Jennifer Hartline: Making the Case for Confirmation as a Sacrament, not a Service Project
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Confirmation should not be used as some sort of spiritual barometer or test. Show us you know what it means to be a Christian, or something like that. It is a sacrament, not a prize. A generous gift of grace to enliven us and empower us to live a Christian life. It should be given freely, without strings, without legalistic hoops to jump through. It cannot be earned or merited. If our preparation for Confirmation has come to depend on volunteer service hours in order to demonstrate serious faith, then I submit that we have missed the mark. Our teens need the same things we need. To learn how to sit in the presence of Jesus and be known by Him. To learn how to pray and how to listen to God. To understand that they do not believe in a distant and unknowable God, but in the Word Incarnate, Jesus, in flesh and blood. How much better would we be preparing their hearts and spirits for the grace of the Holy Spirit if we required them to spend 30+ hours in Adoration?
Pope Francis conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation on a young man.
WEST POINT, New York (Catholic Online) - I know before I say another word that I am probably in the minority these days, and I am okay with that. I will do my best to make a solid argument, and pray that this will be the beginning of the end of the dreaded volunteer service hours that seems to be the standard in many parishes today.
I have now gone through this with two teenage children, in two different cities and parishes in the last 4 years.
With my first child, since it was the first experience with a parish Confirmation program, I admit I was not up to speed on just how seriously this service hours requirement was taken, and since I was aware that Holy Mother Church does not have any such requirement for someone seeking Confirmation, I was not inclined to give the requirement much consideration.
Let me back up and explain, in case your parish does not have such a requirement for teenagers preparing for Confirmation. In our parish at the time, it was expected that each teen would perform 30 hours* of community/volunteer service prior to Confirmation Sunday. This was to demonstrate that the young person truly owned his or her faith now, and to show that the teen understood the importance of living the Faith and serving others.
We were specifically instructed that service within our own family did NOT count. In other words, if my Confirmandi were to be helpful in watching younger siblings, or cooking dinner or cleaning or anything that served our family, it was not to be considered for this requirement. The service had to take place outside our home and for people not in our family.
Our Confirmation program lasted essentially one school year; from Fall to Spring. As I said before, Holy Mother Church makes no such demand of any person seeking Confirmation, so in my mind, this requirement was a strong suggestion, and nothing more. Suffice to say, I was wrong.
Four days before Confirmation, the parish Religious Education director called me to inform me that he would not allow my daughter to receive the sacrament that Sunday since she had only completed about half her required service hours. It was within his authority to withhold the sacrament, he told me, and that is exactly what he was doing. She had not earned it. I asked him, incredulously, Are you seriously holding the Sacrament hostage to a legalistic requirement that the Church does NOT ask of anyone?
He replied, We require it, and yes, I am.
Need I say I was stunned and angry? My daughter was scared and upset when I told her, and we went to speak directly with the pastor. Thankfully, he was far more reasonable. He knew our family well, and he assured my daughter she would receive Confirmation as planned. He asked her only to continue completing the service hours, and let him know when she had finished. She promised she would. (And she did.)
My opinion of the Confirmation process was quite soured.
Fast forward two years later, and begin the scenario all over again with teen #2. The important difference being this time the Confirmation director assured us that the service hours would not prevent anyone from receiving the sacrament. Still, it was â€˝required".
I strongly believe this requirement needs to end, for several reasons.
1. It is NOT required by the Church.
Let us get that on the record up front. The Catholic Church does not require anyone seeking the sacrament of Confirmation to perform any number of service hours prior to receiving the sacrament. A candidate for Confirmation must be a baptized Catholic, and be in a state of grace when the sacrament is received.
2. It is bad theology.
It makes the sacrament something the young candidate has to earn. They must work for it. They must do things to merit the sacrament. It does not matter how loudly the R.E. directors may protest such a characterization, that is the net result. We can repeat, Grace! Grace! til the cows come home, but when you have chained the sacrament to performance, and a specific number of hours that must be satisfied, you have effectively made the sacrament a prize to be won. Or lost, if the demand is not satisfied.
And clearly, there are some in the Church who will not hesitate to snatch away that dangled carrot if the legalistic boxes are not checked. Confirmation, like every sacrament in the Church, is a gift of Gods generous grace, and we do not deserve it, and none of us can earn it. Careful now - do we really want to suggest that the Holy Spirit will only deign to come to those who have worked to earn His presence?
Have we really thought about what this is teaching our teens? The power of the Holy Spirit must be earned?
Ultimately, it seems entirely backwards to me. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we have the grace to live a Christian life, yet we are demanding the fruit of a lived Christian life from our children before we have allowed them to be sealed with the Holy Spirit. We want them to demonstrate the full effects without the full cause. We ask them to prove they are ready for a mature faith when they are still children, and do not even have all the tools of grace yet.
Confirmation is the completion of the Sacraments of initiation, with Baptism and Holy Eucharist (CCC 1285, 1304, 1306). It is the completion of our Baptism. Frankly, I ca not understand why Confirmation is withheld until the teenage years in the first place. It makes absolutely no sense. If we truly believe this is the seal of the Holy Spirit, the fullness of His power in our lives, then why on earth do we deny that power and grace to our children for 14+ years of their lives?
Would any of us send our children out the door each day only half-dressed? Of course not! But we ask them to go through their formative growing years without the full spiritual clothing of the Sacraments? And then to add insult to injury, we tell them they have to earn the rest of their clothes.
3. If we treat it like a graduation Sacrament... Guess what kids do after they graduate? They leave home. Priests and R.E. directors will insist that Confirmation is not a graduation sacrament, yet then continually speak of it in terms of owning the faith as an adult now. If you tell them indirectly that this sacrament makes them an adult in the Church, then donďż˝ t be surprised when they decide, as so many adults do, that they do not need the Church anymore.
4. To explicitly exclude the domestic church from this service is wrong-headed and just plain wrong. Charity begins at home. The family is the domestic church. If we cannot love our brothers and sisters at home, how can we love our brothers and sisters out in the world? For the parish to forbid any service from taking place within the home, within the family, is simply wrong. Nothing means more to me as a mother than to see my children love one another, and actively do something in service to one another out of kindness. To dismiss the value of that service; to say it does not count in preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation is ludicrous.
5. It is crazy to have one standard for adult RCIA candidates, and a different standard for our own children. I asked a simple question on Facebook recently. To all my Catholic convert friends: how many of you had to perform 30+ hours of volunteer service as a condition of your Confirmation?
The response I got back was unanimous.
Absolutely no one.
Not one of my adult friends who had converted to Christianity, or come into the full communion of the Catholic Church from another Christian community as an adult, was asked to do any such thing during their RCIA formation. Every single one of them laughed out loud at the suggestion. They all said it was crazy, and they never would have become Catholic had such a thing been demanded of them. So then I asked them all, Then why do we require such service from our teenagers going through Confirmation prep?
Curiously, the response was quite different this time.
Well, that is different... many said. Why is it different? I asked. The reasons seemed to boil down to this: the adults are adults with families to take care of, and jobs to do, and they simply cannot do 30+ hours of volunteer service that easily. For practical reasons, you cannot make that demand of them.
The teens, on the other hand, have the time, and they need to learn that life does not revolve around them, and they have to be encouraged to serve other people as Christ and the Church commands.
For me, this is entirely beside the point.
The point is the sacrament, and what is required for the sacrament, and if we are going to say that volunteer service is required for the sacrament, then we cannot say it is only required of some candidates but not other candidates. (And since when do we ask more of a child than an adult?)
It is the same sacrament.
How can person A be made to perform certain tasks to merit the sacrament, but person B has to do none of those things? If it is necessary, then it is necessary, no matter how difficult it may be for the candidate to accomplish.
The adults cannot say, I am too busy. (Those busy adults will be very involved in helping their teenage Confirmandi who cannot drive and still need adult supervision, so there goes the busy excuse!) But the point is, it is not necessary. It is not required for the sacrament, because it has nothing to do with the sacrament. I repeat: volunteer service hours has nothing whatsoever to do with the sacrament of Confirmation.
Let me try to summarize the counter-argument I have heard in favor of this service hour requirement. For many Catholic teens today, their faith formation at home is less than desirable. Their homes lives may be chaotic. Their parents may be uninvolved, and irregular Church attendees themselves.
These teens may not realize that living a Christian life means serving others, and the service requirement for Confirmation may be a very good experience for them, and open up their minds and hearts to the needs of others, and even be a life-changing experience for them.
That may also be true for the teens who come from wonderful, faithful Catholic homes as well. Surely, it can only be a good thing for the teens to get out of their own worlds for a while and help someone else. (Not arguing with that point.)
That is all well and good. It sounds well-intended, and even beneficial. But it does nothing to answer the objections I have already raised.
I think the argument also finds support from CCC 1309:
...To this end catechesis for Confirmation should strive to awaken a sense of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the universal church as well as the parish community. The latter bears special responsibility for the preparation of confirmands.
It seems to me this is where the owning their faith business comes into play, and where the service hours requirement really finds its teeth. I still believe this requirement for service hours is misguided and counterproductive.
My husband and I have the awesome responsibility of passing on the Faith to our children, in the great hope that they will indeed own it and live it out loud every day of their lives. Our job is to do everything in our power to get them to Heaven. But this owning the Faith is a lifelong process, is it not?
Confirmation should not be used as some sort of spiritual barometer or test. Show us you know what it means to be a Christian, or something like that. It is a sacrament, not a prize. A generous gift of grace to enliven us and empower us to live a Christian life. It should be given freely, without strings, without legalistic hoops to jump through. It cannot be earned or merited. If our preparation for Confirmation has come to depend on volunteer service hours in order to demonstrate serious faith, then I submit that we have missed the mark.
Our teens need the same things we need. To learn how to sit in the presence of Jesus and be known by Him. To learn how to pray and how to listen to God. To understand that they do not believe in a distant and unknowable God, but in the Word Incarnate, Jesus, in flesh and blood. How much better would we be preparing their hearts and spirits for the grace of the Holy Spirit if we required them to spend 30+ hours in Adoration?
*an estimate. The number of hours varies from parish to parish.
Jennifer Hartline is a Senior Contributor to The Stream. She is a proud Army wife and mother of four children. She writes passionately on the issues of Life, faith, family and culture, and has been published extensively at Catholic Online and at Catholic Stand. She is currently pursuing a degree in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She runs on dark chocolate and peppermint mochas.
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