Bishop James Wall of Gallup has announced in a pastoral letter the restoration of the order of the sacraments of initiation in the mission diocese.
Once the new policy is implemented, children will receive Confirmation and First Holy Communion in the same Mass, at around the age of 7 or 8.
“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,” Bishop Wall wrote in his February 11 pastoral letter The Gift of the Father.
“Because the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation lead the faithful to the culmination of their initiation into the Christian Life in Holy Communion, the practice of postponing the reception of Confirmation until the teenage years has not always been beneficial,” he noted.
The bishop added that “An alarming percentage of our Catholic children who were baptized and received First Holy Communion, do not continue their formation for the Sacrament of Confirmation, and in too many cases, never receive the Sacrament. As your shepherd, I believe it is important for our children, before they reach their adolescent years, to receive the strength of this important Sacrament.”
The pastoral change in the Diocese of Gallup follows that of several other local Churches in the US.
Commending such a change in the Diocese of Manchester in 2017 as “a praiseworthy practice”, Rita Ferrone wrote in Commonweal that 11 dioceses were then practicing “restored order”.
Bishop Wall opened his letter reflecting on the relationship among the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion.
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.”
“At the same time, the Sacrament of Confirmation is ordered toward a deeper communion with the Lord and to His Church through this witness to Him, a communion which receives its greatest expression and grace in this life in the sacrament of Holy Communion.”
The bishop noted that he has chosen to restore the original order of the sacraments of initiation “after consultation with the Presbyteral Council and having prayerfully considered it.”
Wall then discussed the historical background of the temporal order of the sacraments of initiation, noting that in the first 500 years of the Church they “were received together,” and that afterwards Baptism came to be administered in infancy, Confirmation around the age of 7, and Communion around the beginning of adolescence, such that “the order of the sacraments was conserved but they were administered in separate celebrations throughout childhood.”
St Pius X “decided that it was important for children at a younger age to receive Holy Communion,” and began administering First Communion around the age of 7.
“This positive change had the unintended consequence of moving the Sacrament of Confirmation to an older age, thus inverting the original order of the Sacraments of Initiation,” Wall stated.
He added that today a person baptized after reaching the age of reason normally “receives in the same celebration the three Sacraments of Initiation,” but that “up until now, a child who was baptized as an infant would receive Holy Communion at around the age of 8 and receive the sacrament of Confirmation at a later date, sometimes waiting until they are 15 or 16.”
The bishop also discussed the effects of Confirmation, which “ gives us an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which strengthens us,” and he cited Divinae consortium naturae, St. Paul VI’s 1971 apostolic constitution on the sacrament.
Teaching about the sacraments, he said: “Although grace builds upon nature and much depends upon the disposition in faith, the piety and charity of the one who receives it, the sacraments work in us in a different way. As long as the recipient does not have any impediment, the sacraments will produce in us their grace on their own.”
“This is important when we consider the age of the reception of the sacraments,” Wall said.
While Confirmation is sometimes called “the Sacrament of Christian maturity,” it “does not require the recipient to be physically mature in order to transmit its grace. On the contrary, the Sacrament brings the recipient into Christian maturity and is given the strength through the Sacrament to live one’s Christian life even in a heroic way.”
“Although the recipient of the Sacrament always must seek to remove obstacles to grace in his or her life and cooperate with the strength of the grace that is offered to the individual, the power of the sacraments to transform one’s life has been well established.”
Noting that “countless young children have shown the witness of heroic virtue,” Wall said that “it has become all the more important” for young Christians, given the challenges they face in today’s world, “to receive the strength of the Sacrament of Confirmation as soon as possible to assist them.”
Citing St. Paul VI, Bishop Wall said that Confirmation’s link with the Eucharist “will be emphasized by uniting the Sacrament of Confirmation with the reception of the First Holy Communion in the same celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass.”
The policy change in the Gallup diocese will be gradually implemented over the next three years, with a “progressive lowering of the age,” until preparation for the reception of Confirmation and First Communion will begin in third grade.
“There will always be the possibility of children older than 3rd grade seeking the Sacrament, especially those who move into our diocese from other areas, as well as adults who seek the reception of Confirmation,” he noted. “For this reason, there will have to be available an intergenerational model of catechesis or catechists prepared to take on classes of different age groups to prepare them for Confirmation.”
The sacraments, the bishop reflected, “are an introduction and aids to living an authentically Christlike life, to prepare ourselves for our passage into our longed-for eternal life.”
He called on parishes to meet the challenge of developing “creative programs to accompany, form and integrate young members of the parish – now fully initiated – into the life of the Church.”
With catechetical formation after third grade no longer tied to sacramental preparation, it will instead “help our young Catholics grow in their faith, discern their vocation and prepare for that Christian vocation as they approach adulthood.”
“As we implement these new policy changes we are attempting to face the great challenges of our time,” Wall concluded.
Thanking the pastors of the diocese for their faithful service, he asked them “to work closely with the families of your communities to help them accomplish their vocation as first catechists and witnesses of their faith.”
“The parish should become a community of communities where the family, the domestic Church, can find guidance in the Word of God, strength in the Sacraments and support in their daily struggles. Your assistance to the families of your parish to provide them with what they need to accompany their children in their pilgrimage of faith is invaluable.”
“May Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Diocese of Gallup and our Mother, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, heroic witness to the faith, intercede for all of us, for you and your families, and may the Lord bring to completion the good work He has begun in us.”
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