Restoring the Sacraments of Initiation to Their Original Order
What’s old becomes new again. Diocese of Manchester launches bold move to return confirmation to its traditional place between baptism and Eucharist.
By Katie Fiermonti | Photos by Matthew Lomanno
Aaron and Jake Taylor, now in their mid-twenties, vividly remember their confirmation, though not for reasons you’d expect. Their family just moved from Maryland to Maine and were surprised to learn that the Diocese of Portland had adopted the restored order of the sacraments of initiation, in which children are baptized after birth, and then celebrate confirmation before First Holy Communion around age eight. It was a shock for the Taylor family, especially for Jake and Aaron, then 12 and 10, who found themselves playing “sacramental catch-up” at the same time their 8-year-old sister, Mia, received both confirmation and First Communion in 2004.
“It was weird how we had to jump in the line with Mia and the other First Communion kids,” Aaron remembers.
“Jake was more embarrassed,” Mia, now 22, adds.
“The rest of the little kids and Mia walked in two by two and then it was these two bigger ones,” their mother, Janine, says with a smile, gesturing to her now grown sons in their sunny China, Maine home. “When I realized the boys wouldn’t be waiting until high school for confirmation like their older brother Jeremy had, I remember thinking, ‘What? That makes no sense.’”
Today, Catholic families in New Hampshire are striving to understand the same sacramental shift as the Diocese of Manchester joins 11 other U.S. dioceses in restoring the sacraments of initiation to their proper order: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. For generations of Catholics who celebrated confirmation after their First Communion, the change may seem strange. But it actually returns confirmation to its original order and could strengthen the Church.
The effort is part of the “Restore, Renew and Proclaim the Hope that is Christ” initiative the diocese launched last year that aims to renew and strengthen the teaching of the faith in parishes, schools and the home by making lifelong faith formation a priority.
There are two reasons for this bold change, and why it is happening now, says Mary Ellen Mahon, the diocese’s Cabinet Secretary for Catholic Formation. The restoration returns the sacraments of initiation to their original theological order. It was only about 100 years ago that Pope St. Pius X lowered the age to receive First Holy Communion to seven years old. Priests could celebrate Holy Communion, but only bishops could confirm. Since bishops were not as available to visit parishes, the sacrament of confirmation often was delayed until a bishop could be present. As a result, confirmation was pushed back into late childhood or early adolescence. Eventually, it mistakenly became associated with maturity and choice and celebrated out of turn.
“In addition to bringing the diocese back to that original order, one of the things that Bishop Peter Libasci was concerned about was what we can do better, particularly when it comes to developing and strengthening high school faith formation,” Mahon explains. “In November of 2016, we did a survey that found 65 percent of parishes here don’t offer faith formation after confirmation. Bishop said, ‘We have to do something radical.’”
With that in mind, and with strong direction outlined in documents from the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (in 1997 and 2005, respectively), the diocese set out to restore the order of the sacraments with the primary goal being to encourage and stimulate the learning of one’s faith for people of all ages. “That’s where we need to put our focus,” Mahon stresses. “That’s going to be the model for the younger generations in the home and in the parish.”
Such change already is happening throughout the country, though the Manchester diocese is among those at the forefront of this trend. The Manchester diocese will be twelfth in the country to implement restored order. Three others are seeking information about the process, Mahon says.
“Vatican II asked us to look at the way we celebrate the sacraments,” Mahon says, noting the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) not only addressed the need to revise our celebration of all of the sacraments, but specifically named confirmation and the need to better express its relationship to baptism and its rightful order within the sacraments of initiation. “It’s been slow, but this is something that could happen across the country. The universal Church has urged us. It’s just a matter of when we’re going to get there. And you know we’ve already been doing it through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). We see it so clearly there. Restoring the sequence will make us consistent in our practice. Baptism gives us a share in the life of the Trinity. Confirmation strengthens that life, and Eucharist completes our initiation and nourishes our life and relationship with the Trinity. It is the source and the summit of our faith.”
What does this mean for the ordinary parishioner or parent seeking answers about this change – a three-year process that began in June 2018 – and how it will affect them? To date, the diocese engaged in a year of prayer and preparation, which included a series of study days. Each parish submitted a transition plan, tailored to the individual parish’s needs, but guided by diocesan parameters. In June, parishes began implementing their plans; third graders will be confirmed this fall. By the end of 2021, third grade children in all New Hampshire parishes should be receiving confirmation and first Holy Communion at the same Mass. First Reconciliation will be received in second grade.
Additionally, parishes throughout New Hampshire are working out details about how the change will affect their faith formation programs, particularly for middle and high school students, and addressing questions from parents. Chief among them is the common misconception that confirmation is a decision teenagers make when they are old enough to understand the sacrament, and that it’s a sort of “graduation” from faith formation, Mahon says.
“Actually, no Church document has ever talked about confirmation as a choice. Misconceptions were taught – through no one’s fault. Now we’re trying to correct that. We believe the sacraments are free gifts of grace that cannot be earned. It’s not dependent on what I know or how much I know,” Mahon continues.
Other parents wonder if enrollment in middle and high school youth groups will decline once children receive these sacraments at earlier ages. Mahon says educating parents is a crucial part of the success of “Restore, Renew and Proclaim” and the diocese is working hard to ease their concerns and provide support to faith formation directors and families.
At St. Thomas More Parish in Durham, where there are 105 elementary faith formation students, 50 middle school students, and 50 high school youth ministry students, news of the change of sacramental preparation was “initially overwhelming,” says Ann McGurty, the parish’s Director of Faith Formation.
“There was confusion and misunderstanding from parents. There was concern about younger children receiving confirmation, logistics and combining or separating the sacraments,” McGurty explains. “We addressed the concerns to all our parents at the beginning of our faith formation year with a meeting focused on the history of confirmation and renewed support for families as we journey together in this process. Our pastor, Father Andrew Cryans, and our parish faith formation team have been very supportive through the early months as we begin to envision a renewed program. The diocese has provided us with some fabulous workshops and connections with other parishes.”
In some parts of Maine, the transition to the restored order of the sacraments has been a laborious process, says Elaine Gordon, parish catechetical leader at Corpus Christi Parish in Waterville, where the Taylors are parishioners. “The change was a little hairy,” she admits. “Change is hard. There are a lot of opinions here now. You have to understand, it was the same sacramental order for years, so we have to teach the adults.”
Has she seen evidence of growth in lifelong faith formation after the age of initiation rites? Gordon estimates there is about a 50 percent drop-off in the number of children returning to faith formation in the first year after they receive First Communion. But she says the numbers climb back in middle school and high school youth ministries. “Sometimes we see that after third grade, kids and their parents need a bit of a break. But they usually come back. Those parents who want their kids to be lifelong practicing Catholics and receive their sacraments will be there.”
The Taylors, a vibrant, faith-filled family with seven children ranging in age from 29 to nine, took time to adapt to the restored order. More than a decade later, it is the norm in the Taylor household. The youngest child, Phoebe, celebrated confirmation and Eucharist nearly two years ago. Even so, the debate about which sacramental order they prefer remains a gentle topic of discussion in their family. Janine’s husband, Bryan, a stay-at-home dad, still struggles with it. He worries about the potential drop-off in youth participation in the Church, and says the burden will fall on middle and high school youth groups to attract participants.
“And the parents are going to have to be involved,” he adds.
“It’s absolutely important for parents to take an active role,” agrees Janine, who is medical director at Kennebec Behavioral Health in Waterville. “I’ve been in this Church my whole life, and I’m still learning. But for every struggle, there can be something to come out of it. Maybe greater parental involvement is that good thing. Receiving the sacramental grace of confirmation at a younger age could actually foster ongoing faith development. I think it is an opportunity for families, and even the parish, to take a more active role in helping the children with their ongoing journey. Because the children are younger, they need the support of the adults around them more and that can be good for the adults around them.”
Ann McGurty in Durham already witnessed greater family commitment in her parish, which is planning its version of lifelong discipleship as an umbrella for all parish ministries and formation activities. “We are currently seeing some fruits of parental and parish involvement in our faith formation, sacramental prep and youth ministry programs,” she says. “Adults are seeking ongoing faith formation opportunities and potential leadership ministries within the parish.”
That’s certainly been the case for the Taylor family. Janine and Bryan Taylor have made it a point to lead by example in their faith, and to encourage their children to be active participants in their parish. All seven of their children – Jeremy, Jake, Aaron, Mia, Isaac, Sophie and Phoebe – have served in various roles beyond confirmation as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, and faith formation teachers. Sophie, at 17, remains involved with her high school youth group, having fun with charity Rock-a-thons and other group activities. Jeremy, 29, feels a calling to the diaconate once his own children have grown.
“For me, it has taken the process of shepherding four of my children though the restored order to come to a richer understanding that being fully initiated, in the right order, means a beginning rather than an end to a child’s faith journey, and by extension, the family’s faith journey,” reflects Janine. “I feel like the previous, old, non-restored order, was maybe seen as more of an ‘end’ while the new, restored order can be seen as more of a beginning. We did have this vision, that confirmation means yes, you choose. But now I’ve learned that confirmation is not something to be earned. It’s a free gift pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It’s the beginning of an ongoing journey.”
Answers to Common Questions About Restored Order
The restored order initiative will mark a major change in the way children will celebrate the sacraments of initiation in New Hampshire. Here are answers to some questions that families, faith formation leaders, teachers and clergy may have:
Q: I already received my First Communion, but currently am in high school. How am I supposed to receive my confirmation now?
A: Depending on how your parish organized its plan to celebrate the sacraments, you will receive confirmation within the next three years, no matter if you are in fifth grade or ninth. During the rollout of this initiative, there will be instances of older children making their confirmation with younger children, though sacramental preparation will be age appropriate. Check with your parish to learn its specific plan.
Q: Once I receive confirmation in third grade, will I still have to attend middle or high school youth ministry?
A: Youth ministry has its own singular importance and should not be used as a preparation for confirmation. One reason for restoring the order of the sacraments is the hope that it will encourage lifelong faith formation so Catholics of all ages can deepen their faith by continually learning and experiencing what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Participating in youth ministry after confirmation can help middle school and high school youth to live out their faith and strengthen their bonds with their faith community.
Q: How is the diocese going to attract preteens and teenagers to youth ministry programs?
A: Bishop Libasci, recognizing the importance of youth ministry, formed a committee to focus on that very issue! Events will be implemented statewide that will be diverse in scope. In addition, materials and guidance on maintaining successful and active youth programs will continue to be available to all faith formation leaders.
Q: Will my child still be able to wear a traditional First Communion dress or suit if he or she will be confirmed at the same Mass?
A: Yes, of course. While the focus of receiving these sacraments is not on the clothing children wear, we recognize that tradition plays a role here. Most often, white is the prominent color, a symbolic reference to our baptism. Children can wear whatever they would have worn prior to the restored order.
The Manchester diocese has many resources about the restored order of the sacraments on its website: catholicnh.org/lifelong