PHOENIX – Nearly two years after parishes in the Phoenix Diocese were asked to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation and begin confirming third-graders before they receive the Eucharist, students, families and parish leaders are still adjusting.
Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said the restored order “has gone remarkably well,” thanks to everyone working together.
He detailed the reasoning for the changes in a 2005 pastoral letter. Restoring the order means that, after being baptized, young Catholics are next confirmed and then, at the same Mass, receive first Communion.
Changing the order of the sacraments and the age of confirmation has required parishes to host programs for young Catholics ages 8-16. This is the last year in the process.
Carol Gastelum, associate director of catechesis for the diocese, said many Catholics viewed confirmation as a sign of maturity, but it isn’t. “It’s a seal on one’s baptism,” she said.
The early church recognized the link between the first two sacraments of initiation when Christians received confirmation immediately after baptism or in childhood. The Eucharist was then the final sacrament of initiation.
In 1910, church leaders determined the appropriate time for first Communion as the “age of discretion,” normally 7 or 8, when baptized Catholics are thought to recognize Christ’s real presence. Confirmation followed by age 18.
With this year’s preparation sessions under way, religious leaders and candidates reflected on the impact of the changes.
“At first I thought, ‘What do you mean?’“ said Carmen Smith, a religious education coordinator at St. Theresa Parish. Then she understood the bishop’s desire to offer God’s grace earlier to help children make wise moral decisions.
Now, she senses a strong energy in her 100 fourth- through sixth-grade students. In a recent class, they danced the “cha-cha slide” to simulate the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Maria Buhrman, coordinator of Christian formation at St. Thomas More in Glendale, thinks her third- through fifth-grade students understand the sacrament despite their youth. She said their innocence allows them to embrace it without questioning every detail.
Ginnie Weingartner, coordinator of elementary catechesis at Resurrection Parish in Tempe, agreed that children understand what they can.
“I don’t think anyone fully understands the graces of God in his or her life,” she told The Catholic Sun diocesan newspaper.
Bishop Olmsted said the restoration has heightened Catholic appreciation of the Holy Spirit.
“We are keenly aware of the need for the Spirit’s gifts among our young people, very early in life, as they face grave temptations and severe obstacles to the practice of their faith,” he said. The gifts help them live their faith with courage and joy, he added.
The change has not come without road bumps, though, as parishes have had to confirm students from third-graders to age 16 and also prepare third-graders for first Eucharist, often resulting in larger classes.
“I feel pretty strongly against the changes,” said a St. Theresa sponsor, who was confirmed in seventh grade. When she recently sponsored a teen nephew, she learned a lot about the sacrament and saw that the teens also understood, as they immediately related it to their own struggles.
She is now sponsoring a fourth-grade nephew who does not understand the sacrament and appears just to be going through the motions.
Others are still evaluating the changes. “The jury’s still kind of out,” said Cindy Hynes, a St. Theresa parent.
The policy change also reflects a national trend toward family-centered faith formation. It has awakened in some parents the need for continued growth in their faith.
Parents at St. Thomas More attend separate formation sessions for part of each class. They learn the same topic as their children, then prepare a skit or poster for the youngsters.
“The dads love to be Jesus,” Ms. Buhrman said, adding that the kids enjoy seeing their parents in such roles.
Diocesan catechist Ms. Gastelum said one result has been some civilly married couples inquiring about the sacrament of matrimony. Catechetical leaders also have seen greater family interaction at home and in the parish.
“We’ve already had children stepping into ministry” as altar servers and in choirs at Resurrection Parish, Ms. Weingartner said, adding that families are more involved through retreats and service projects.
Alexis LaBenz, a seventh-grader at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Chandler, said her family has become more active. She began liturgical dance and will be confirmed later this year.
“It’s kind of nice that you get to do it now and be a member of the church earlier,” she said.
Barb Lishko, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Andrew, has asked the youths what ministries they’re interested in and later will hold training during confirmation class.
The idea is to “sort of catch them while they’re on fire,” Ms. Lishko said, “while they’re filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Nearly 200 confirmed teens returned this year for classes that apply biblical principles to daily life. Many enjoy the classes so much they suggested additional topics for next year, and Ms. Lishko may begin summer retreats and Bible studies.