As promised, up at the Register: Is Your Parish Bogged Down in a Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?
Feedback on this topic has been about 90% AMEN from people who have lived the experience of getting priced out of parish life, 5% Doesn’t Happen Here from people who live in awesome parishes and dioceses where making the sacraments accessible to all is the central goal (looking at you, Wichita), and 5% But How Would We Pay Our Staff???
If you’re in that last group, consider aiming for some doable, baby-step Non-Scale Victories in the serving-the-poor department. Change is hard. Keep pointing yourself in the right direction whenever you can, even if you can’t transform your parish overnight.
And on that note, here’s a thought that came up in a private discussion of the pay-to-pray problem: What the heck is Confirmation???
For most of us Latin-rite folk, our experience of Confirmation happens sometime between 3rd and 12th grade, and involves taking classes and doing service projects and attending retreats in order to “prepare” ourselves for the sacrament. A friend and I both observed that the whole scheme was much more pared down back in the day (1990’s). My best guess is that with each new crop of fallen-away college students, bishop-panic escalates and graduation-requirements become more stringent.
(Recap: Confirmation is not “graduation.” It is a free gift of God that can only be obtained by paying tuition, attending classes, completing assignments, and undergoing an evaluation once you have accomplished all your check-off requirements. If you don’t do the things, you can’t be confirmed, and there’s a form for you to sign stating you understand you have to do the things. But it is definitely a free gift. That you earn the right to receive by doing the things.)
For non-Latin-rite folk, though, the experience of Confirmation is typically quite different: You’re born, your parents haul you to church, and you bob around wiggling and fussing while your infant self receives all three sacraments of initiation in one fell swoop.
Interestingly the Latin-non-Latin divide extends into the wider Christian community. If you are Orthodox, you probably received confirmation (chrismation) as an infant. If you are part of the Protestant communiy, and hence your congregation traces its lineage back to Latin-rite western Europe, you probably experienced confirmation, or a non-sacramental equivalent, as an age-of-reason, formally and publicly pronounced, personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.
Catholics across the Rites maintain the course on infant baptism, pointing out that there’s nothing like it for underscoring the “free gift” aspect of salvation. Catholics and Orthodox agree with Protestants that once someone reaches the age reason, he or she must make the on-going decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
What is troubling in the Confirmation Prep arms race is that by out-Baptisting-the-Baptists Catholics are increasingly turning, lex vivendi, a sacrament of initiation into a sacrament of service.
Marriage and Ordination are sacraments of service. They are sacraments that commission a vocation. While we would hope that growing up in a Christian home, being properly educated by one’s parents, and carrying out the appropriate course of discernment would go far in preparing someone for either vocation, it is reasonable that we take certain steps to ensure those embarking on their lifelong vocation are as equipped as possible to begin the task.
What seems to be happening with Confirmation in the Latin rite is that because we have (for now) the practice of delaying the sacrament until after the age of reason, we are losing hold on the free gift of the Holy Spirit reality of what this sacrament of initiation is. We are instead treating it like a sacrament of service. We are demanding proof of our young people not that they wish to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that they are already able to use them.
This is not what the sacrament is. Confirmation confers the gifts that we need to live our Christian vocation. Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are limitless and divine. We don’t have to fear, like handing a child an enormous check on his eighteenth birthday, that he’ll run out and spend the money foolishly for lack of adequate budgeting skills. You aren’t going to blow all your gift of piety in one wild afternoon of Adoration and be left broke and wondering what you’ll pray tomorrow.
Confirmation Prep as typically prescribed, though, isn’t usually about cultivating a spiritual state of desire for intimate union with Holy Spirit. Rather, our bishops look at the results of Confirmation — the fruits — of the Spirit, and prescribe a set of lessons and practice exercises to prove the child already possesses what the sacrament is supposed to confer and unleash.
Frankly, this verges on spiritual fornication. You say you want to be a fully-initiated disciple? Well act like one by doing these requirements that put you through the paces of disciple-activities! Show yourself able and worthy! To freely receive something you can never deserve, and which is about God’s action in you, not you working of your own power, we’d like to see ten hours of it accomplished and documented!
This is not the way God’s glory is made manifest. Repentance, the calling of sinners, the invitation to sit at the table of the Lord . . . these are preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments of service are vocations to love our neighbor as Christ loves us. They come after the sacraments of initiation because the ability to love our neighbor flows from Christ. First we receive from God, then we give to others what we have received. Confirmation is a sacrament of receiving.
Rather than a checklist of activities proving we are worthy and able to give what we do not yet possess, the question for those us of tasked with preparing young people for Confirmation is: How can I help you open your heart to receive this gift for which you were created, and which, so hard to believe in our meritocratic society, you can never earn?
Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.