Later this month, the Vatican is hosting an international summit of bishops to address the clerical sex-abuse crisis. Based on comments Pope Francis has made to the press, the gathering will focus its attention on prayer and penance, but also educating the Church’s shepherds on what the issue is all about.
As if the US bishops needed more educating—or any of us in the pews for that matter. It’s an issue that has been in the public eye since at least 2002 when the sex-abuse bombshell was detonated by the Boston Globe, and it’s been simmering on various back burners ever since.
Then the Philadelphia grand jury firestorm erupted last summer, followed quickly by reports of the horrendous predatory behavior, over many decades, of Washington’s Archbishop Theodore McCarrick—along with hints of cover-ups and collusion. Since then, it seems like the faithful in this country have been confronted with regular (and for a while, almost daily) revelations about clerical abuses and episcopal failures to do anything about them, and more disturbing disclosures are sure to come.
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In the face of all that, many bishops have been pro-active in addressing the crisis head-on. They’ve held listening sessions, written apologetic open letters, and made public the names of clergy who’ve been credibly accused. They’ve also committed themselves to rooting out the problem where it still exists and being more careful in screening candidates for ordination.
In addition, many US bishops have also called on the faithful to re-double their prayers on the Church’s behalf: to pray for our bishops and priests, for example, as well as for current seminarians and an increase in priestly vocations. And many have reintroduced the Prayer to St. Michael at Mass: a plea for supernatural buttressing of the Church’s defenses in the face of spiritual onslaught.
Prayer is essential, of course, but it’s a bit obscure why praying to St. Michael is particularly appropriate in these scandal-ridden times. It’s not as if the forces of hell compelled bishops to equivocate when it came to dealing with abusive clergy. It’s not the devil who’s to blame for the egregious actions of the likes of McCarrick.
I’ll keep praying to St. Michael along with everybody else, but, if in fact the Church is under attack, then we need more than supernatural reinforcements. We need more troops on the ground; this means a serious revamping of the sacrament of confirmation.
It’s not just tradition and sentimentality that attach militaristic imagery to confirmation. The liturgy itself emphasizes the connection by calling on those to be confirmed to bravely take up the mantle of spreading and living the faith no matter what the cost. Confirmation is thus closely aligned with preparation for martyrdom, and there are even liturgical vestiges of this in the optional gesture of the confirming bishop striking the cheek of the confirmandi—a hint of the kinds of hits they can expect as fully initiated and spiritually empowered Christians.
Those hits may be physical—as our brothers and sisters in Christ are daily experiencing in areas of the world where the Church is fiercely persecuted—and they may be social, even professional and financial. Regardless, the hits will come, and anyone who chooses to be fully incorporated into the Body of Christ should expect them.
This is what confirmation is supposed to help us cope with, but that’s not what it has become. Despite sincere catechetical efforts to correct misconceptions of the sacrament as a rite of passage, too many parents in the pews still think of confirmation as little more than a Catholic bar mitzvah for their teens. And, let’s face it, there’s every reason for them to think this way. Preparation for confirmation is heavy on service, and light on the hard truths of the Faith. Is it any wonder, then, that our teens, once confirmed, still leave the Church in droves? That many of them harbor the idea that confirmation is somehow “graduation” from obligatory Catholic practice and piety?
The grace of confirmation, properly administered, is real, but the recipient needs to be properly disposed to receive it. It’s no different with eucharistic grace: When the priest holds up the consecrated host and intones “The Body of Christ,” it’s the Lord he holds aloft before the communicant. But all the grace that would come to the recipient when he consumes the Blessed Sacrament are for naught if he is not spiritually prepared to receive it.
So it is with confirmation—which is one of the reasons why so many are persuaded that an adjustment as to when confirmation is administered in this country is required. “[W]e live in a different spiritual terrain than our parents or grandparents did,” wrote Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila when he announced his plans for such an adjustment in 2015. “Indeed, the spiritual landscape of modern American society underscores the need for children to receive grace earlier.”
When bishops drop the age for confirmation from the teen years to the age of reception (generally reckoned at around seven years of age) in their dioceses, they not only restore the order of sacramental initiation to its ancient and natural progression (i.e., baptismal birth, confirming strength, then eucharistic sustenance) but they’re also populating the ranks of the faithful with enthusiastic recruits bent on holiness. And it’s from those ranks of saint wannabes that our future priests will presumably be called—all the more reason to move forward with this.
In this regard, I can’t help thinking of Peter Jackson’s memorable depiction of the Helm’s Deep scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. The people of Rohan, temporarily safeguarded in their mountain stronghold, are readying for battle against a vast army of orcs. While the women and children are guided deeper into the enclave’s recesses, the men of Rohan are taking up their swords and shields, and they’re arming their elders and young boys as well.
Similarly, we Catholics should be begging more of our bishops to follow Aquila’s lead and start spiritually arming our youngsters when they’re most receptive to confirmation’s demands. Thomas Aquinas lent support to this idea when he noted that “[m]any children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood” (CCC 1308). So let’s get our kids on the front lines—sooner rather than later. If history is any indication, they’re raring for a fight.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Sacrament of Confirmation” painted by Jacques Dumont le Romain.