Once upon a time: Re-examining the ‘lost’ sacrament

With all the discussion going on these days about the sacrament of confirmation, remarks are in order about the “lost” sacrament of initiation.

By Monsignor Xavier Mankel

Our bishop will soon promulgate the time for the sacrament, with instructions for its celebration. The pastor historically has been the key person responsible for the sacrament. He passed that responsibility on to the sister (or sisters), usually one who taught in the parish school.

She knew the children well, second only to their parents, and was the chief catechist in the parish.

If there were no sisters available, the task was passed along to someone else, such as a layperson trained to teach the sacraments as they came along in the life of the parish, the family and the individual confirmed.

Holy Mass was not celebrated, as a rule, with confirmation. Bishop William L. Adrian’s practice was to celebrate at night. The church would be filled with confirmandi, sponsors, parents, adults who missed the sacrament somewhere along the way and well-wishers in general.

In the 1800s, the bishop came by train. In the 20th and 21st centuries, he has traveled by car. During the confirmation service, boys sat on one side of the church with their sponsors. The girls sat on the other side of the middle aisle with their sponsors. It was a custom for the candidates to be questioned by the bishop.

Some parishes tried to predict the order in which the children were to be questioned.

The story is told about a parish in which the first child always was asked the question: “Who made you?” The answer: “God made you.” The next child was asked: “Why did God make you?” The answer: “To know, love, and serve Him in this life so as to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” However, the bishop asked the second question first. The little boy blurted out, pointing to the child beside him, “He’s to know, love and serve Him.”

The bishop ended questioning right there.

Also during the confirmation ceremony, the kiss of peace was a tap on the cheek. It has been modified these days, with the bishop offering his hand and the one confirmed shaking it in return. Many a confirmandi was more afraid of the tap on the cheek than anything else. It was wise of the Church to eliminate that practice.

Knoxville is blessed to have a favorite son who some say is the world’s greatest English-speaking expert on the sacrament of confirmation.

He graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School in 1950 and became a Dominican.

He taught at The Catholic University of America for many years and now is in semi-retirement in Florida. His name is Father Gerard Austin, OP.

He, no doubt, had a hand in shaping the theology of confirmation as we know it today.

The practice of confirming babies is done in some of our Eastern rites, where they are confirmed and given holy Communion as infants; they do not receive holy Communion again until about age 7.

Soon, we will be using the new guidelines. It will be a few years until we see whether this is having desired effects.

Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit is alive and well in His Church.

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general and historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.

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