The “Restored Order” for Initiation: Is it a “Progressive” or a “Traditionalist” victory?

I had the pleasure of visiting with a former student recently, who has worked within the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois after her graduation.  As she and I tend to talk about things Church-related, she reported that her Diocese had just switched the “Restored Order,” and that she wondered how this would affect programming for the upcoming year.  “The Restored Order…” the suspicious historian inside me said slowly….  “Restored to what?” 

Thanks to my former student’s kind introduction to this interesting “new-ish” trend in the Roman Catholic Church, I am now relieved of my ignorance.  The Restored Order, as PrayTell’s Alan Hommerding reported as recently as this past April, refers to a re-ordering of the sacraments of initiation, moving confirmation from a location in adolescence (usually between 8th grade and juniors in high school in U.S. contexts) to the day of First Communion itself.  Thus, while baptism still is administered to infants, the actual reception of the sacraments becomes baptism, confirmation, eucharist, not baptism, eucharist, confirmation.

Grappling with this reality for the first time, I felt like years of my indoctrination regarding the wonders of fourth-century Christianity were suddenly shunted into 21st century reality…mostly.  We know that, for the early Church, in most places through the 4th century, Christian initiation occurred as a single event, not one which was sundered across many years of one’s life.  And, in some of our prized resources witnessing Christian initiation dating in the 300’s, we see a general pattern of washing with water and anointing with chrism preceding first eucharist. 

The separation of these sacraments is well-documented elsewhere and need not be rehearsed here.  Significant to note, however, is that the general order of baptism, confirmation, eucharist was retained until Pope St. Pius X’s issued instructions regarding increased frequency of reception of the eucharist (Sacra Tridentina 1905) and the the importance of the need for children who had reached the age of reason to begin receiving first communion (Quam Singulari 1910).  His Quam Singulari lowered the age of communion reception to 7, but said nothing about reception of confirmation (around age 14).  Thus, while First Communion migrated to the second grade, confirmation was left marooned in the midst of adolescence.  Thus, over the course of the twentieth century, the practice of receiving first communion prior to confirmation (after which one would receive one’s first solemn communion) developed.

Meanwhile, we know that a thrust of the Second Vatican Council’s post-conciliar liturgical renewals followed a strategy of ressourcement (returning to the sources). These sources were often the much-privileged fourth-century witnesses. This preference, in turn, shaped the revision of rites and the establishment of the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults itself.  Why did not the post-conciliar reforms also include restoring the “order” of sacraments for all, not just for situations of adult conversion?  Indeed, not only confirmation, but first reconciliation was “out of order.” In many dioceses (including my home diocese of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis), first confession was made several years after first holy communion.

My final wonderment in this interesting Catholic ritual puzzle are four inter-connected questions: who is making the change to the “restored order”; where it is being reported; what is the rhetoric surrounding the “restoration”; and, finally, how is it affecting the faithful.    

Thus far, thirteen dioceses in the United States have implemented the “Restored Order” for the sacraments of Initiation:  Saginaw, Michigan (1995); Great Falls-Billings, Montana (1996); Portland, Maine (1997); Spokane, Washington (1998); Fargo, North Dakota (2002); Gaylord, Michigan (2003); Tyler, Texas (2005); Phoenix, Arizona (2005); Honolulu, Hawaii (2015); Denver, Colorado (2015); Manchester, New Hampshire (2017); Springfield, Illinois (2017); and Gallup, New Mexico (2019).   According to the National Catholic Register, two dioceses (Greensburg, PA and Marquette, MI), had restored the order of sacraments but have since returned the order to baptism, eucharist, confirmation. 

The location of dioceses and archdioceses who have moved to a restored order is widespread, if small in number (197 particular churches in the United States–so about 6%).  On the other hand, reporting on the “restored order” has appeared in a variety of Catholic news sources–from the aforementioned National Catholic Register and the Catholic News Agency to The Commonweal.  Interestingly, most such sources, approaching from a theological and catechetical lens, enthusiastically praise the restored order of sacraments.   As Rita Ferrone (also an author on Pray Tell) wrote in her 2017 Commweal piece: 

“Eucharist is the high point and culmination of Christian initiation. All our history and theology back up this assertion. Eucharist is the continuing sacrament of initiation. Rather than striving to structure programs that will lead—finally—to confirmation, our catechetical and ministerial efforts should lead toward Eucharistic participation. Eucharist is the icon of Christian living. Eucharist, not confirmation, is the ongoing and effective sign of belief and belonging.”

Certainly, restoring the order makes complete sense if you are a liturgical historian or theologian–or even an enthusiastic and well-informed member of “the faithful”!  But I can’t help being worried about two things.  First, the aforementioned “rhetoric” surrounding the implementation of the restored order which appears in some documents describing it; and, secondly, the impact on catechetical programs for middle-school children and adolescents.

I’ll offer an example from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila’s passionate and clear pastoral letter, Saints among Us: The Restored Order of the Sacraments of Initiation (2015).  In it, he writes,

“The last century has made it clear that innovations do not save humanity. We still have wars, sickness, corruption and injustice. What will save us is not the next “thing,” but rather, the flood of grace and love that the Holy Trinity desires to pour out upon us. This is what restoring the sacraments of Christian initiation to their original order is all about.”

Archbishop Aquila is absolutely correct regarding “innovations” as not saving humanity–and he rightly recounts the historical estrangement of confirmation from baptism in the context of his letter.  Yet, the annoying twentieth-century liturgical renewal enthusiast in me has her ears tweaked by the note regarding “innovations.”  

I know that many things in Roman Catholic liturgical life–from the vernacular to hymnody to aesthetic principles to the very existence of a reformed Roman Rite–have been interpreted as “innovations”:  unwanted, unwarranted, and unwittingly foisted upon the members of the faithful.  And, there are those who identify as Roman Catholic who would seek to “restore” the Roman Catholic rite to a form which is understood to be “original” or “more authentic” or “correct.”  Thus the language regarding a “restored order” naturally has me on edge. 

Yet, in practice, the “restored order” of the sacraments leaves me confused.  Unlike most understood twentieth-century liturgical “innovations,” the need for the “restored order” seems to be the result (or fault?) of Pope St. Pius X’s reforms, not Pope St. John XXIII’s or Pope St. Paul VI’s! 

Am I reading too much into this?  Should the “restored order” be read as some “victory” for one Catholic “camp” or another?  And, if the restored order truly is a dream come true for us liturgists faithful to the Second Vatican Council’s reformed principles, why do we (at least in the United States) not seem to be talking about it more, and calling for its practice in every diocese

Last but not least–I truly wonder what the fall-out for adolescent programming in catechesis has been and will be.  Have those of us in dioceses/archdioceses who have begun practicing the restored order (some since 1995!) kept records of the resulting numbers of practicing Catholics?  Active teens? Well-informed gradeschool children? 

In short, I have no answers–only a confused opinion and many questions.  I am most curious to see how–or if–the “restored order” continues to garner any followers. And, if it is, indeed, a dream-come-true for liturgical historian/theologians, why aren’t we paying more attention to this trend? 

25 comments

  1. When, I wonder, did Confirmation get put to around 14. As one could not be married until confirmed, I see why it was not later than 14, but when did it get so late? I remember noticing that one reforming medieval bishop in England, perhaps an Archbishop of Canterbury, had laid down that parents should bring their infants to be confirmed within a year of Baptism.
    The archdiocese of Liverpool (England) has just switched back, having tried the ‘restored order’ for a few years.

    1. In Augustine Thompson’s excellent biography of Francis of Assisi, he pointed out that it was still the practice there for infants to be baptized, confirmed and receive Eucharist at the first Easter Vigil following their birth. So as late as the 12th century it was still a unified initiation in at least some places in the West.

  2. I applaud the desire for data from the dioceses that have been doing this for a long period of time as long as the survey is wide-ranging and not just caught up in numbers.
    What has continued to puzzle me as this discussion unfolds is that no one seems to have asked the Eastern Catholic churches how they structure their catechesis for children. They are the ones with the most experience of the “restored” order since they never abandoned it.

  3. The usual age for confirmation for those baptized in infancy when Quam Singulari was promulgated was the age of reason (around age 7). Not “age 14.”
    That is why Pius X did not address confirmation age. Before World War II, the practice in many places in the U.S. was to celebrate confirmation (outside of Mass) with the bishop the week before first communion. Sometimes first communion was given during a confirmation Mass.

  4. If it counts as a victory among traditionalists, does that not make it a victory for (liturgical) progressives? The two groups can’t share a victory or have common ground even if they like it for different reasons?

    Some people must have played around with the order/age in the mid 20th Century, as my mom remembers receiving confirmation before communion in the 1950s when she was seven. I think she was living in Indiana at the time.

    1. Thank you, Jack. It’s nice to find there are some convergences. Even if we arrive at a given place by a different route, we can agree that it’s a good place to be.

  5. What a mess it is. I can bring up my childen in one Diocese under the ‘Restored Order,’ then after moving house, in another diocese find that, having been already confirmed, my kids are missing out on their contemporaries’ Confirmation preparation.

    It further marginalises the Sacrament of Confirmation by making it a sort of tennis ball, back and forth across the court. Wholistic initiation one year, then adolescent therapy (Aidan Kavanagh’s term) the next.

    AG.

    1. I don’t know that it’s that much of a mess. We already have multiple models afoot. Eastern Rite kids find ways to be integrated with their peers. RCIA kids (children’s catechumenate) find ways to be integrated with their peers. A lot depends on the attitude of the adults, and how rigid or flexible they are with catechetical programs, youth ministry, and church activities. The kids do OK. Or so I hear from the people who work with this.

  6. An almost off-topic comment, and one I think I’ve made before in connection with a Pray Tell discussion of the sacraments of initiation: why do Americans insist on discussing the timetable for the sacraments in terms of their labels for school classes? Above, we have “between 8th grade and juniors in high school”. As a European I have no idea what this means, and (my own personal failing, I know) I feel vaguely insulted by being required to go away and look it up. “Between the ages of 13 and 16”, or whatever is meant here, would have been less parochial, more respectful of an international readership, and shorter to actually type. How about it, next time?

    1. You make a reasonable request. That said, you also ask why. I suggest it’s probably because grades are the stronger mental-social association – typically, a given grade straddles at least 2 age years, and the relevant cohort is grade, not age. And sacramental prep seems to be ruddered by grade cohorts. For as long as most may remember.

  7. In going through my mom’s things after her death, I came upon her FHC certificate from 1935. It notes that she was confirmed on a Thursday and received Holy Communion for the first time on the following Sunday. She had just turned 7. So is this a restoration of something that isn’t really all that far in the past, is it?
    As for the Eastern Catholics, in the US at least, they were latinized into giving up their order of sacraments in the early 1900’s The US (Roman) bishops, led bravely by Ireland of Minneapolis and Ryan of Philadelphia, who upon finding so many of these in their dioceses along with their married priests with families, and churches built and owned by their congregations, pressured the pope who sent an Apostolic Letter to the US on how to deal with the “Uniate problem.” It appointed a bishop for the Greek Catholics who had little power and was subject to the Latin bishop(s) in the diocese(s) where Greek Catholics resided. He could only minister with their permission. It removed Chrismation (confirmation) from being conferred by the priest at Baptism along with Holy Communion. It also governed how to deal with “mixed” marriages between Greek and Latin Catholics. It resulted in a good number of Greek Catholics going over to Orthodoxy.
    While the apeing of Roman “First Holy Communion” stuck amoung the Greek Catholics, separating Chrismation from Baptism was thankfully generally ignored. Only in the 1990s and early 2000s has the complete order been restored for Greek Catholics in the US, with Communion given directly after Baptism and Chrismation. Now you will see little Greek Catholic boys and girls dressed like little Roman boys and girls, receiving “solemn First Communion” at the time that they make their first Confession, even though they have been receiving Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy every week since their Baptism. Old habits are hard to break, thanks to those fine, brave, pioneering bishops Ireland and Ryan.

  8. Thanks so much for the comments on timing for confirmation and eucharist at earlier points in the 20th century. My own mother-in-law received her confirmation when she was closer to “First Communion” age! My suspect is that the practice varied depending on location and local tradition (or bishop’s preferences). We clearly have more work to do on this topic!

  9. Once it was found out that I studied under Christiane Brusselmans at Louvain, I was enlisted to work with our archdiocesan Catechumenate Office and have been involved in much of the policy and catechesis over the last 30 years. In Louisville we discussed restoring the order of the sacraments in the mid 90’s. As I recall, it grew out of discussion of the age of confirmation because the Vatican had asked the US bishops to standardize the age across the country. The “standardization” that the bishops arrived at in 2000 was between the age of reason and 16, which left the issue in the same state that supposedly prompted the Vatican request in the first place.
    In any case, we used the opportunity for a chance to examine how we ministered the sacraments of initiation overall. I remember Christiane saying that when the RCIA was fully implemented it would call for changes beyond just adult initiation. And by the 90’s it was a regular experience in our parishes to have children approaching the local age for confirmation (13) having already been fully initiated since they and their families joined the church when they were 8 or 9. Seeing the two patterns for initiation side by side was raising questions among the faithful, not just church professionals. In particular we had long discussion about what confirmation actually is and is for (“a sacrament in search of a theology,” as my sacraments professor used to say.) In our case, the voices of religious educators swayed the decision, being concerned that if we restored confirmation to before Eucharist no one would continue religious education beyond 7 years old. My pointing out that that left us using a sacrament of the church as a carrot did not carry the day.
    My guess, though, is that it was similar kinds of discussions that led to a number of dioceses restoring the order in the mid to late 90’s.

  10. In his study of the history of the sacraments, Joseph Martos writes:
    “Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries confirmation was still given before communion because the age of first communion had come to be pushed back even further than that of confirmation. But during the nineteenth century a practice of giving communion before confirmation began in France and spread to Belgium, Austria and Hungary, partly as a result of the liturgical movement that viewed the reception of communion as an integral part of the mass rather than as an occasional sign of devotion. The practice was later approved by Pope Pius X in 1910, and thereafter communion before confirmation became a regular custom in the Roman church.” [Joseph Martos, Doors to the Saced (Liguori, MO: Liguori Press, 2014), 229.] A “regular” custom but evidently not a “universal” custom.

    Still the writings on confirmation by figures such as Virgil Michel, Damasus Winzen, and Francis Buckley did not seem to have 7-year olds in mind (at least as I read their texts).

  11. Fr. Louis – my profs used to quote the same statement and you can throw in Reconciliation also. It helps to lay out the history of the practice of the sacrament and appreciate your comparison/impact with RCIA (we have seen the same result with comments from parish elementary school). The argument from CCD teachers as if all would stop after the age of seven (IMO) only highlights and underlines the necessity of re-aligning and educating so that we restore the apostolic/3-4th century church order. Using confirmation as a carrot continues to fail as an effective tool – so, you keep kids going until early teens – then what? Sacraments are not *carrots* nor are they tools to be used to coerce, lure, or use as a prize – geez!!!!

  12. Growing up in England in the 1950s, 1st Communion at age 7 and Confirmation at age 9 was the norm. The adolescent celebration of Confirmation at age 14-15 came along rather later. We also heard about France, where 1st Communion at age 7, Confirmation at age 9, and Communion Solennelle at age 12 was the common practice.

    That Solemn Communion sounds like a puberty ritual, and Confirmation at age 14 is also appears to be a rite of passage rather than a sacrament.

    As I have mentioned on this blog at least twice before, the “Restored Sequence” (as it was called in the late 1980s/early 1990s, before other folk came along who had never heard of it, (re-)discovered it, and decided to call it the “Restored Order”) is not a victory for one side or the other. Rather, it is almost a gimmick because it follows a philosophy without examining why.

    The late and great Kevin Seasoltz used to say that the problem with restoring the original sequence of the sacraments is that it doesn’t make sense unless you also restore the chronology. If we were to baptize, confirm and administer First Eucharist at birth, in the same celeration, as the Eastern Churches do, we would not be having this conversation at all. The only time we currently do anything comparable is at the Easter Vigil, and even then in some places we hear that children of catechetical age are baptised and receive First Communion at the Vigil but have their confirmation delayed until the “rest of their year” has it. What a mess that is!

    Alternatively, the late and also great Aidan Kavanagh used to say that if we say by our sacramental practice that we don’t believe that our young people of up to age 7, or 9, or 14, or whatever, are full members of the Church by virtue of their baptism, because we don’t feel they are mature enough to make any sort of commitment, then we simply shouldn’t baptize them at birth. Rather than the present mishmash (and that includes the “Restored Order”), we should logically wait to baptize until our children are mature adults at age 21, followed immediately by the other sacraments of initiation. I can’t see anyone deciding to go down that route.

    1. Hi Paul,

      I don’t think this is a fad, or limited to the 1990s. Liverpool implemented the restored order in 2012. http://www.liverpoolcatholic.org.uk/index.php?p=169 I am not sure of the numbers in the UK. If you are aware of other dioceses that are doing it, please let us know.

      Max Johnson wrote that 7 Canadian dioceses are doing it, and David Orr reported more than half of the dioceses in Australia are doing it. Still more have been added since these books/articles were written. Peter McGrail wrote that a majority of the eight Scottish dioceses are doing it, but he gave no source for that claim.

      Pope Benedict was open to the change and recommended it. Pope Francis has admitted that the present system amounts to confirmation as “the sacrament of farewell.” I do not blame people for working toward a system in which Eucharist is the high point. And youth ministry is separate from Confirmation.

      1. Liverpool has changed back
        “Having visited many parishes and listened to priests, deacons, religious, teachers, catechists and parents, I have decided to move Confirmation back to the teenage years.” Pastoral Letter 17 July 2016 http://www.withyoualways.org.uk/index.php?p=599 – new Archbishop, new policy. The decision to adopt the ‘restored order’ was taken in 2008, so reverting was not a precipitate move.
        I don’t know what the catechists say about this, I do know that some were complaining about lack of suitable printed resources for the children at the time of the second annual group. There was a particular lack of suitable mementos.

      2. Hi, Rita

        Perhaps I was not clear enough in my remarks.

        I wonder why the Confirmation age changed from 9 to 14-15. I have seen nothing in print about any rationale that might have brought that about.

        I do agree with your point below about bishops preferring to try to relate to adolescents (and failing to do so in many cases!)

        Regardless of the availability of catechetical materials for the Restored Order, the fact is that confirming children at age 6 or 7, before admitting them to First Communion, or even doing both sacraments in the same celebration as happens in some places, seems to me to be a nonsense. The big problem is that we are hung up on the “age of reason” and think that we somehow cannot give Communion to children under a certain age. In fact we could give them Communion as soon as they are able to take liquid or solid food, as the Eastern Churches do. I personally don’t think it matters if a child does not have a precise grasp of the doctrinal niceties behind receiving Communion, when most children are quite well aware that this is something special and that they are not just eating ordinary food.

        The whole question also gets muddied by people who do not seem to be aware of the fact that the Eucharist is the greatest sacrament of reconciliation that we have (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church) and insist that First Communion has to be preceded by First Confession. It is high time that we took a fresh look at that.

        In my view, all of this is part of a much larger discussion about why we insist on using Holy Communion as a gatekeeper: you can’t have it until you’ve joined the club or unless you keep the club’s rules. In fact Communion could very easily be considered differently, as a pathway that helps people to come into the Church, or come back into the Church. Many would also agree with the view that people going through the pain that results from divorce and rebuilding their lives are precisely those who are most in need of a sacrament that the Church currently denies them.

        Tinkering with the order of sacraments without a really radical re-examination of what we think we are doing in initiation is not the answer.

      3. Excellent comments, Paul.

        “Tinkering with the order of sacraments without a really radical re-examination of what we think we are doing in initiation is not the answer.”

        Perhaps there is something of magicalism in the hopes of changers (I hesitate to say reformers). Indeed, we know old systems seem not to work. If only we knelt, had more reverence, and restored the order, the whole system of faith would then fall into line. Your comments about bishops not making an impact on teens is spot on. Most parish ministers don’t either. Unless and until we are truly prepared to accompany young people–of any age–in faith, we will continue to fail, regardless of how ressourced we are.

      4. Thanks, Paul, that’s helpful. We are on the same page.

        For a lot of historical and theological reasons that are now “baked in the cake,” the church is committed both to infant baptism and to Eucharist at age 7, and I don’t see anything on the horizon that is going to shake that. Seriously. Not in my lifetime. This leaves Confirmation as the only “movable piece” in the puzzle.

        The RCIA has been swimming against the tide heroically. As I see it, restored order would lessen the resistance to a full implementation of the RCIA for children of catechetical age. It does not solve all conundrums, but it will remove a barrier to RCIA, the practice of which I think is critical to a final *deep* reckoning with what initiation is all about.

        I also remain concerned with the number of young people who never get confirmed, and who then scramble to get confirmed as a “catch up” situation when they wish to marry. Create a loophole? Fine, and we do. But we are relying on too many loopholes. Let’s get a system that is generally capable of working! Let’s celebrate all the sacraments, in their proper order!

        I was confirmed at age 8. It did not stop me, or any of my peers, from continuing in Christian life. I just don’t buy it that youth Confirmation has the magic to solve the formation needs of young people.

        The reason we started on the teen confirmation route was Paul VI. He recommended delaying confirmation, and religious educators were at that time enamored of a “sacraments-as-keyed-to-the-life-cycle” vision and went for it. Catholic Bar Mitzvah, and all that. It was an earnest mistake. But a mistake all the same.

  13. I believe Salford diocese was doing it before Liverpool and the the bishop took it with him when he was transferred from Salford to Liverpool in 1966.

  14. Thanks, Anthony and Alan. It looks like this practice has been a non-starter in the UK, as the two dioceses where it has been tried were both instigated by the same bishop and both dioceses rolled back the practice after another bishop came into office.

    The comment about not knowing what the catechists thought touches on a sore point. The resources are available here; every publisher now has them. Without good resources, it’s clearly going to be a struggle.

    Here is another problem, that I know from the U.S. Many of our bishops prefer adolescent confirmation simply because they do not relate well to small children. They like getting those letters from the older kids and they like to think they are making a big impression on the youth, which they are really not, but it flatters them to think so. Seven and eight year olds just don’t meet the bishops’ needs. Ouch. But that’s the unvarnished truth. Sad to say, it’s a lot about what the bishops get out of the experience that drives this practice of later confirmation.

  15. I have concluded that the best thing was could do would be to restore the original name of Confirmation, Consignation.
    After the mistakes made over the last half century both catechetically and theologically, the majority of people will continue to think that the people receiving the sacrament are the ones doing the confirming no matter what explanation is given. So let’s start calling it the “sealing,” the “marking,” or something like that which are all references to Consignation.

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