Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 31 January 2011

First Communion and Confirmation

It was from Fr Hunwicke's blog that I first read about the decision of the Archbishop of Liverpool to return to the apparently historic practice of conferring Confirmation before First Communion. The report on which he based it can be seen in this week's Catholic Herald.

Talking with a friend last night we began to see that this is really quite a complex issue. There is a discussion from 2003 of the issues surrounding First Communion and Confirmation on this Irish website. Last year the present Pope reaffirmed the wisdom in St Pius X's 1910 Quam Singulari Chrustus Amore which ruled in favour of communion at the age of reason, assumed to be at about seven years. Last year also Cardinal Cañizares Llovera was reported as arguing the case for an even earlier age for reception of the Eucharist. His comments are available here.

My initial reaction had been to be in favour of what is proposed in Liverpool, largely on the basis that it represents what I thought to be the historic tradition and is indeed something closer to the practice I knew when I was an Anglican, of baptism, then confirmation, followed by reception of Holy Communion. I was given to understand that it is what St Pius X still envisaged when he encouraged First Communion at a younger age. Of course I know that Eastern practice is different and I have attended an Orthodox baptism where the infant was communicated. That also has an impressive logic. Reflecting on the question makes me less certain as to what I think appropriate.

Sometimes it appears that First Communion becomes Last Communion for a very long time, and the Sacrament of Confirmation is downgraded. As the Irish article I refer to above points out the celebrations around First Communion tend to overshadow those at Confirmation. That was something that in my Anglican upbringing was avoided by making reception of the Eucharist follow on from Confirmation. Maybe the Anglican Patrimony can assist the wider Church here in terms of how growth in the sacramental life can be presented to and accepted by the faithful.

This led me to think that the real question is about Confirmation.

If it is in conformity not only with established traditional practice but the implication of the Acts of the Apostles, that Confirmation completes the Rites of Initiation with its gift of the Holy Spirit, then that can be seen as a prerequisite for First Communion, or it can be seen as something quite independent, and requiring more than the age of reason, but that of discretion. In that case it is indeed a rite of passage, the equipping of the prepared Christian for a mature Christian life. So not just an occasion for a rite-of-passage celebration but an acceptance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to equip the individual for the life ahead, enabled to make right judgements.

These days there is less of Confirmation being perceived as a social stepping stone for adolescents than it once was, but the sense of it as a dynamic, enabling gift is, I suspect, not strong with many.

Given that situation assembling the confirmands in the cathedral of a diocese for the Ordinary to administer the sacrament stresses its significance and importance. The emphasis is not on it being a Passing-out Parade so much as receiving one's Commission.

The Liverpool plan does raise a serious query in my mind. Family preparation is well enough with the regular churchgoers, let alone the home-schoolers, but how will it work with the occasional conformists? I am sure this has been addressed, and maybe the hope is to draw back parents with the preparation of their children, but some not-that-dutiful parents may decide it is too much to be asked to do, and not bother.

1 comment:

Francis said...

My own experience, as a cradle RC confirmed in the 1990s, was that it was presented by the parish catechists as a "have your say" moment in the choice of the Christian faith; having been baptised - and to a lesser extent given first communion - without a full appreciation of the implications of committing to the Christian lifestyle, adolescents were given the impression that now the time had come for them to decide whether they wanted to pursue the path of Christian discipleship. Thus "confirmation" of that which had been chosen for them by their parents.

This is a defective account of the sacrament, to put it mildly. The number who stopped accompanying their parents to Mass around this age was striking.