By Rhetta Botts
Following an extended period of study, the age of confirmation in the Diocese of Knoxville is being lowered to a middle-school grade level.
Bishop Richard F. Stika has announced that the confirmation age will drop from high school to fifth and sixth grades. With this change, Bishop Stika hopes to strengthen the young-adult ministry and the religious formation program within the diocese.
After months of study and deliberation, a diocesan Confirmation Commission that Bishop Stika assembled reported its findings to the bishop, who then weighed the information and made the decision to lower the age.
“Nearly two years ago, I created a commission to examine, for pastoral reasons, the age of confirmation in the Diocese of Knoxville. After extensive consultation and deliberation, the commission, chaired by Father Brent Shelton and Father Ronald Franco, CSP, made their recommendations to me last year. After much prayer, discernment, and further consultation, I have decided to move the age of confirmation, effective Jan. 1, 2019, to the fifth- and sixth-grade level,” Bishop Stika said.
“With this pastoral adjustment to the confirmation age, I also created a new commission to evaluate and to make recommendations on how best to strengthen our young-adult ministry within the diocese, as well as our overall religious-formation program.
This commission, named the St. John Paul II Commission after our diocese’s co-patron, is chaired by Dave Wells of Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish and includes members from around the diocese. Initially, I requested their recommendations by this September, but, in the interest of thoroughness, I have extended their timeline until the end of the year.
“In regards to confirmation preparation, it will involve a diocesan-wide policy that will require preparation standardization.” (Note: the policy will permit allowances for some flexibility regarding the size of the particular programs.)
“Please pray for the work of this commission, and also join me in thanking all those who have been involved in this process for their hard work,” Bishop Stika continued.
Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, building on what began with baptism and is nourished by the Holy Eucharist. Sealing the initial gift of the Holy Spirit, confirmation brings us to full stature in Christ.
In the earlier days of the Church, baptism and confirmation were administered to infants.
The sacraments of baptism and confirmation are closely aligned; it is through baptism that Christians are made children of God, and the gifts such as wisdom, understanding, knowledge, fortitude, counsel, piety, and fear of the Lord are intensified.
Confirmation is not about professing the faith, but more about the grace God gives freely when the faithful desire it and seek the sacrament.
When believers ask for grace, God provides for them, doing so because of his infinite love for mankind.
The serious decision to lower the confirmation age was prompted by a committee that included pastors, high school religion chairs, directors of religious education from parishes, diocesan schools superintendent Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, and the diocesan coordinator of religious education, Father Richard Armstrong.
Among this group was Sister John Catherine Kennedy, OP, a religion teacher and chair of the Religion Department at Knoxville Catholic High School.
“The bishop, himself, was deeply concerned that we had a number of children in high schools and parishes who had been baptized and received first Communion but were never confirmed,” Sister John Catherine said. “Concern for that prompted a look at what we could do to engage people more deeply when it came to the sacrament of confirmation.”
This Confirmation Commission met once a month over several years, according to Sister John Catherine, and discussed the various facets (theological, practical, effect on youth ministry) of remedying this issue. There were many options.
At first, the possibilities of receiving confirmation in second grade, third grade, or even keeping the age at the high-school level were discussed. In the end, the fifth- and sixth-grade ages were chosen.
“At the end, the committee made a report of what we had discussed to Bishop Stika, who ultimately made the call as to where the sacrament would be placed,” Sister John Catherine said.
By being confirmed, the individual receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit that strengthen their relationship with God and aid in their ability to be courageous in their faith. These gifts are pivotal during adolescence and can only help children as they grow up to face the trying times of middle and high school.
Father Brent Shelton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, who served on the Confirmation Commission will oversee the change in age in his parish.
“Children benefit from receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at a young age, just as children benefit from receiving their parents’ love at a young age. It is this love, which grows into a true relationship over time, that later strengthens adolescents and adults to live virtuous lives in a relationship with God and his Church,” Father Shelton said.
This love is solidified through confirmation, and a relationship with God develops. It is not something that grows without effort and desire. When we are exposed to his boundless love and want to live our lives accordingly, we can even inspire others to do the same, and we are able to not only lead through example but have the capacity for empathy and true understanding, according to Father Shelton and Sister John Catherine.
Youths of all ages struggle with myriad pressures. Cementing a relationship with God is essential before heading off to college, where it is easy to stop attending weekly Mass due to chaotic schedules or lack of motivation. Today, teens in the diocese face difficult decisions, including academic and spiritual ones. Societal pressures that encourage negative behavior are all over online media, and many teens struggle to maintain balance in their lives. Questions regarding vocation, college, and relationships are only a few issues that teens grapple with.
Mr. Wells, the adult faith formation director at Sacred Heart Cathedral, has insight into the sorts of challenges young people face.
“I think teens and young adults struggle with questions of identity, acceptance, belonging, friendship, and purpose: ‘Who am I, deep inside? Do my friends really like me for who I am, or do I have to make them like me? Am I different or do I fit in? What do I want to do with my life?”’ Mr. Wells said.
These kinds of questions are exceedingly common and sometimes even affect spiritual life, but continuous faith in God is imperative.
“For some, God may seem irrelevant. But these questions, sooner or later, lead you back to God. And the truth is, the God who made you loves you more than you can imagine. Knowing that you are a son or daughter of God, that God has a plan for your life, and that he calls you to live in friendship with him will change how you answer those questions about yourself.” Mr. Wells added.
Laura Flammang, a junior at Knoxville Catholic High School who was confirmed April 17 at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, agrees the confirmation age should be lowered.
“I think that lowering the age is a great thing. For me, junior year has been very rigorous academically, and it is easy to lose spiritual focus while trying to balance a full class load,” she said.
With this reception of grace occurring at such an important time in adolescence, she said the graces received would assist any student as they begin to grow.
She also agreed that the academic pressures are relatively minimal during fifth and sixth grades, grade, leaving the students freer to focus on their spirituality and the importance of the process.
“It is so important to be grounded in your faith as you grow up. By getting confirmed early, your relationship with God is only strengthened through the years,” Miss Flammang said.
From her own experience, she finds that the earlier students prioritize God in their lives, the better. Having a connection to God diminishes many of the worries young people hold, and knowing that God loves them unconditionally is comforting, she believes, noting that God is always there to listen and freely gives the sacraments for our benefit.
Unlike Miss Flammang, Knoxville Catholic High School sophomore Clare Souder was confirmed at age 8. Her relationship with God remains strong today.
“It’s not necessarily about being ‘ready.’ It’s all about grace and being in communion with the Church as a member of the Church, regardless of age,” Miss Souder said.
She believes that because she was confirmed very young, her relationship with God was given the opportunity to grow from an earlier stage in life.
“The graces really equip you and seal you with your identity as a Catholic. I’m really grateful I received that strong foundation going into high school. It doesn’t mean I don’t or won’t struggle with my faith, but I know it helps me in my journey,” Miss Souder said.
While Miss Flammang and Miss Souder were not confirmed at the same age, both have a devout relationship with God.