Stop Holding the Sacraments Hostage: Confirmation

Stop Holding the Sacraments Hostage: Confirmation April 9, 2018

I get pretty steamed when I hear about Catholic parishes placing unnecessary obstacles in front of the sacraments, effectively holding them hostage until their parishioners jump through whatever arbitrary hoops are required.

I’ve written before about the obstacles placed in front of baptism, but equally as troubling are the obstacles often placed in front of Confirmation.

One reader of The Catholic Working Mother shared her story with me, and gave me permission to repost it here:

My then-14 year old son was denied Confirmation because he couldn’t clean an AIDS hospice (full of men living there). He had severe OCD issues. He was employed by the church — had keys! He supervised when there were weekend events. He had been to all his Confirmation classes, did well, was good friends w/the DRE. He did 2 years of the program — and was told he could not be confirmed. He left the church. He’s now 27, married, no church. Breaks my heart. The other 5 kids are all happily confirmed — different church!!!! We pray for our oldest…

We volunteered to have him rake leaves for a single mom of 5 young kids. That was refused. We wrote letters to all higher ups, including the Archbishop. We were told to follow what the educators had decided. There was no priest to weigh in; he came in shortly after my son left.

This is far from the only horror story I’ve heard regarding the sacrament of Confirmation being denied due to some arbitrary service hours or attendance requirement not being met. Yet this is what Canon Law says about the requirements for receiving Confirmation:

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.

What is NOT included:

  1. Service hours or projects
  2. Retreats
  3. Perfect attendance at X number of classes
  4. Perfect attendance at X number of Masses

Now, “proper instruction” leaves a lot of leeway for pastors/parishes, and some may argue that 1-4 above are included under “properly instructed.” However, is it really “proper” when parishes place more importance on the letter of their requirements being exactly fulfilled and refuse to extend grace, understanding, or leeway to families having a difficult time?

I’m a big fan of the Restored Order of Sacraments (ROS) — as is in place in my diocese — because it adheres more closely to what Canon Law says regarding the age of discretion (around age seven). I think the ROS also helps dispel the misconception about Confirmation being a “sacrament of adulthood” or a “rite of passage” or the way in which teenagers “become adult members of the church.”

None of those are accurate. I read with some surprise that Archbishop Charles Chaput has decided to move the age of confirmation UP to seventh or eighth grade in the diocese of Philadelphia, and I can’t help but think that is a mistake. It seems to be further cementing this misconception instead of abolishing it.

My bishop wrote a great Q&A about this issue back when our diocese first implemented ROS, and I really recommend reading it. Here’s an excerpt (all italics are mine):

13. Isn’t Confirmation a sacrament of maturity that should come after First Eucharist?

Not really. Confirmation is actually the completion of Baptism (by the full gift of the Holy Spirit). The perfection of baptismal grace found in the Sacrament of Confirmation is not dependent upon age or knowledge of the confirmand. The grace that is conferred is a free gift and ‘does not need ratification’ to become effective (Cf. CCC 1308). The common practice of high school reception of Confirmation has given the impression that somehow the sacrament is merited by virtue of age or training. In truth, the Sacrament of Confirmation is an effective vehicle of grace at any age as long as it is validly conferred. Thus, those that receive the sacrament are able to reap its benefits from the moment of reception. The graces of this sacrament conferred at a young age could be of great assistance to young people as they grow toward adolescence and young adulthood.

Since the grace of confirmation is not dependent on the age or knowledge of the confirmand, it makes no sense to deny Confirmation because a child has only completed 25 of 40 required service hours or missed two CCD classes during the preparation year (and yes, the latter is an actual case reported to me).

There was a great discussion about this issue in the Catholic Working Mothers Facebook group, and member Sarah Mason had a very insightful perspective (posted here with her permission):

“If [confirmation is] done as children, then it stops CCD from seeming like a prison that you pop in for a year here and there. And it stops warping the sacraments into decisions we make or a graduation, rather than the gifts of love from God that they are. Right now, CCD seems to be about the doctrine and the rules, with no time to foster prayer and relationship with God. THAT is the problem of today’s Catechesis. We don’t give people a true reason to stay and keep learning. CCD shouldn’t be about cramming facts down throats. It will and does fail to retain people when it does this.

As a 7th grade Confirmation Catechist of 5+ years, we need to revamp Catechesis. We need to restore the original order of the sacraments … to infancy! And we need to adopt Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for the Roman Rite like Pope St. John XXIII wanted.

If we give the sacraments in infancy, then learning your faith becomes an invitation to enter deeper in understanding of the gifts you already possess. As it’s done currently, we hold the sacraments hostage and it says to our teens that there actually isn’t anything good here, because we have to resort to imprisoning them in sacramental prep classes to get them to come.

The Catechesis is failing because we start it too late, the kids don’t have the sacramental graces they need and have a right to, and we have turned learning about God purely into a classroom experience, rather than a personal relationship with a person we continue to learn about, talk to, and listen to.”

I fully agree.

Service projects are indeed a great way to foster a spirit of charity and servanthood in children and/or teens, but MANDATORY service projects defeat the entire purpose of the exercise. They turn serving others into a box to be checked and not a gift of love.

As someone who regularly and faithfully takes her children to religious ed classes almost every Monday afternoon during the school year, I recognize the importance of consistent attendance. But things happen — illness, accidents, even sheer forgetfulness due to a stressful home life.

If the child signs up and never or rarely attends, that’s indeed a conversation worth having with the child’s parents — but it should be from the position of, “How can we help get your child to class?” not “If we don’t see him/her in class X number of times, we will deny the sacrament!”

And don’t get me started on the student who has faithfully attended all classes, has completed all service hours, but for whatever reason has to miss the mandatory confirmation retreat and is thus denied the sacrament (another true story that was imparted to me).

It’s legalism, plain and simple, and we can’t let legalism keep people from the Sacraments.

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  • Ruth Curcuru

    Hi, I just found your site..and this post gives me a lot of thoughts to share. First of all, it looks like your youngest and my oldest are probably just a few years apart (she was born in 04), so I’m guessing that you are probably 15-20 years younger than me, because all the kids’ moms are. Back when my 20-somethngs were kids, the consensus on many Catholic sites was that the reason so many of us on the tail end of the baby boom were using birth control, divorced and/or not attending Mass every Sunday and holy day was poor catechesis. After all, those faults weren’t found in the generations raised on the Baltimore Catechism –only in the “Kumbaya” generation that was taught that God loved them and that spent CCD classes talking about feelings or doing crafts.

    When I was a kid in the late ’60s and early ’70s, my CCD textbook was from Sadlier. The books were about half the size of today’s Sadlier books and not as thick either. As a teen, I taught a third grade CCD class using Sadlier books, which were bigger than the one I had used. In college in the early ’80s I taught again, with a newer version from Sadlier, which was more wordy than the one I had taught from in high school. In the late 90’s I taught for several years, third grade again, and the text was more wordy than what I remembered, and then the last year I taught, we went to an updated edition, that yes, was even more wordy, and which lacked the previous edition’s suggested crafts, games, drama or movement exercises. If you followed the teacher’s manual with the latest edition, you’d have the kids reading the chapter, answering the questions, and maybe drawing a picture or two.

    I taught from ’97-’04, and every year I had a about a dozen kids. Every year I could count on having 2 or 3 who couldn’t read the material well enough to comprend it. Every year I could figure I’d have 3 or 4 kids at the most who attended Mass regularly. I did the best I could, incorporating videos, art, drama and some prayer, along with lots of games. Our DRE gave us a guide of 3 or 4 thngs per chapter she wanted the kids to remember, so I focused on those and on making the class enjoyable.

    This year I am helping with a seventh grade class (confirmation is Junior year in high school). We have 13 kids and I think only 2 or 3 attend Mass regularly. We have three who can’t read well enough to deal with the VERY wordy Loyola Press book we are using now. The book has SO much information, the question is what do we focus on? There is a two page spreak on prayer in most chapters, but that isn’t covered in the end of chapter questions. I understand people’s frustration with hearing others say “I went to Catholic school (or catechism classes) for X years and no one ever me that the Catholic church teaches X,Y, or Z. On the other hand, for the kids in our class WE are the Church, we may be all they get. I feel like we are teaching Social Studies, only the kids only get to skim through the chapter once, answer a few questions about it, do a few other activities, and then they can forget it because we aren’t going to be having a test next week, we’ll be moving on. I’m the assistant, not the teacher, and I spend most of my time dealing with a difficult child, who is probably difficult at least in part because he has a very hard time reading the material.

    In my seventh grade religion class in the ’70s we didn’t have a text book. Sister passed out some one page sheets sometimes but the academic content of the class was definitely weak. Many of the years of my junior high and high school religion classes, we’d sit on the floor in a circle, pray together and discuss the topic of the day. Of course the older we got the fewer kids’ parents made them go. By the time my brother who is ten years younger was in the program, it had become much more academic. Which was better? IDK, I’m the only one of my sibs who goes to church.

    I understand the thinking of holding the sacraments hostage–getting that first communion (dress,veil, pictures) is worth putting up with a couple of years of classes. If you just let parents request it when they wanted to, without requring classes, would the kids ever be taught anything? On the other hand, I can’t see my special project child ever setting foot in a church of his own free will–there has been so little positve about his relationship with the church and our program (I tried but his dad insisted he be treated like the others, so he is, until he is intolerable in the classroom)

    If you are teaching religion in a Catholic school and have the kids every day for 30-45 minutes, and you know they go to Mass weekly because the school has Mass on Friday, then you have time for prayer, for doctrinal study, for service, for scripture, but when you spend an hour per week for 30 weeks teaching virtual heathens, how do you use your time? Are those chock-full of doctrine textbooks the best way to reach those kids? Is there any way to reach them?

    In some ways, it is like meeting someone. You get, and need some basic factual information–name, age, gender and some sense of what you have in common. After that, if you are going to be more than friendly acquaintances, you need to get to know each other, not just about each other. I can tell you a boatload of facts about my best friend, but until you meet her and learn to relate to/with her, she isn’t going to be your friend. If I want the two of you to become friends, I have to introduce you, and to some extent, leave it up to you to decide. Yes, I can tell her that you love to quilt, as she does. I can tell you that she can’t carry a tune in a bucket, whereas you sing in a professional choir. However, when I get to quality 98 on the list you are going to tell me “enough already, if you think we’ll like each other, introduce us”. On the other hand, if you two meet, and hit is off, then you want to knwo more about her, and you may be able to tell me those 98 things.

  • My oldest was born in 2005, so yes, you’re spot on. And you are absolutely right that establishing a good relationship is key, and the most important part of good catechesis!

  • James

    The elephant in the living room is that most American Catholics, including many bishops, don’t believe in the efficacy of the Sacraments, but see them as mere ceremonies. Confirmation has become the Catholic Bar Mitzvah in practice.

    The bishops are worried that they will only see parents three times (baptism, first communion, and confirmation), then the child will grow up to be a misinformed Catholic who causes scandal by doing/believing things that aren’t Catholic. So they use the “carrot and stick” approach to get them to show up more often.

    More charitably, for every article like this, there are probably ten articles written by “concerned Catholics” that insist that the bishops are handing out Sacraments willy-nilly and that more discipline is needed. This is especially true with marriage, where in many parishes, marriage prep requirements go well above and beyond that which is required for the Sacrament and for the Church to be a witness to it. The Pope himself does not require cohabiting couples to separate before marrying them in the Church, yet many Catholics insist this is necessary.

  • James

    My oldest was also born in 2004. I was born in 1980.

    First, CCD is no substitute for a Catholic education. 5 days a week in public school with an hour or two of religion classes are not the same as 5 days a week at a Catholic school with the a dedicated religion class and the faith integrated throughout the curriculum. Homeschooled children generally learn the faith of their parents very well, but their parents may have some misconceptions themselves.

    One big problem now is that the teachers who were raised with the 1970s-1990s religious ed curriculum in the United States don’t know enough to teach the faith. My childrens’ school uses the Faith and Life curriculum and one teacher commented that she learned more from teaching than she had ever been taught. Another teacher, who was my age, was relieved of her religion class when it became clear she didn’t know the material. Interestingly, teachers of the same age who were raised outside the United States do not have this problem.

    Furthermore, religious education, no matter how well informed the laity, is still subject to the whims of the pastor. After years of success with the Faith and Life curriculum, a new pastor didn’t like it (because it was too right-wing) and insisted on Sadlier. The principal (who was one of the last to be raised on the Baltimore Catechism) hated it, the teachers found it uninformative, and the children thought it was boring and pointless, but the pastor’s word was law and new books were purchased at parishioner and student expense. The pastor was later reassigned and the old books returned. Still, the unfortunate moral of the story is that no matter what you try to build, a new pastor can change things on a whim and there is nothing you can do about it.

  • James

    ” Back when my 20-somethngs were kids, the consensus on many Catholic sites was that the reason so many of us on the tail end of the baby boom were using birth control, divorced and/or not attending Mass every Sunday and holy day was poor catechesis. After all, those faults weren’t found in the generations raised on the Baltimore Catechism –only in the “Kumbaya” generation that was taught that God loved them and that spent CCD classes talking about feelings or doing crafts.”

    Living in a college town, I see the results of this change: The students who show up are much more devout than we were 20 years ago, but there are far fewer of them at mass.

  • Milo C

    Speaking from my own confirmation experience, I had every impression that the ceremony was centered on becoming an adult within the Church. The teachers and priests at my school put emphasis on our age and that we were old enough to ‘choose to reject Satan and welcome Christ into our hearts.’ So the Bishop’s letter that you shared was spot-on in that respect. Americans are getting a very questionable, sometimes false understanding of the Sacraments.

  • Jenny

    virtual heathens? Am I the only one who takes offense to this?

  • Ruth Curcuru

    Not going to church is perfectly socially acceptable, particularly among the young, and in some circles, showing up at church weekly put you in the same “wierd” category that someone who went to daily Mass occupied 30 years ago.

  • Ruth Curcuru

    I’ve seen Faith and Life, and the books are beautiful. I can understand why homeschooling families like them and I think they could work as well as anything in a Catholic school that caters to the academically advanced students. I’d hate to have that book given to me to teach in our program. First of all, probably only 3 or maybe 4 of our 13 kids could read it fluently. I know the publishers say children like to be read to–and if you are one on one with your child and can quit when attention wanders, maybe it would work, but I can guarantee you that our seventh grade class doesn’t want to listen to me read for 15 minutes straight,much less an hour. Maybe the kids would grasp the information if they had the background of weekly Mass attendance, family prayer, and family celebration of the liturgical year–but in our class, most don’t. Is teaching those kids the definition of magesterium, to list the cardinal virtues , to name the four marks of the church and that matrimony and holy orders are sacraments of service going to turn them in people with a faith life? Those are all things I didn’t know until I read them in my third grade students’ texts years ago.

    As far as not being able to teach the faith through CCD classes–most non-Catholic churches do not have private schools. They teach children through their Sunday School and/or Children’s Church programs, and they do it every week, not on 30 Tuesdays during the school year. But I think you are right abouto CCD–and partially wrong about Catholic schools. For the most part, if faith is not practiced in the home, sending kids to CCD or Catholic school isn’t going to make them Catholic. At best it will teach them some trivia and give them a background to use once (if) they decide they want more.

  • James

    I live in the Bible Belt, where most people attend a Protestant church.

    Sunday school is on Sunday morning, right before worship (or between worship services, if there are two). Many churches also have something Sunday and Wednesday night. Plus, small groups and Bible studies are also popular. The adults are going to class as well as the children. Although they do not have private schools, they spend a lot of time in and around church.

    Until the 1960s, public schools in the US were de facto non-sectarian Protestant schools. Some of that legacy remains in some places.

    The other thing is that there is a lot less to learn in Protestant churches. They’re not going very deep and are covering a lot of the same ground over and over again.

  • James

    For all churches in the United States, the devout are as devout as ever, if not more so, while the loosely attached are gone. Cultural Christianity is dying.

  • Kellyann

    No – I also take offense to this – so only children attending traditional Catholic school are instructed correctly? Also – the sentence, “Is there any way to reach them [the virtual heathens]?” – Um, melodramatic much?

  • Tom L

    Writing as a Ukrainian Catholic, our tradition is children receive baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist (blood only, obviously), at the same time as an infant, and then continue to receive the Eucharist every week (though sometimes they refuse when their real young). We celebrate their First Reconciliation when they reach the age of reason, which we consider around 1st grade, after going through classes. In fact, we just had 4 children celebrate their First Reconciliation before Divine Liturgy this past Sunday! Offering a different perspective from those over here in the East.

  • Ruth Curcuru

    Ok, substitute the term “baptized (or not) children who rarely if ever attend Mass, who do not know basic prayers, and whose only experience of church, as far as I can see, is CCD class” Can you form Christians in 30 hours a year? If so, is it done by teaching big words and rushing through a long lesson that is trying to cram in as much information as possible, or should classes focus on helping students form a prayer life/relationship with Jesus? But how do you form a relationship with someone you do not know?

  • kenofken

    I’m an actual heathen who takes offense (ok not much) from the other direction):)

  • kenofken

    It’s absurd to confirm someone at 14. My “decision” to confirm at that age was in no way informed consent. I therefore felt no regret when I fully and formally renounced my faith in adulthood. Some do 18 these days which is more realistic, but no one really knows their own heart and mind and spirit until their late 20s, and even then only with effort.

  • mloustalot

    Let me begin by saying I agree wholeheartedly with the opinions in this article as expressed by the author. Let me also state what I see is a major irony. .the fact that in order to join the Catholic working mother facebook group you must answer 3 questions in the manner in which the admin wants them to be answered in order to be approved to join. .you must be their definition of “working” and their definition of “mother,” (which I am, so don’t think I’m salty because I’m excluded from joining). . Now, I understand that a Facebook group is not the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, and has different concerns and goals, and certainly the admins of the group have every right to determine the rules. . but there you are. .people in charge making the rules. .but the Church? Who IS in charge? That is the bigger questions. .

  • Suburbanbanshee

    The point is that Confirmation is about the Holy Spirit strengthening ( “confirmare”, the same verb used for Jesus’ command for Peter to strengthen his brothers) a baptized person, and adding more gifts and graces.

    It has nothing to do with a decision, informed of not, other than the basic principle that no Sacrament is conferred without the receiving person’s consent (if over the age of reason, which is usually seven, and not incapacitated).

  • FrRon Floyd

    The only prerequisite should be that he is in a state of grace and habitually attending Mass. This sort of nonsense infuriates me! Even classes might be unnecessary if a child can show knowledge of the faith, after all parents are the first educators of their children–and so cooperating with the educators really means cooperating with the parents. I remember being 14 and realizing pretty early on that the two college aged girls teaching my CCD class were completely teaching out of the book and knew less about the faith than me. Thankfully my 9th grade teacher was a Catholic gentleman who really helped me grow in my faith, but this onesized fits all mentality is anti-human and therefore anti-Catholic.

  • lynnelmiller

    I don’t think she said that kids that didn’t go to Catholic school were virtual heathens, but that without the extra time the Catholic school kids got learning religion, they were much less informed about what she was trying to teach them. An hour after school a week isn’t enough, besides which it’s at the end of the day when they’re tired, not mixed in with the other, non-religious things they study, so it seems all of one thing – their lives.

  • Liz Shukie Borst

    This article is spot on. I am currently struggling with the fact my daughter was removed from her confirmation class, she was in year 1 of 2. She was removed because she missed too many days. My older two have been confirmed in this same Catholic Church. New “rules” have made it not possible to miss classes occasionally, 3 a year is the limit. She plays travel softball and will miss some classes, which are on Sunday mornings. I am a high school teacher (teaching high school for over 20 years, also attended Catholic School myself), I offered to teach her the text on the days she missed and was told that she needs to attend all classes for the discussion. There are 5 students in her class, down from about 15-20 when she received her First Communion. I am lost and devastated, and sadly I think my daughter is relieved because of the way she was treated in the program. Looking to change parishes but from what I understand all the churches around me have the same rules, 2 year program, several retreats, Sunday classes, can’t miss more than 2 classes, etc. she is involved in the community so can get those community service hours with no issue. I have emailed the priest with no response and the religious education leader will not work with me.