More Catholic teens are opting out of confirmation instruction, swayed by considerable distractions facing all youth in today’s culture. As a result, the high numbers of young Catholics receiving the sacraments of baptism and first Holy Communion in the Diocese of Knoxville are falling by nearly 50 percent for confirmation, which is the full initiation into the Church community and completes the grace of baptism through the gifts of the Holy Spirit that seal or “confirm” the baptized in union with Christ. Confirmation equips Catholics for active participation in the worship and apostolic life of the Church.
Confirmation is the full initiation into the Catholic Church community and completes the grace of baptism through the gifts of the Holy Spirit that seal or “confirm” the baptized in union with Christ. In the Diocese of Knoxville, nearly every parish confirms Catholic youth in their sophomore or junior years of high school, which is when the sacrament is administered in most U.S. dioceses.
As confirmation classes have been shrinking, priests are facing issues on the back end, such as Catholic couples coming to them for marriage instruction when one or both haven’t been confirmed.
Many priests feel compelled to instruct couples to be confirmed before marriage to be fully initiated into the Catholic faith since canon law says Catholics who have not received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before they are admitted to marriage if it can be done “without grave inconvenience.”
Statistics that reflect the declining number of diocesan youth receiving the sacrament of confirmation each year have prompted Bishop Richard F. Stika to appoint a committee to study the possibility of lowering the confirmation age.
Bishop Stika led a diocesan-wide conference on confirmation Feb. 7 at Knoxville Catholic High School. Attended by about 200 people from parishes around the diocese, the conference featured reports on the status of confirmation programs in parishes and gave attendees the opportunity to ask questions about the issue.
Bishop Stika said he was pleased with participation in the conference and praised the input from clergy and laity. He will make a decision on whether to lower the age for receiving the sacrament once the Confirmation Committee of the Presbyteral Council issues its report to the full Presbyteral Council, after which the council makes a recommendation to Bishop Stika.
The bishop said he welcomes feedback on the issue from parishes and parents to help the Confirmation Committee, Presbyteral Council and him reach a decision that is best for the diocese.
“So many parishes have different expectations,” Bishop Stika said. “I do not want to mandate from the top down on this. This is a collaboration.”
He said while the sacrament of confirmation has evolved from being celebrated early in a child’s life to now high school, it was never intended to be a rite of passage.
While the lower numbers of confirmations in the diocese compared to baptisms and first Communions are sobering, Bishop Stika makes it clear that any effort to reverse the trend is to improve preparation for the sacraments and in turn incorporate best practices for teaching the faith and evangelization.
Sensitive to the impact any change in the confirmation age could have on parish youth ministries and out of a desire to maintain strong and viable youth ministries, Bishop Stika wants to ensure that youth ministry programs will be enhanced by his decision.
“We’re not doing this out of fear, but to increase the faith,” he said. “This is a serious subject when you look at the statistics. When I first told the committee that when they report to the Presbyteral Council, if they do anything to move the experience of confirmation to a lower grade, to a lower age, I want to make sure they know the confirmation process and programs in our parishes do have to involve the high school. So if we do move the confirmation age, there will have to be a real strong emphasis on youth ministry in the diocese.”
Father Ron Franco, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville and a member of the Confirmation Committee of the Presbyteral Council, explained during the conference that many questions surround the way the sacrament is currently administered.
He said the review process actually began in May 2013, when Bishop Stika raised concerns with the diocesan Presbyteral Council about the way the diocese approaches confirmation, about the age at which confirmation is celebrated, and the larger issue of ministry to families, youth and young adults.
“One of the things he had noticed was that even among students at our Catholic high schools a noticeable number of students were not getting confirmed,” Father Franco said. “The overall diocesanstatistics bear this out. For example, in 2014 there were 1,233 first Communions in the Diocese of Knoxville, but only 699 confirmations. The numbers vary somewhat from year to year, but the number of confirmations is always consistently noticeably lower than the number of first communions. If confirmation is one of the three sacraments of initiation, which everyone ought to receive, then that is a problem.”
Father Franco also pointed to a concern that confirmation has become more like a rite of passage than what it is supposed to be – a sacrament of initiation.
“So a further question was whether our current practices have fostered a flawed understanding of the sacrament,” Father Franco said.
He noted that debate over confirmation isn’t new; it has been going on for decades – almost since the sacrament began being administered in the teen years throughout the United States over the last 50 years.
“Prior to that, most confirmations occurred at a younger age. Current Church law, in fact, calls for confirmation to be celebrated at around the age of seven – in other words, at about the same age as first Communion – although it allows the national bishops conference to set a later age if they so judge,” Father Franco said.
In considering moving the age of confirmation closer to the age of first Holy Communion, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is pointed to as an example of the original intent of confirmation as a sacrament of initiation, connecting baptism and the Eucharist. Some dioceses already have moved confirmation back to an earlier age – even restoring the ancient and traditional order of the sacraments with confirmation being celebrated either before or at the same time as first Communion, according to Father Franco.
One concern, he noted, is whether confirmation is being used to keep young people engaged in religious education, prompting the questions of whether that is confirmation’s function and can confirmation accomplish that goal. Also, do some people see confirmation as a graduation from involvement with the Church and religion?
“What will happen as society becomes more and more secular, and confirmation has to compete with so many other activities? Many see this already happening, as evidenced even now by the growing number of those choosing not to be confirmed,” Father Franco said.
Father Brent Shelton, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Townsend and chair of the Presbyteral Council’s Confirmation Committee, is uplifted by the fact there is clear enthusiasm for the sacramentof confirmation within the diocese as seen in the turnout for the confirmation conference and that the issue is important to Bishop Stika.
“The very fact we had an open dialogue with the bishop shows that in a special way the sacrament of confirmation is tied to the bishop,” Father Shelton said.
He noted that there appears to be a consensus among those involved in the discussion to move confirmation out of the high school level, but there is no clear consensus on what younger age.
Father Shelton believes the review process is an excellent opportunity to highlight the sacrament of confirmation and identify best practices in preparing for it.
“I’m not motivated so much out of fear as I am joyfully anticipating working with Bishop Stika and the other clergy and laity on finding that right age. Whatever age the sacrament is celebrated, we must show that this is a gift from God and not a goal,” Father Shelton said. “It’s not something you earn. Christ earned it on the cross. Pope Francis has said we shouldn’t be erecting hurdles to the sacraments. Christ has already earned the sacraments for us. All we need do is welcome them.”
Sister John Catherine Kennedy, OP, teaches senior-level religion at Knoxville Catholic High School and has witnessed firsthand the challenges of high school-level confirmation preparation.
Speaking to those attending the confirmation conference, Sister John Catherine related a story about a student who approached her in tears just as school was beginning one day. The student said she and one of her parents had been discussing confirmation on the way to school.
“She said, in tears, ‘I’m just not ready to be an adult’” and was feeling the pressures many high school students face, Sister John Catherine said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. What is confirmation? Is it something you can do? Or is it something God does in you?’”
The Dominican Sister, who also is getting her doctorate in U.S. history at the University of Tennessee, said she and the student took a closer look at the sacrament of confirmation to see what it was – and what it wasn’t. “We looked at what those documents say about confirmation. And once she had done that, I said, ‘Do you need to be so upset? Do you need to be crying?’”Sister John Catherine then asked the girl if she was capable of receiving a tremendous gift from God that she wasn’t required to earn or achieve, that God freely gives to her out of his love for her and that his Son died on the cross to provide so that she could be in full communion and grace with God.
She then posed the question to the girl in another way: “There’s a red Ferrari in the school parking lot. The insurance is paid and the gas is taken care of. Do you want it?” The analogy drew chuckles from the conference attendees.
Describing the holy Eucharist as the source and the summit of Christian life, the pinnacle of Christian initiation, Sister John Catherine stressed the importance for youth to complete the sacraments of initiation by following baptism with confirmation and first Communion – the restored order of the sacraments.
Sister John Catherine agreed that the statistics indicate a need to review the diocese’s process for administering the sacrament of confirmation and believes confirmation at an earlier age would benefit many students, especially as they enter their teen years.
“The grace confirmation gives is a tremendous advantage in facing the battle,” she said. “I’m in favor of moving it out of high schools to the early grades. Restoring the order would go a long way to restoring the meaning of what confirmation really is.”
Like others involved in the diocesan confirmation review process, Sister John Catherine is concerned that the sacrament is misconstrued as a rite of passage or a declaration of adulthood and she sees the angst in students who misinterpret it.
Her support for restored order is shared by a number of clergy and laity involved in the review process. An increasing number of U.S. dioceses and parishes are reverting to a restored-order policy for the celebration of the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist. In practice, Catholics who were baptized in infancy receive confirmation before first Communion, not after, and the two sacraments are received at the first Communion Mass, with confirmation celebrated after the homily.
Sarah Trent, principal of Sacred Heart Cathedral School and a mother of two young children, supports lowering the age of confirmation from high school to a younger grade, possibly as early as second grade. She believes instruction for the sacrament could easily be incorporated into the elementary curriculum.
“If the goal was not to return to restored order, there would be room to discuss third- through sixth-grade confirmation. Obviously, if restored order is decided upon, the discussions will need to include timing for first Holy Communion,” said Mrs. Trent, who is confident that younger students would be open to instruction and are capable of proper formation for the sacrament of confirmation.
And for Mrs. Trent, the issue even goes beyond confirmation.
“I believe the matter at hand is more involved than simply the age that one receives the sacrament of confirmation. Ultimately, our greatest need is to develop lifelong disciples and faithful followers of Christ. I think we should be taking a very close look at ways to reach out to Catholics of all ages who no longer participate regularly in Mass and the life of the Church,” she said.
“As a parent, I will support any decision that is made regarding the age at which my children are instructed and receive the sacrament of confirmation. My greatest desire is that they will always worship in a community that is vibrant and engaging. I pray that Hayden and Maggie will develop such a love of the Lord through the sacraments and instruction that they will always seek to live out their faith, participate in Mass and desire the sacraments on a regular basis. If receiving confirmation at an earlier age assists in their faith formation, I will support that decision,” she added.
Beth Parsons, a mother of eight children ranging in age from 25 to 18 months and the director of youth ministry at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, also agrees that the grade for confirmation should be younger than high school. She is open to what grade that should be, but she has been impressed by younger students’ ability to prepare for the sacraments.
“I currently have a second-grader going through first-reconciliation and first-Communion preparation. To see her enthusiasm about receiving these sacraments is beautiful. Does she fully understand what is going to happen? Maybe not, but we rely on God’s grace to guide her. I do think younger students are more receptive,” Mrs. Parsons said.
“There are older students, who are receptive as well, but in high school years students are so focused on learning, sports, work, and so much more, there is little time to devote to instruction. If we truly believe it is a gift we receive from the Holy Spirit in confirmation, wouldn’t we want to have our children filled with the grace sooner than later, especially in today’s world?” she added.
Students’ ability to grasp confirmation preparation isn’t exclusive to high school, Mrs. Parsons has discovered.
“Last year, our high school youth group was challenged by our first-grade faith-formation students to a trivia game of ‘Are You Smarter than a First Grader?’ The first-graders were equally as educated, on some categories more, on the questions about our faith. They were proud to share what they had learned. So, if education is the key in this equation, yes, I think younger children can be educated for the sacrament. However, I believe that what is most important for them to learn is what the sacrament is and let the Holy Spirit do the rest,” she said.
Those involved in reviewing the preparation practices for the sacrament of confirmation say they are grateful Bishop Stika considers the issue serious enough to launch a diocesan-wide assessment.
Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Knoxville, first broached the confirmation issue with Bishop Stika. She praises the work Bishop Stika, clergy and laity have put into finding a solution and is confident a good solution will be reached. She feels certain that solution will be found in the lower grades.
“Today’s teens are facing more challenges than ever before. Because of those challenges, they would be much better served to have received God’s grace through the sacrament of confirmation before they reach adolescence,” Sister Mary Marta said.
As a religious and a high school teacher, Sister John Catherine believes the issue has reached crisis proportions.
“I’ve seen it anecdotally through the years. And looking at the numbers across the diocese, there’s a leakage between second grade and high school. I do think that constitutes a crisis,” she said. “A grade of 50 to 70 in school is failing. So if we’re only confirming 50 percent to 70 percent of our young people, that’s a crisis and that’s why the bishop appointed a committee to look at this. Ultimately, it’s about the salvation of souls.”