Earlier this month Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu made waves by instructing his diocese that they are to begin efforts toward restoring the sacraments of initiation to their “proper order:” Baptism, Confirmation, and then First Holy Communion. As a liturgical theologian I applaud the change. It makes much more sense both historically and theologically to present the sacraments in this order.
In the waters of baptism, a person is united to the life of God in Christ. Under the oil of Chrism, the uniqueness of the catechumen is sanctified and vested for participation in the work of the kingdom. Finally they join in the journey of the church through adoration and praise in the reception of the Eucharist. By these Sacraments of Initiation, the catechumen is reborn and confirmed in Christ, and invited to participate in the Pascal Feast of the Lamb.
In other words, the “proper” order of Baptism, Confirmation, and then First Holy Communion proceeds so that the believer is made alive in Christ, and Christ in her as a unique individual, thus preparing the catechumen to participate fully in the offering of the Church in Christ to the Father.
The fact that this original order is no longer normative in the Western Church is a matter of some historical curiosity.
Historically, Confirmation and Communion became separated from Baptism in the West only after the bishop became unable to attend every Baptism. At first these cases were limited to occasions of death bed baptisms. Take for example the 38th canon of the Council of Elvira in 305 CE, which allows
“In cases of necessity even laypersons may baptize. It was agreed that a faithful man who has held fast to his baptism and is not bigamous may baptize a sick catechumen at sea, or wherever there is no church at hand, provided that if he survives he shall bring him to a bishop so that he may be confirmed through the laying-on of a hand.”
Confirmation and Communion than remained together for much of the history of the Church, although they slowly began to move further away from Baptism. Baptism remained as a sacrament that even a child could receive; The Eucharist however became increasingly seen as a sacrament which should be taken only after one could make a confession of ones sins.
After 1215 this practice was solidified for the whole of the Latin rite. In canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran it is prescribed that the sacrament of confession should be undertaken before First Communion was made. This canon also stated that the faithful should be at the age of reason before they could participate in the sacrament of confession.
It was now the normative discipline of the church to wait until well into childhood before a person could receive the Eucharist. Confirmation followed with First Communion and was done at a later age as well.
This change began to foster a new perspective on communion. Church authorities began to value a person’s understanding of the sacrament more and more, and the age of first reception began a gradual creep. Slowly the age in which children were allowed to take communion moved later and later. While many in the earlier generations of the Church received their First Communion as infants, now many were being refrained from participation until their teen years.This changed somewhat in 1910 when Pope Pius X offered Quam Singulari, a papal decree which reformed the age of communion. This document sought to change the practice of the Church so that children could once again participate. It moved the age of First Communion back to the guidelines established by the Fourth Lateran Council. Now children should receive as soon as they reached the age of reason.
But then something unexpected happened. Communion moved, but Confirmation didn’t.
Communion and Confirmation had been pushed so far back in a child’s life that they had ceased to be seen as primarily a part of the Rites of Initiation begun at baptism, instead they were now functionally seen as a rite of passage initiating a child into adulthood more than into the life of Christ.
This new rite of passage got stuck.
The order of Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion was broken. The Rite of Confirmation which had once been understood as an essential part of a person’s integration into the Body of Christ is now seen more of a graduation than an initiation. Recent studies have shown that Confirmation is too often the last thing young people do before they jettison the church altogether. There is something deeply wrong with that. Confirmation has lost its reason for being and has been caught up in the trappings of a maturity rite.
This is why I think Bishop Larry Silva is onto something. Restoring the original order of the sacraments means they can once again be seen as they were originally instituted. They can regain their theological logic and their sacramental cohesion. At the same time the Church is given a great opportunity to reevaluate how they offer rites of passage to the young people navigating adolescence.
I spoke to some of my Eastern Catholic and Orthodox friends about how they navigate this time of life for their kids. I found their responses interesting. Instead of an initiation rite they offer milestones of service and involvement. Imagine how different things might be if we focused on equipping our young people for service in the world and in the Church in particular ways. What if we made the transition into adolescence about walking in a daily vocation of service? What if we spent our resources helping to identify individual mentors and personal spiritual directors who could teach them about practical ways they can live out their faith?
I think we could learn a lot if we took time to reevaluate how things are done. It might be a difficult process, but I think it could be a very positive one.
So I applaud Bishop Larry Silva, and hope more bishops will take time to consider if this move might be the right move for their diocese as well.