Too often, Catholics take the sacraments for granted. Many see them as simply rites of passage, a photo opportunity, even something to “go through” to make Grandma happy. Now, making Grandma happy is certainly meet and just, but the sacraments are about so much more than that.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the sacraments as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (1131). The manner by which Jesus Christ intended to dispense divine life to us is no simple rite of passage!
More and more dioceses throughout the United States are giving the sacraments renewed attention. Marriage preparation courses are being reinvigorated and taken more seriously, opportunities for the sacrament of confession are growing exponentially, and more than a dozen dioceses have returned to the ancient order of the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist.
The restored order of the sacraments may be puzzling to some. Why change what has been working perfectly well for more than a century? Well, that prompts another question: is it really working well? Are people receiving the sacraments when they need them? And how did we get to this state of affairs in the first place?
First, let’s be clear about something: “Because that’s how it used to be done” is not a sufficient reason to restore the ancient order of the sacraments of initiation. There are many theological and pastoral reasons for the restored order, which we will come to later. But it is important to have a sense of how we came to this point in the first place.
For the first 500 years of the Church’s history, the sacraments of initiation were received together, even in the case of infants. This practice has been maintained in the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, as well as at the Easter Vigil in the Latin rite.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church released a catechism titled “Christ—Our Pascha” in 2011. This beautiful tome provides some insight into the question of the order of the sacraments of initiation:
As a person after birth begins to breathe and then receives nourishment in order to live, so the newly baptized, born to new life in the baptismal font, begins to breathe by the Holy Spirit and receives the nourishment of Holy Communion in order to grow in Christ. . . . [The reception of the sacraments of initiation is] a single, unified action of God’s grace (408).
Over time, the timeline of reception of the sacraments changed in the Western Church. Infants still received baptism, but confirmation was not received until the age of reason (around seven), and the Eucharist sometime thereafter. Eventually, both confirmation and Holy Communion were received in adolescence, at an even older age.
In the mid-1800s in France, the bishops delayed confirmation until after First Holy Communion in order to allow for a greater period of catechesis in preparation for confirmation. When the pope found out, he asked them to restore the sacraments to their original order, which was never done—and the French practice spread throughout Europe and around the world.
In 1910, Pope St. Pius X issued the decree Quam Singulari Christus, which stated that reception of Holy Communion should not be delayed beyond the age of reason. However, when this change was made, the pope did not address the age at which confirmation is received, which, in practice, cemented the current order of reception.
According to the Catechism, “The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation” (1212). The traditional order of reception of the sacraments of initiation reflected this: first baptism, followed by confirmation, and finally the Eucharist. These sacraments “lay the foundations of every Christian life” (emphasis in original). There is a natural and sensible rhythm to these sacraments. “The faithful are born anew by baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life.”
In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
It must never be forgotten that our reception of baptism and confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. Accordingly, our pastoral practice should reflect a more unitary understanding of the process of Christian initiation (17).
Even the name itself calls to mind that Holy Communion completes initiation into the Church. Through baptism we are made members of the Body of Christ, through confirmation we are strengthened in grace and put on the armor of the Holy Spirit, and finally we are in full communion with the Church and are called to receive the Blessed Sacrament in union with (communion) our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Many people have an erroneous or, at best, incomplete understanding of the sacrament of confirmation. This leads to a great deal of confusion when it comes to confirmation’s place in the sacraments of initiation.
Many do not see confirmation as a sacrament of initiation at all; rather, they see confirmation as a sort of re-baptism. They view the sacrament as a rite of passage, a personal acceptance of membership in Christ’s Mystical Body, as if this is when they really enter the Church. This cheapens baptism and the profession of faith made by the parents and godparents on behalf of the child, and it also cheapens confirmation itself. Confirmation is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a strengthening.
The Archdiocese of Denver’s “Brief Catechism on the Restored Order” addresses this point: “Contrary to widespread misconception, confirmation is not the sacrament of adult commitment to the faith. It is a cause of spiritual maturity, not recognition of physical maturity.” Note: it is a cause of spiritual maturity. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit strengthens us and prepares us to face the world. It is not some sort of ratification of baptism. We cannot “forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective.’”
Apart from the theological reasons for the restored order, there are also pastoral considerations. In this country, young people are bombarded by various forms of “entertainment” that lead them into sin and, worse, into habits of sin. Our culture sees itself as post-Christian, in many ways shunning what it sees as having a religious basis. Traditional sexual morality, gender roles, weekly church attendance—all of these are important to Christian moral life but the culture mocks them all. We need to be strengthened, fortified, and prepared to do what is right, even in the face of such pressure.
Indeed, one of the reasons the Archdiocese of Denver gives for restoring confirmation to its original place is that “children need more grace at an earlier age to become saints in our increasingly secular world.” This is a response to calls made in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis, and more.
Another diocese that has recently reinstated the restored order of the sacraments of initiation is the Diocese of Gallup, in New Mexico. Bishop James Wall wrote a pastoral letter called The Gift of the Father explaining that the sacraments of initiation have a natural unity, which is made less visible when they are not ordered in the ancient way.
“Receiving the sacrament of confirmation long after the reception of Holy Communion tends to weaken the understanding of the bond and relationship that the sacraments of initiation have with one another,” he wrote. Baptism “immerses us into the Divine Trinity,” while the grace of confirmation “confirms and strengthens the supernatural life we have received in baptism, and it also enables us with its grace to live in a more mature way our lives as Christians giving witness to Christ in all that we do.”
The sacraments are the primary means by which the Church brings the grace of God to his faithful, and they should not be taken for granted. There is nothing inherently wrong with the current order of the sacraments of initiation, but there is a very good case to be made for restoring the ancient and Eastern practice.