Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sacramental Catechesis

Confirmation denied

A local paper in the USA tells the story of an adult who was apparently told, just before the ceremony, by her Bishop that she could not receive the sacrament of Confirmation until she had been properly catechized:

Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton set off a flurry of e-mail messages among priests and diocesan insiders when he told a 20-year-old Catholic woman she had not studied enough to allow him to confer the sacrament of confirmation.
The ensuing controversy regarding the woman's unsuccessful attempt on April 10 to be confirmed at St. Michael's Church in Paderborn raised questions about Braxton's ministerial style among some Catholics, criticism that was offset by a statement from the diocesan chancellor's office citing community praise for the bishop's interaction with parishioners.
The controversy also resulted in a statement from Braxton to St. Michael's pastor, the Rev. James Voelker, and by inference to all diocesan pastors, that they need to ensure that those who seek confirmation, whether adults or young people, should first receive the necessary educational and spiritual preparation.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, confirmation is "a sacrament in which the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Christ." It is usually conferred at ages 12-13 by a bishop.
Nicole Schilling, of New Athens, where she attends church at a different parish, and nine of her relatives heard the bishop's decision moments before the ceremony and angrily left the event, said Voelker. Schilling, an employee of King's House in Belleville, a religious retreat run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, did not bring a required baptismal certificate and was not known to the pastor of her home parish, Braxton said in a statement.
Schilling declined to comment.
Braxton told the woman she would need at least 10, one-hour education sessions and "some time for prayer and reflection," Voelker said.
"He has no capability of seeing anything other than his own views," Voelker said of Braxton.
While a diocesan spokesman said the bishop does not publicly discuss his private messages to priests, Braxton, in a written response to questions from the News-Democrat, stated, "The case in question involves a candidate who was presented to me moments before the celebration of the sacrament with no catechesis (religious instruction) of any kind, stating that she had been told, quite incorrectly, that as an adult she needed no preparation. ... This is simply not true and contrary to everything the Church intends in the sacraments."
Voelker said he was confident of the woman's sincerity. He said she had completed some earlier reading about Catholicism and he thought that was enough for confirmation.
"How many of us perform marriages when we know that people have very little understanding of the sacrament and all they really want is a nice setting? Do we stop doing them?" Voelker asked.

Much has already been written in the blogs about this story. First of all, it is true that baptized Catholics have a right to the sacraments of the Church. It is also true that in times past the Church taught that sacraments were effective means of grace in and of themselves (irrespective of the merits of the minister or the recipient of the sacrament). It is also true that since in the eastern Churches confirmation is given to infants – obviously without prior catechesis. I confess I was upset some years ago when the chaplain at the home where my mother lived informed me that she could no longer receive the Eucharist since her dementia seemed to have deprived her of an understanding of what the Eucharist was. My feeling was that she should continue to receive the Eucharist as long as this could be done without risk of some kind of desecration of the Host.

However, it is also true that the Church has an obligation to provide catechesis, including sacramental catechesis, as a way of inviting adult Catholics to continue their growth in faith. The General Directory for Catechesis (175) identifies the following general tasks of adult catechesis:
– to promote formation and development of life in the Risen Christ by adequate means: pedagogy of the sacraments, retreats, spiritual direction. . .
– to educate toward a correct evaluation of the socio-cultural changes of our societies in the light of faith: thus the Christian community is assisted in discerning true values in our civilization, as well as its dangers, and in adopting appropriate attitudes;
– to clarify current religious and moral questions, that is, those questions which are encountered by the men and women of our time: for example, public and private morality with regard to social questions and the education of future generations;
– to clarify the relationship between temporal actions and ecclesial action, by demonstrating mutual distinctions and implications and thus due interaction; to this end, the social doctrine of the Church is an integral part of adult catechesis;
– to develop the rational foundations of the faith: that the right understanding of the faith and of the truths to be believed are in conformity with the demands of reason and the Gospel is always relevant; it is therefore necessary to promote effectively the pastoral aim of Christian thought and culture: this helps to overcome certain forms of fundamentalism as well as subjective and arbitrary interpretations;
– to encourage adults to assume responsibility for the Church's mission and to be able to give Christian witness in society:
The adult is assisted to discover, evaluate and activate what he has received by nature and grace, both in the Christian community and by living in human society; in this way, he will be able to overcome the dangers of standardization and of anonymity which are particularly dominant in some societies of today and which lead to loss of identity and lack of appreciation for the resources and qualities of the individual.
So, it seems to me that catechesis, particularly sacramental catechesis, is important to the Church and should be important in the faith life of the people. The GDC also tells us that because adults are the most able to give full assent to faith the catechesis of adults as in the RCIA should provide the template for all forms of catechesis. It seems to me therefore in our news story above, that despite the fact that sacraments like confirmation might be administered without prior catechesis there is a strong case to be made that such catechesis is needed most of the time. So I think that the Bishop in this case was correct in what he did although he may have handled the matter more diplomatically. It seems to me that the issue here is more between the Bishop and the Pastor than anything else.
Should previously baptized Christians always go through RCIA when preparing for reception into the Church? As I have said above I think the answer is mostly yes. Generally the people I have encountered in my time as catechist in RCIA have not had a good knowledge of Christianity. There have been some notable exceptions to this but even here we have to be careful. I have read for example in some blog comments complaints by some who considered themselves well advanced in their faith and knowledge who felt indignant at being “lumped” together with uncatechized people in RCIA. While it is true that some people who come from other Christian faiths might have a strong knowledge of Christianity it seems to me that such comments demonstrate a lack of formation in the notion of Church. The Church is always composed of a variety of faith experience and backgrounds. One of the things that RCIA can do, if we do it well, is to give participants an experience of formation in community. As someone once pointed out: Catechesis seeks to provide not only information (religious literacy), but also formation, and transformation (ongoing conversion).

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