RCIA shifts and corrects our understanding of confirmation

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAOn February 11, 2019, Bishop James S. Wall of the diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, announced that the diocese will restore the order of the sacraments of initiation for children who are baptized in infancy. That brings the number of dioceses in the United States who have restored the order if the initiation sacraments to 13. This is in addition to several dioceses in Canada.

These dioceses received affirmation and encouragement from Pope Benedict’s 2007 apostolic exhortation, “The Sacrament of Charity.” In that document, he wrote:

As the Synod Fathers said, we need to ask ourselves whether in our Christian communities the close link between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is sufficiently recognized. 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)

Free resource: Finding God in All Things — An Imagination Exercise

The RCIA restores the proper order of the initiation sacraments

One of the central reasons dioceses are making this return to the proper order of the initiation sacraments is because of yet another paradigm shift caused by the restoration of the catechumenate. William Harmless writes in Augustine and the Catechumenate:

No longer is baptism to be separated from confirmation by weeks or even years, as happened in the medieval church. No longer is first Eucharist (and consequently first penance) to be inserted between baptism and confirmation, as has been the case ever since Pius X’s 1910 decree.

In 1910, Pius X wanted to end the delay of admitting children to the Eucharist. It was common practice in the western Church to delay brining children to the table until they were twelve or fourteen. Pius lowered the age for first communion to the age of reason or about age seven. That had the unreflected result of placing the celebration of Eucharist before confirmation.

Once that happened, our pastoral understanding of the need for the sacrament of confirmation began to wander off into uncharted ground. If in the celebration of the Eucharist we receive the fullness of Christ, what does confirmation do? An understandable, but incorrect, conclusion was that confirmation would be a mature affirmation of the faith promised at baptism and the fullness received in Eucharist.

As I said, it is understandable that we might think of confirmation as a sacrament of Christian maturity. However, that has never been Catholic teaching. St. Thomas Aquinas taught:

Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: “For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.” Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1308)

The restoration of the proper order of the initiation sacraments in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults helps us understand more clearly the function and relation of baptism and confirmation. The RCIA says:

In accord with the ancient practice followed in the Roman liturgy, adults are not to be baptized without receiving Confirmation immediately afterward, unless serious reason stands in the way. The conjunction of the two celebrations signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close link between the mission of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the connection between the two sacraments through which the Son and the Holy Spirit come with the Father to those who are baptized. (215)

In other words, unless we celebrate confirmation immediately after baptism, we do damage to the Trinitarian teaching of the church — which is core to our belief.

The RCIA also restores the proximity of the initiation sacraments

Admittedly the restoration of the proper order of the sacraments in the RCIA is also a restoration of the proximity of the celebration of the sacraments of initiation — all celebrated in a single liturgy. And this, in turn, calls into question our practice of infant baptism and delaying confirmation and Eucharist until the age of reason. That is a pastoral issue the church will have to take up at some point in the future.

For now, however, the teaching of the church is clear. When we baptize adults, we celebrate all three sacraments of initiation together, following the ancient practice of the church.

And when the RCIA says “adults,” it means anyone who has reached the age of reason (see RCIA 308, canon 842.2, canon 852, canon 866, and the USCCB National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 14).

This shift in paradigm is one of the most difficult for parishes to accept. For some families and even for some priests and bishops, the social good of allowing unbaptized children to delay confirmation until they can celebrate it with their peers outweighs the clear teaching of the church and the benefit of establishing a belief and practice of God’s true nature early on in the lives of children.

It helps to keep in mind that our current understanding of confirmation as a sacrament of Christian maturity is barely a few generations old. And that understanding was never ratified as Church teaching. It will take some effort to reestablish the teaching and practice of confirmation as an initiation sacrament, leading toward and not following Eucharist. However, we are well on our way.

This post is part of a series on the paradigm shifts that flow from the Second Vatican Council and the restoration of the catechumenate. Click here to see other posts in the series.

Free resource: Finding God in All Things — An Imagination Exercise

See also these related articles:

  1. How the RCIA makes us dream of a new church — a summary
  2. The RCIA is our definitive statement on conversion
  3. One of the most earthshaking shifts of the RCIA
  4. RCIA shifts and corrects our understanding of confirmation
  5. Does RCIA change what it means to belong?

Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

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  1. Hello Nick, For your information, my diocese of Broken Bay in northern Sydney Australia, has been doing this restored order – confirmation, reconciliation and Eucharist spread over approx 9 months at age 7. One interesting spin off has been that a number of children baptised in other churches were presented… motivation unknown but probably varies from family to family….so we have made a point of inviting parents to also explore Catholic Faith. We are still working through the implications of this situations.

  2. Another way of looking at it:
    A master stroke of the Holy Spirit was the organic transition of the Catechumenate from adults to children within the Catholic family. This organic process developed as the world was made Catholic. The children of these Catholics are to be brought up in the faith. Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist will follow the main stages of human development. That is birth, childhood and adolescence. There is no damage to the deposit of faith just a change in the timing of presentation to meet the present need.

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