed as adult realities, to below or near the Pius X age of reason is the proper order? This points out to me that these decisions are being based in numbers and attendance counts and if we needed the courage to change things, we would quit rearranging the reception age to fit our human scheduling issues.

    And in my experience, any conversation that says that we as a Church will boost our youth ministry presence to help our high schoolers that includes any mention of Confirmation, at age 14, or 7, means that youth ministry will be set aside until we can properly fund a Confirmation experience.

    If we were serious with right order, we should be serious with right age. As I read it and have seen it practiced, we are really serious with numbers.

  13. I am amused when some people react favorably to a restoration of the traditional in one place but decry the restoration of the traditional in another. And yes, it goes both ways.

    So who defines what is “traditional”? And what constitutes “restoration” thereof?

    In my Bible, the Apostles received Christ’s body and blood quite some time before they were blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And they received neither until they were adults. So which “tradition” are we restoring?

    Let’s be honest. We use the buzzwords to attempt a justification of “change”. And it’s a simple acknowledgement that after two thousand years we still don’t know of one single answer for all 1.2 billion of us.

  14. I recently saw a Facebook post from a parent of one of our 8th grade students. On the night of the last PSR class before Confirmation, she said, “I don’t know who’s more relieved, [my son] or me. Thank God that’s over.”

    We are clinging to a 19th century classroom model of sacramental formation. Sit still! Be quiet! Memorize this book! Study for the test! As long as we’re on this model, our students will run screaming from the church at the earliest possible moment.

    1. Amen.

      The “Study for the test!” mindset (a process thing) and the sacramental emphasis on grace (the content) are diametrically opposed to one another, and most students recognize the cognitive dissonance and it adds to the desire to scream.

  15. Scott #15…

    Students don’t run screaming from Church anymore. They simply close the door, and walk down the street texting. If they need to scream, they text in capital letters.

    So what is a PSR class?

    One time when meeting the Archbishop in the Sacristy as he was vesting, he looked at me and asked “well, are they ready?” I responded “as ready as a tenth grader can be.”

    One can imagine now responding to an Archbishop’s query, “as ready as a six year old can be.”

  16. It’s this obsession with having them “ready” that reflects our controlling attitudes toward our kids and towards God. It actually demonstrates a lack of faith. No wonder our children aren’t inclined to remain. Without a doubt there are good things that can be done to lay the groundwork for the reception of sacraments, but shouldn’t most of the “formation” be done afterwards, illuminated by the experience of received grace? This idea comes from our tradition and we know it to be best practice. If we baptize infants, and celebrate Confirmation and Eucharist at some determined age like 2nd grade, or 4th grade as Fr. Feehily suggests, couldn’t their continued formation be a mystagogy on the reception of these sacraments as our children mature into young adults (most of this the responsibility of parents and godparents)? Really, shouldn’t our entire faith journey be a reflection upon what it means to be an initiated member of the church, the one constant reality that can illuminate our perspective even as all the other circumstances of our life evolve. The real issue is that we have many (a majority?) of adults with a child’s understanding of faith that doesn’t hold up when confronted with the realities of adult life. Everything should be done to change that for the future.

  17. I don’t think much will change while Having Faith is understood primarily either as (i) studied intellectual asset to each item of the Catechism, on the one hand, or (ii) being filled with sensory consolations and the zeal that can rise like hot air from them, on the other hand.

    What if Having Faith is more like persevering through an indefinite journey through a strange desert where one by one the episodes of the TV series you’ve scripted for your life are purged away without much in the way of intellectual or affective consolations? Where Having Faith is a form of theosis where the presence of God is mostly marked by unsatisfied desire?

    Most preachers and catechists in contemporary American Catholic parishes appear to flee that approach to faith other than occasional ritualistic nods at it as an occasional lamentable reality, particularly at liminal moments like death or years-long illness. It’s quite hard to preach and teach about without coming off as patronizing or abstract, so that doesn’t encourage.
    /
    But if we’re talking about ‘getting beyond” a childlike experience of faith, then it’s a necessary thing. (That said, we should remember that children themselves experience such deserts, often without anyone ever accompanying them consciously through it.)

  18. In a recent Facebook thread on this topic (also started in reaction to Bishop Larry Silva’s initiative), I quoted the late and great Kevin Seasoltz, OSB, who said “The problem with restoring the sequence is that you don’t at the same time restore the chronology“. The Orthodox baptize, confirm and administer First Eucharist to babes in arms at the same celebration.

    Another correspondent quoted American bishops who had come to new dioceses and un-restored the sequence because it had proved unworkable in their previous dioceses. I believe this has happened in a number of places, and is what is going on in two English dioceses at the present time. I believe that Archbishop Aquila’s eloquent campaigning for restoration of the sequence is an example of elevating a principle without considering the practical and pastoral realities on the ground. Certainly without considering Seasoltz’s insight.

    I also remember (as I mentioned in the same Facebook thread) hearing Aidan Kavanagh suggesting that if we really believed what we seem to believe about the maturity and readiness of the young people we initiate, then we should not baptize them until they are in their 20s…!

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