Gallup’s Sacramental ‘Restored Order’ to Give Grace Before Youth Abandon Faith, by Peter Jesserer Smith

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The change recognizes the reality that many Catholic youth are abandoning their faith by middle school.

By Peter Jesserer Smith, National Catholic Register, 2/28/19 

GALLUP, N.M. — When bishops administer confirmation in the United States, they are conferring a sacrament on far fewer Catholic youth today, and many who show up for the rite have already “checked out” of believing. According to new research, the middle-school years comprise the median age when many young people abandon the Catholic faith.

These realities have driven Bishop James Wall to restore the sacraments of initiation to their traditional order of baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist in the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico. He unveiled the new policy and the pastoral thinking behind it in a Feb. 11 diocesan letter called “The Gift of the Father.” The transition will take place over three years and involve a retooling of parish youth ministry and evangelization at the same time.

“It is something that has been on my mind and heart for a while,” Bishop Wall told the Register.

The Diocese of Gallup is now the 13th Latin Rite diocese in the U.S. to move in this direction. For the past 100 years, the vast majority of U.S. Latin Rite dioceses have administered confirmation after First Eucharist, following St. Pius X’s decision in 1910 to lower the age of first Communion to approximately 7 years old, or the “age of discretion.” Because Pius X did not address confirmation, U.S. dioceses continued to leave in place the age at which they administered confirmation, typically around 14 years old.

Canon law now makes clear that Latin Rite bishops can choose to set the typical age for administering confirmation between the “age of discretion” and 16 years old.

Bishop Wall said the decision to go the restored-order route makes “much more sense” from the standpoint of the Church’s theology of the sacraments of initiation. It is the order prescribed for adults and children past the age of discretion who go through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). The Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches also follow this order, giving all three sacraments at the same time to both infants and adults.

Practical Urgency

But Bishop Wall explained there is a practical urgency for restored order, as well: Catholic youth need the sacramental strength that confirmation gives them, to help them grow in their knowledge and love of Jesus. But the Church is losing them.

Bishop Wall told the Register that there is “an incredible drop-off” between the numbers of Catholics who are receiving first Communion at age 7 or 8 and the numbers who receive confirmation “when we get to high school or junior high.”

For those who actually make it to confirmation, many of them have already spiritually checked out of the Catholic faith and are not disposed to respond to the sacramental grace. St. Mary’s Press found in a 2018 study called “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Catholic Disaffiliation,” that the median age of people who stop identifying as Catholic is 13 years old, Catholic San Franciscoreported. Approximately two-thirds of the disaffiliated had received first Communion, but only one-third had received confirmation. Another six out of 10 disaffiliated Catholics had not been involved in youth ministry or religious education.

Bishop Wall believes “restored order” can help the Church change these dynamics, and not just lower the average age for what many despondently call “Catholic graduation” or the “rite of farewell.”

First of all, he explained, by giving youth the sacrament of confirmation with first Eucharist at ages 7-8, they will have those graces in their lives. Also, youth ministry can then turn its focus from sacrament preparation to developing their Christian life, forming their relationship with Jesus and equipping them with the knowledge of the faith.

“If you give them the necessary tools at a proper age, they can cooperate,” Bishop Wall said.

Once the policy is fully implemented, he explained, youth in the second and third grade will prepare for the sacrament of penance and then prepare to receive the sacrament of confirmation and first Eucharist together. Then youth ministry will involve them in a “lifelong mystagogia” (deepening their experience of the sacramental mysteries) to help them live out their baptismal call and then prepare them in high school for discerning their vocation and receiving other sacraments as adults, such as matrimony or holy orders.

“We want them to be a bold witness for their faith,” the bishop said.

Positive Experiences

Bishop Wall said he drew on his positive experiences from his time as a priest in the Diocese of Phoenix. The diocese, which has a Catholic population of more than 1.1 million in its territory, had moved to “restored order” in 2005. The diocese had recognized that restoring the order of sacraments means that youth ministry needed to be retooled, not only to invite youth to develop their lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ and deepen their experience of sacramental grace, but also to offer something for parents at the same time, so the faith of the children could be reinforced by the parents at home.

The Archdiocese of Denver, which has a population of 550,000 Catholics, has nearly completed the transition after Archbishop Samuel Aquila decided to go in this direction in 2015.

Scott Elmer, director of evangelization and family-life ministries at the Denver Archdiocese, told the Register that Archbishop Aquila saw the change as an opportunity to renew Catholic catechesis. Parishes are required to offer catechetical programming for parents at the same time their children are receiving sacramental preparation.

“The most important thing is reaching parents,” Elmer said, explaining that parents need to be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to foster their children’s faith at home. And he said getting them on the path of “lifelong mystagogia” is far easier when a child is 7 or 8 than in middle school and high school, when children are becoming more independent of their parents.

“The child is more willing to have parents involved in their formation when they’re younger,” he said.

New Normal

Bishop Michael Warfel said his Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana, made the transition in 1996. He said receiving confirmation and first Eucharist at the same Mass is regarded now by Catholics as “the normal practice,” but that transition did not take long. He told the Register he had been thinking about moving to restored order when he was bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska. So when he was appointed to lead the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings in 2007, “I was delighted to find they were doing the restored order.”

“If Eucharist is the culmination of the sacraments of initiation — and that’s the order it’s structured in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — but confirmation is placed later,” Bishop Warfel asked, “then how does [the Eucharist] become the finalization of the initiation?”

Bishop Warfel said fully initiating youth in the sacraments frees the local Church to develop youth programs that are not dependent on receiving the sacrament at the end, but that really stress a lifelong discovery of the faith.

The bishop said most of his brother bishops are not yet convinced about restored order, and discussing the issue will give a “whole variety of responses.”

He added that both Pope Francis and Benedict XVI have expressed their support for bishops moving in this direction.

Said Bishop Warfel, “My hope is they’ll look more at it.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

The following U.S. Latin Rite diocesan territories have currently embraced a restored order for the sacraments of initiation: Saginaw, Michigan (1995); Great Falls-Billings, Montana (1996); Portland, Maine (1997); Spokane, Washington (1998); Fargo, North Dakota (2002); Gaylord, Michigan (2003); Tyler, Texas (2005); Phoenix, Arizona (2005); Honolulu, Hawaii (2015); Denver, Colorado (2015); Manchester, New Hampshire (2017); Springfield, Illinois (2017); and Gallup, New Mexico (2019).

Two dioceses — Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and Marquette, Michigan — had originally restored the order of sacraments, but later reverted to the baptism-first Eucharist-confirmation sequence.