In a private conversation I found myself writing, “This is why I despise, and I do mean despise, age-bracketed sacramental prep.” I’m referring to the practice, nearly universal, of giving all the Catholic seven-year-olds First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion, and then setting another age — could be seven, or nine, or fourteen, or seventeen — when we round them up again and give out Confirmation. RCIA is more of the same, if we count “age” in terms of “months spent attending our program.”
It’s a convenient method: If child is of the proper age, then sign up for classes. (Or if the adult has the proper attendance record, then put on white garment at Easter Vigil.) I hate it not because it hasn’t worked for my family — it’s been just fine, thank you. I hate this practice because it’s contrary to the Christian faith.
Graduation not Evangelization
You can’t measure another person’s relationship with Christ. There are, of course, plenty of indicators that someone is in love with Jesus and prepared for the sacraments, but the Ask-and-You-Shall-Receive method (which is the Christian method) is bureaucratically terrifying: How can we possibly trust someone who claims to want to receive Our Lord? Isn’t it better to make sure all comers sit through a certain number of hours of classes, and are carefully trained to give us the right answers, so that we can cover our spiritual liability?
Age-based or time-based systems allow us to create a curriculum, walk the student through it, and check a series of boxes. Human souls aren’t check boxes, but by a cleverly designed system of rewards and punishments, we can motivate the student to say the right things at the right time, so that we are neatly checked off.
Of course this creates drama of gut-wrenching magnitude if the student fails to comply: Relatives are standing by, demanding a sacramental performance. There’s no room for cold feet. Luckily the student is under sufficient pressure that most behave as requested: The alternative to being “ready” when the appointed day comes around is to go through the blasted classes for another whole year some time in the future, and nobody wants that.
Numbers not Persons
The good news is that many people who present themselves for the sacraments are adequately disposed to receive them. We as a Church may be guilty of dereliction of duty, but that dereliction isn’t 100%. So let’s imagine a course full of age-qualified students who are in fact of the proper disposition. This is a catechist’s dream, and here’s what we catechists do when we’re living that dream: We say, “Okay, I’ve got a room full of people aged _____, and about six months to cover the necessary course work. What is a typical person this age like? What do they typically need to know? What are their typical questions and concerns?” And then we make a class. Sometimes we make a pretty good class.
Here’s the trouble: Even if every single student in the room has a sincere desire to know, love, and serve God, not a single one of them is “typical.” Spend half an hour actually listening to a group of seven- or fifteen- or forty-year-olds, and you quickly realize that each person is utterly different. It is as if each one were handcrafted by the Creator, unique and unrepeatable.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no value to group class work. But we fool ourselves if we say, “Well, that person took the class for people her age, so she’s prepared.” Really? You managed to answer her particular doubts? Help her understand her personal vocation and mission for the next few years? Meet her needs intellectually and spiritually, and leave her in a position to pursue wholehearted love of God until the next bureaucratic encounter?
Yeah, no. You didn’t. No way. You can’t. There’s no putting twenty kids in a room for an hour a week, and managing to provide them each with the course they need and the spiritual guidance they need.
Culture not Christ
When we provide industrial-scale catechesis, and that’s what our present system does, we turn out culturally-prepared sacramental widgets. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the system for good. When my son determined he was ready for confirmation, we availed ourselves of the system, got the good out of it (and there was much good), and he was confirmed.
But by age-bracketing, even the sacramental language tends to get overgrown with the weeds of cultural norms: “You’ve taken a big step today.” “This is our rite of passage.” “This is your decision to become an adult member of the Church.” “This is an important day for you and your family.”
These are things that slip out of the mouths of even we who regard the sacraments as divinely-ordained, intimate encounters with Christ. First Communion isn’t about not being a baby anymore, and Confirmation isn’t about the journey into adulthood. But age-bracketed programs are indeed about these things, and thus we say what we see: Sure enough, here’s a group of fifty teenagers dressed up in their Sunday best, standing in front of the bishop declaring their arrival at spiritual adulthood. That’s not what Confirmation is, but that is in fact what confirmation-class creates. It isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not the sacrament.
And this is the thorny part: There’s nothing wrong with a line of little girls in white dresses excited about their big day. Nothing wrong with the party and the cake and relatives reminiscing about their turn through the sacrament mill in years past. If age-bracketed sacraments were effective at creating lifelong disciples, we could say that it’s okay to have the good lumped in with the best.
But the reality is that this system doesn’t work at the thing it is supposed to do. It works at creating culturally significant social moments. It doesn’t work for Christian discipleship, because discipleship is not about rites of passage.
The Beautiful Mess that is the Christian Life
The call for the “New Evangelization” refers to the evangelization of our post-Christian societies. We’re post-Christian specifically because the culturally-bound, age-driven system didn’t work at churning out Christians. What works is individual encounters with Christ. One person at a time, one soul at a time. It’s demanding. Hard work. It takes years of prayer and guidance and support to grow a mature Christian, whether you start with a newborn baby or a newly-reborn adult.
The model for Christian discipleship is the family, and that tells you everything about how “inefficient” the divinely-ordained system is: Here we have two adults, and they spend all their time and energy, day and night for decades, just getting that little handful of people entrusted to them guided towards spiritual maturity.
So what do we do, if not the sacrament mill? We evangelize and disicple parents. Physical parents and spiritual parents, whatever kind happen across our way. This takes time and energy, and while you can do some of it via large-scale programs, much of it has to be done one-on-one. Hours and hours spent just helping a few people grow in their faith. And then they in turn help their children (physical or spiritual) to grow in their faith via the same long, slow, aggravating method.
The sacraments, meanwhile, are kicked out of the classroom and relegated to the altar, where they act not as cultural touchpoints, but as — get this — God’s chosen manner of pouring out His grace upon us.
You can’t check-box this method. It feels good to have a graduation. Shiny faces who completed the course and reached the high point? We like that. We feel successful. Real human souls never give us that faux-satisfaction. One day they delight, the next you have to sit on your hands and resist the urge to shake a little sense into that shiny face. The only graduation is Heaven, and until then, everyone’s still in holiness school.
But since God came up with that method, perhaps it’s worth trying.