A New Understanding of Confirmation in the Restored Order
In just two weeks, we will celebrate Confirmation and First Eucharist with 19 young people in our parish. The Diocese of Maine is one of fourteen dioceses in the U.S. that practice the “restored order” which joins preparation for Confirmation with First Eucharist for those baptized as infants. This restored order is the biggest change I’ve experienced in my move to Maine. I wondered, “How can we expect 2nd and 3rd graders to make the commitment that is expected in the sacrament of Confirmation?”
Theological and Practical Reasons for the Restored Order
As with many of us, I was taught at the time of my own confirmation that I was making an adult decision confirming the promises that had been made for me by my parents and godparents at my baptism. In the year before I entered the Jesuits (1991-92), I was involved with a retreat group that provided day-long or weekend retreats to high school students who were about to make their Confirmation. The retreats helped them to reflect on their lives and their experience of the Paschal Mystery so that they could make an informed choice in their own Confirmation. I’ve been very proud of my nieces and nephews who took the adult decision they were asked to make at their Confirmation seriously by asking serious questions about their faith or becoming involved in their faith community as lector. For these young people, Confirmation was the end of their formal religious training – “I don’t have to go to CCD anymore!”
So, I was very skeptical that there was a practical reason for shifting the experience of Confirmation, though I understood the theological reason.
The order of the Sacraments of Initiation in the ancient church – and for those baptized as adults today – is Baptism, Confirmation, First Eucharist. We saw this at the Easter Vigil this year when we welcomed six people into the church with these sacraments. Restoring the close connection between Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist is the theological reason for the restored order. The practical aspects of the change required a change in my thinking about the sacrament of the Confirmation.
The Holy Spirit is at Work through the Sacrament
When we focus on the person being confirmed and the decision being made at that time, we place the emphasis on the person and not on the work of God in the sacrament. The change in thinking I made in coming to understand the restored order was to focus on God at work in the sacrament. The focus of the Sacrament of Confirmation is the reception of the Holy Spirit – signified through two ancient practices – the imposition of hands and the anointing with Chrism oil. Thus, the sacrament of Confirmation confirms – not the decision that was made for us – but the presence and work of the Holy Spirit at work through the sacrament. This change in focus also prompts us to switch focus from Confirmation as the end of religious training to Confirmation as the beginning of something – the conscious relationship of our children to God through the Spirit.
Our Relationship with God Will Grow and Change Over Time
As we grow up, our relationship with our parents (and all human beings) grows and develops. The parents of our Confirmation and First Eucharist candidates have likely already begun to allow their children to make more decisions for themselves as the children approach the age of reason. We know that a healthy relationship between parent and child involves differentiation and re-integration. For example, the dependency of an infant followed by the terrible twos, rebellious teenager followed by the mutuality of an adult-adult relationship, perhaps followed by a dependent elderly parent and adult child. The relationship grows and changes over time. Likewise, our relationship with God grows and changes over time. As we grow and change in our relationship with our parents – getting to know one another in new and different ways – we grow and change in our relationship to God. In the restored order, the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist recognize the independent relationship of our children to God and invite us to a life-long relationship that will grow and change as we grow and change over time.
Fr. Brian Conley, SJ