Slap-happy June 8, 2011

Were you slapped at your confirmation?

We don’t do that anymore and, in this week’s All Things New, I wonder if we need to bring back the slap:

Earlier this month, I was serving as deacon at our parish confirmation in Queens. The bishop anointed each of the kids as they came forward and then—I braced for the slap, waited for it—he extended a palm . . . and shook their hands. And he smiled as he did it.He shook their hands?!

He could have been selling them a used car. The handshake in and of itself was harmless and benign, a congratulatory gesture that seemed to say, “Welcome to the club. And have a nice a day.” But whatever else the newly confirmed may have experienced that day, I doubt it was anything approaching the gloomy sense of worry that gripped me all those years ago.

And that, I think, may be a problem.

I once jokingly said to my pastor, “Once they stopped slapping us, that was when things slid downhill.” It sounded funny at the time. But as I think of it now—like that symbolic slap from long ago—that crack carries the sting of truth.

Somewhere along the way, the church lost a sense of severity, of seriousness. Of, well, sin. Our pulpits became lecterns, our pews became chairs, and a slap evolved into a handshake. We replaced “Come Holy Ghost” with “Whatsoever You Do,” and decided to stand instead of kneel. The ominous chords of organs were replaced by the plucking strings of guitars. We designed our churches to have round corners and low altars. We scrapped the habits and unbuttoned the collars and made everything endearingly approachable and utterly bland.

What happened? I’m sure it seemed healthy and constructive at the time. But I can’t escape the feeling that, in the midst of it all we surrendered something vital and valuable: we lost a sense of sacred awe.

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30 responses to “Slap-happy”

  1. Well maybe awestruck. Not gobsmacked. Not that they even did that back in the day. I just got tapped on the cheek when I got confirmed at age 9 by Bishop Paschang, who was a kindly, very pastoral, old fellow. (When he died at age 102 he was the oldest bishop in the world.) We still sing both “Come Holy Ghost” and “Whatsoever You Do in our parish, sometimes at the same Mass”. I think it need to be “both/and” (yeah I know that expression ticks some people off; doesn’t make it less true!). We need to maintain the sense of the sacred, but not to the extent that we fence God off and make Him not approachable.

  2. Heck, lets not stop there, the bishop should at least loosen some teeth!
    Whenever I read about some plan to revoke reforms made following the 2nd Vatican Council, I think.
    Sometimes, people in our Church, especially those not old enough to remember the pre Vat era, pine for the good old days, when there were no problems with the Church. Seminaries were full, the Faithful followed the command “Pray, pay and obey”. Oh it was glorious! In those days, the priest had all the power in his Parish! No Parish Councils to try to disuade him from what he had decided to do. And no women, heck no laity were even allowed behind the altar rail, except for altar boys, many of whom were being groomed for the seminary. It was perfect society! The laiety had no idea what was going on with the clergy; and unless they had their St Joseph Missal with them, they hadn’t a clue as to what was going on at Mass.

  3. What Melody said. And, as one who grew up with abuse, I hope we never bring the slap back. The Church was the one refuge I had growing up. Even symbolic gestures can mean different things to different people.

    (And, for the record, I’ll never forget my confirmation because it happened during a storm that produced a tornado nearby. It seemed like a gift from heaven, because I love nothing better than a good storm.)

  4. A smack will not make God unapproachable…it’s not God smacking you, it’s the bishop. HE’S reminding you, in the name of the Lord, that sin hurts God like a slap in the face. Of course if he’s leaving welts that’s too hard…it just has to sting a little; just be a little uncomfortable.
    FYI I too am a both/and person. I learned both/and through diaconal formation as I was(?) a stanchly old school and a couple of my classmates are stanchly contemporary. Through formation I learned that there IS room in the Catholic Church for both…the more modern people DO NOT understand Gothic & Romanesque architecture as an example and many other things of the pre VII era. They need the more modern, more stoic, less fru-fru. Different strokes for different folks.

    Bring back the “slap”

    Peace to all

  5. In my opinion, I think we should return to the practice of the early Church where the person received all sacraments of initiation at the same time. The Eastern Churches do this, baptizing, confirming, and giving first holy communion to infants. There is no reason to withhold these graces to infants.

  6. Here, from the old Baltimore Catechism, is the actual rationale for the slap:

    172. Q. Why does the bishop give the person he confirms a slight blow on the cheek?

    A. The bishop gives the person he confirms a slight blow on the cheek to put him [or her] in mind that he [or she] must be ready to suffer anything, even death, for the sake of Christ.

    The issue Deacon Greg raises, using big words, is whether we need to reclaim a sense of God’s transcendence at a time where the pendulum — held for centuries pinned to the “transcendent” end of the scale — is now more toward immanence. He isn’t giving the traditionalists’ call to nostalgia for things not experienced, and, indeed, the bishops of Vatican II were formed in the “old days” and still demanded reform.

    A question putting the issue a different way: Does the church have to accept and sanctify us as we are, or lead us to greater things?

  7. RP Burke…
    I say both. The church needs to accept us as we are, but like Christ, love us enough not to leave us there…to lead us to a greater reality.

    Peace to all

  8. Off topic…

    By the way, to day is Deacon Gregs Birthday…

  9. Deacon, thank you for saying what I have been thinking for the past few years! In my parish, we have adults receiving communion with gum in their mouths, waving at others while totally ignoring the sacred blood, no recognition of the tabernacle. I am sad at the lack of respect and awe for the presence of our Lord. Nothing is sacred anymore and when I tell my priest this, his response is, well, at least they come to church. Why do we have to accept this, I don’t understand at all. Thank you for all you do.

  10. Why not do both? A slap to remind the confirmand that Christianity demands stepping up to the plate for Christ; and a handshake with the peace-greeting to welcome him/her into full membership of the Church?

    I have been involved in Confirmation catechesis for 15 years and I recall that back when I started it was EXTRMELY frowned upon to even mention the concept of “solider of Christ” to the confirmands. One pastor took me to task for it as did a DRE saying that Christianity must not have any relationship to things militaristic (ok, but how about militant? There IS a difference). No matter that I could refer to Ephesians 6:10-20 and St. Paul’s beautitful imagery of spiritual warfare and armor.

    I say bring back symbolism and ritual that reminds us of Jesus’ words that Christianity means carrying a cross on the way to Resurrection.

  11. As I understand it, the slap was a corruption of the laying on of hands and the bit about being ready to suffer is a post facto rationalization to explain a gesture whose true meaning was largely forgotten. And I never until now heard the bit about it showing that sin offends God (which is not the point of Confirmation except tangentially).

    If we go back to anything, we should go back to the bishop putting his hands on the heads of the confirmandi.

  12. I was not slapped in 1972 and I am glad that the Bishop does not slap students during Confirmation. I like the shaking of hands- our students so rarely see the Bishop that it’s a personal way to actually remember who he is.
    I agree with garpu- the Church has enough problems with abuse that returning a slap, slight or not, symbolic or not, is not the thing to do.

  13. And, in line with my earlier comment, the handshake is not the new rite’s equivalent of the tap on the cheek. The handshake is the Sign of Peace. It seems that the gesture which replaces the tap on the cheek is the “Laying on of Hands” which is accompanied by the prayer “All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin…” (Rite of Confirmation, Nos. 9, 41-42, cf. 17b) But there is some ambiguity about this, in that Paul VI in the Apostolic Constitution just before referring to this “laying on of hands” says, “The Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of the hand, and through the words: Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” So there are actually two layings on of hands, one of which was always part of the rite — the anointing — and one which seems to have been introduced simultaneously with the dropping of the cheek tap.

  14. Gotta agree with Deacon Greg on this one, in the more wider context of the Confirmandi. I didn’t get at my Confirmation the “slap”, the bishop only asked two questions maybe of us, and the only really big part different form the ordinary Mass was the Chrism. Not a memorable confirmation to me at all and I’m fortuntate my faith was ok thanks to family obligation to weekly Mass and altar serving and a great private Roman Catholic all-boys school (faithful to magisterial and classic Catholic religious ed), and later a “reversion” thanks to a youth ministry at my parish over these past 2 years. Who knows where I’d be without these extra helps or “graces” cause the Confirmation alone wouldn’t have been enough.

    Which leads me to this: In the wider context of the “dumbing down of” many things in the Church, I can only ask with sadness how many of these confirmandi will not understand the sacrament and their full mission as a Catholic. How many of them, between the dumbed down Confirmation Liturgy, the poor catechesis and DRE where we aren’t allowed to say “those things” as alluded to by diakonos09, will continue to come to weekly Mass and even keep their faith? Deacon Greg has just hit one of the many points of minutiae in the grand issue of loss of Faith amongst Catholics, and part of it is faulty catechesis and also, as important, the liturgy. As Fr. John Zuhlsdorf always says “Save the liturgy, save the world.”

  15. Well-said, Deacon Greg.

    I would add to your list the abomination of the last ten years, of people having a great time socializing in the pews when they come before mass, and talking throughout, of people texting throughout mass. In our darkened church at the Easter Vigil, one may see the glow of dozens of cell phone screens.

    The experience of church has morphed into the same dynamic as families sitting down to the DVD player, with the exception that people will actually call for silence during the movie.

    Glad to be an old fart with you, and you have touched a raw nerve that many share.

  16. This is an interesting take on the fact that Catholics have forgotten that we are a sacramental people. At the very least I think that we need to bring back the concept that Confirmation is not a graduation from the Church. It is an insertion into the Church of Jesus Christ. But this seems impossible without the idea that we are called to be soldiers for Christ.

  17. I too would prefer that we return to the original conferring of all 3 sacraments of initiation at once. Confirmation has always been the redheaded stepchild of liturgies: At what age? What does it signify? I do think, though, that even if we returned to ancient practice, there would still be a need to mark some kind of symbolic transition to mature practice of the faith–not a graduation from CCD, but in keeping with the Jewish bar mitzvah tradition from which much of our current understanding of Confirmation derives.

    I was “slapped”–it was a light tap, but it made me think. My classmates and I dreaded that blow far less than we dreaded the pop quiz on matters of faith that the bishop administered in place of the sermon, another moment no longer part of the ceremony in most places. What both of those did was take the emphasis off us as individuals achieving another milestone moment (like graduation or the end-of-year sports banquet) and place it where it more properly belonged, on us as the newest members of the Body of Christ, ready to stand up for what we believed–and able to say what that was.

    No one has yet mentioned that the slap disappeared at the time when “fear of the Lord” became “wonder and awe.” I like the latter change, but I would like a return, in gesture, to some symbolic reminder that God is God and we’re not.

  18. Susan Kehoe — IMO “soldiers for Christ” is a metaphor which can be helpful as one way of explaining what being a Catholic means, but I don’t see it as essential, especially with regard to Confirmation. I don’t think that the phrase appears anywhere in the New Testament in the context of believers receiving the Holy Spirit or in Jesus’ discourse about the Holy Spirit to his disciples. What people need to know is that they are to live according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who empowers them to proclaim the Gospel and spread the Kingdom of God wherever they go, both in word and, above all, in deed.

    Young Canadian RC Male — IMO the tap on the cheek is as likely to be meaningless to the confirmandi without proper catechesis as any of the elements which are now part of the rite. But imposition of hands is a gesture which occurs so often in the New Testament that it should be very easy to catechize about. It also has the advantage of giving a talking point when fundamentalists try to shake their faith with a few selected Bible verses. If any revision is needed, IMO it is to make the imposition of hands more explicit and obvious.

  19. Dr. Nadal. True indeed! While I’m no saint and have made that faux pas (mainly with family, people I know, and a couple of young ladies … (sheepish grin)) Overall it’s a shame that people don’t respect the body of the Church as the sacred space and don’t normally pray for a few min in gratitude to our Lord for his Blessed Sacrament.

    Naturgesetz. Agreed. While personally I’d like that little slap back, Imposition of hands certainly can be more emphasized. In fact you make a good point about catechesis of it to fight uindamentalists who chide us on Confirmation. In fact the bishops or catechesis instructors should strongly explain that one (in their homilies if clergy) along with the passages from the Bible that counter it to give the youth someting to take away and use in case their public school ‘fundy’ frends or fundy recruiters do what you allude to.

  20. Without leaving my “both/and” mind set, I have to say that there are a LOT of people in the world and on this blog who think God is a big purple dinosaur…I love you, you love me…
    I hate to do this but we ARE AT WAR with satan, so when Paul tells us to dress for war…sure you can take it as a metaphor and you are not totaly wrong…OR you can “put on your armor of light” and step into the fray. To quote a favorite line from a favorite movie, “You want the truth, You want the truth…YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH.”

    If a slap (barely) from the the bishop and abuse from your relative is not distinguishable, then there’s something wrong.
    Guns are too violent, knives are too violent, most television is too violent, spanking from parents that is done in rage or frustration is WRONG, child abuse IS WRONG…but this is NOT abuse.
    AMEN, Young @ 16 and Gerard @ 17
    I wonder if this will get shot down(another metaphor)

    Peace to all

  21. the reason there is no “slap” in the current rite of confirmation is because it has nothing to do with the sacrament. in the older rite people remember the slap, (which is not a part of the sacrament), but no one has mentioned in the above posts, the sign of the sacrament, the imposition of hands and anointing with chrism.

    Remember confirmation is part of one’s sacramental initiation into Christ. both actions, the imposition of hands and anointing, are such rich biblical symbols there is more than enough to pray and meditate on for years. now the challenge is to grasp the richness and beauty of the symbols and the mystery they signify and to help other learn the riches and find ways appropriate for their age to enter into the mystery.

    one good place to start is with the homilies of Pope Benedict 16,
    he has given some incredible sermons on the sacraments of initiation that are very rich, deep and simple to grasp. this past holy week he have homily at the chrism mass on the importance of anointing and the different oils that are used.
    he presents the richness of the biblical symbols, the patristic thought and liturgical spirituality in his homilies and it is a good place for all us to relearn the meaning of our sacramental encounter with and in Christ.

  22. Hey oldestof9, that reminded me of an old archived issue of This Rock apologetics magazine produced by Catholic Answers. here’s the link:
    The cover has part of the Big purple dinosaur and the article uses the company that owned Barney buying the publishing company that produced someone’s works. The main focus of the article is on “the culture of fun”.

  23. Father Frank McGauley, a Jesuit in the province of Maryland, told my RCIA class a number of years ago (Father Frank is dead now) that he had been at Georgetown during WW2 and a fellow student of his, who was Jewish, was caught by some holy terror old Jesuit studying in the back of the Georgetown chapel. The priest gave the student a real slap, halfway knocking him off the pew. Rather than alienating him, the slap made the Presence of the divine in the chapel real to him and also to appreciate the religion that could offer that presence. Not long after, the student converted and was eventually admitted to the Society of Jesus.

  24. YCRCM,
    Great article!
    Exactly what I am talking about. Everyone wonders why there are few youngsters participating in the Catholic Church. It’s because we’ve TRIED to make it “fun” like the protestant churches. But much of the “fun” is not respectful of the mystery and awe of our Catholic roots.
    Seriously folks, bring the slap back or don’t bring the slap back…it JUST DOESN”T MATTER. But what DOES matter is the mystery and awe that the earlier Church fostered. Bring back the wonder, bring back the the ablity of the Church to inspire and to get people to gravitate toward something much greater; to get them to walk into a church building or a Catholic group meeting of ANY kind and as ,”WHOOOA, this is where I want to hang my eternal life hat…this is my home, these are my brothers and sisters, THESE PEOPLE WILL GET ME TO HEAVEN.”
    Done for now………

    PEace to all

  25. Argh! The Confirmation slap was according to the same principle as slaps at a knighting, and bumping the youngest kid’s head against the boundary stones when you beat the bounds of the parish. Pain makes stronger memories than pleasure does. Important events in an oral/memory society are therefore accompanied by something to make you remember it.

    For example (inadvertently), the pain of burning my chin on my birthday cake candle while trying to get close enough to blow it out has burned my third birthday into my memory. I don’t remember much at all about the other stuff I did when I was three, but I remember that.

  26. anthony — You write, “older rite people remember the slap, (which is not a part of the sacrament), but no one has mentioned in the above posts, the sign of the sacrament, the imposition of hands and anointing with chrism.”

    I call your attention to my posts Nos. 12, 14, and 20.

  27. #28
    of course you are correct. i was not clear, i was thinking of those who remembered the slap did not seem to remember the anointing which is the heart of the sacrament.

    i do not have proo,f but i doubt if anyone can find that the slap was ever an essential part of the sacrament in any liturgy of the church. even the ‘soldier of christ’ is probably a modern made up interpretation (especially since it also given to girls who could not be soldiers and the sex roles were strictly defined). like i said, i do have documentation, but my guess would be that it had more to do with “courtly gestures” of the high middle ages. so many of the behaviors and dress of the ancient liturgies (both in the east and west) adopted the behaviors and gestures of the imperial/kingly court and when the meanings got lost people would invent a spiritual reason for it. I think the slap falls into that category…….but it is only an half educated guess!

  28. Saints alive!
    I was received into the church through an RCIA program last year. I thought Father Burt was just being Father Burt when he gently slapped my cheek!

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