Why do Catholics pray to saints? Why do Catholics worship Mary? These questions and others like it stem from confusion about a Catholic doctrine called the Communion of Saints. The Communion of Saints is the belief that every living Christian is connected to every other member of the church, whether alive or dead, through Jesus Christ. [Read more…]
Archives for June 2018
What Confirmation is not
Some say that Confirmation is a pledge of sorts to God and a sign of adulthood in the Church. In this view, confirmation is the sacrament where someone decides to take the faith for him or her self as an adult. The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes the sacrament something that we do for God. In fact, sacraments are God’s gifts to us. Sacraments are not what we do for God, but what God does for us. Confirmation is about what God does and how we respond to God.
Confirmation was once a part of the baptismal ritual; it took place immediately after baptism, sealing in the Holy Spirit and anointing the new Christian with a threefold ministry as priest, prophet, and king. The specific oil that is used is called chrism. It is only used in two sacraments: Confirmation and Holy Orders; both are sacraments in which the person is anointed for ministry. In Holy Orders, a man is anointed for the ministry of ordained priesthood. Confirmation is an anointing that completes baptismal graces and gives someone the supernatural grace necessary to live out the mission given to all believers. Therefore, Confirmation is an anointing for ministry, for work to build the kingdom of God. It is not graduation from church.
Bishops and Priests in the early Church
As we have seen, in the early Church Confirmation was given to a person immediately after Baptism. This was the case whether the baptized person was a baby or an adult. In the Eastern Churches, Confirmation still immediately follows baptism.
Confirmation became separated from Baptism because of a change in the structure of the early Church. In the earliest days of the Church the bishop performed all the duties that you might see a parish priest do today. This still holds true today, as the bishop is the “ordinary minister” of the sacraments of a geographical area. The priests of a diocese share in the bishop’s sacramental power, but they are not on the same level of bishops. This is why bishops can perform the sacrament of ordination but priests cannot.
Although having the bishop perform most sacraments in the early Church worked initially, eventually the Church grew beyond this. The individual Churches (basically equivalent to modern dioceses) became so spread out that it would make it difficult for the bishop to lead the entire community in one celebration, especially in areas with a large Christian population.
Gradually bishops appointed presbyters (priests) to go live in the villages, preside over Eucharist, preach, and to keep in touch with the bishop so that he knew what was happening in the outlying communities. However, not all parts of the Church had the same idea as to how initiation should be carried out.
East and West
The Eastern Church was primarily concerned with maintaining the integrity of the rites of initiation. They reasoned that it was preferable for a priest to anoint the new Christians rather than doing each part a different time, as might be necessary if they had to wait for the bishop.
The Western Church, however, wanted to preserve the idea of initiation into a whole community, with recognition by its visible head. Therefore, the bishop was the only one who could perform the anointing. (In some cases today priests are allowed to perform Confirmation, usually with converts to the Church. Still, the vast majority of Confirmations are performed by the bishop.) Sometimes this meant people would have to wait a few years to be confirmed because the bishop could not come out to the town regularly. This is how Confirmation became a separate sacrament from Baptism in the Western Church.
As you can imagine there was debate among the communities as to which was most important. Did it matter more to preserve the ancient rite of performing the sacraments? Or was it more important that Confirmation be reserved to the bishop, the visible head of an individual diocese? Both sides are recognized as valid perspectives by the Catholic Church. However, in the Latin rite (or the Roman Catholic Church), most often Confirmation is not celebrated at the same time as Baptism.
Development of Confirmation in the Roman Church
Ratramnus of Corbie, a ninth century monk French monk argued in favor of the position of the Western Church. He said that it has to be the bishop that confirms. The bishop ordains priests and Confirmation is in some sense the ordination of the laity. He also said that it is the sacramental celebration of the priesthood of the people of God and the universal priesthood of the faithful.
In the Western, or Latin Church at the Papacy of Pope Pius XII, (1939-1958) some priests, by special indult (permission), were given authority to confirm under special circumstances. In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, priests were allowed from the early 1600s to confirm infants at the time of baptism. The Pope permitted this due to the long distances that the priests would have to travel in order to serve the people. Because of high infant mortality, if Confirmation were delayed, the priest might not be able to return, or have a bishop visit before children died. The Church always wants to assure that we all are able to receive any and all graces we need on our journey to heaven. Therefore, the Church sometimes has provided exceptions when the needs of souls were different due to unusual circumstances.
Preserving the Order of the Sacraments
Theologically, the Eucharist is the completion of a Christian’s initiation. In the early Church and in the Eastern Churches today, a baby is baptized, confirmed, and then receives first communion. In the Western Church, converts to the Church also receive the Eucharist after Confirmation. This is the proper theological order of the sacraments.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the sacraments of Christian initiation — baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist — lay the foundations of every Christian life. … The faithful are born anew by baptism, strengthened by the Sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life” (No. 1212). The Catechism goes on to say that “The holy Eucharist completes our Christian initiation” (No. 1322).
So why did Confirmation end up being celebrated after first communion in the Western Church? At one time, the Church delayed both confirmation and first communion until later in a child’s life. Young adolescents received Confirmation and then their first Eucharist. Then, in 1910, Pope Pius X issued the decree Quam Singulari Christus Amore (How Special Christ’s Love). This decree said that Communion should not be delayed beyond when a child reaches the age of reason. The age of reason, when a child can understand right and wrong and take responsibility for his or her actions, is usually considered to be around age six. While the Church followed Pius’s decree and moved the sacrament of first Eucharist to much earlier in a child’s life, in the US, Confirmation still remained a sacrament for adolescents.
Today, some dioceses are working to restore the proper order of the sacraments. These dioceses perform the sacrament of Confirmation when children are younger before they receive first communion around age six or seven. It is a growing trend, but most Catholics still receive their first Eucharist years before they are confirmed.
Towards a developed theology of Confirmation
Confirmation is a sacrament that is misunderstood and underestimated. The Catholic Church would benefit from a more developed theology of Confirmation that helps young people understand the importance of this sacrament and not to look at it as an end to religious education, but the end of the beginning of a life in service to God.
The Scriptures are a diverse compilation of writings encompassing a few thousand years of human history. As such, it can be difficult to understand them if you don’t recognize this context. St. Peter even writes that St. Paul’s letters can be hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), even though Paul wrote around the same time St. Peter did!
However, it is not impossible to understand the Bible. In fact, it is essential to do so. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Here are 5 ways to help make the Bible easier for you to understand.
1. Understand what the human author intended
The stories in Scripture take place within a particular time and context. The authors faced similar circumstances as our own, but within their own historical context. Many New Testament books (such as the Gospels) were written to specific Christian communities addressing their particular needs.
Find a good resource on the historical context in which the particular book you are reading took place. A good resource will explain:
- who did the writing,
- to whom it was written,
- the situation in which it was written
It is also important to understand the literary genre the authors of Scripture used. One of the most important documents from Vatican II, Dei Verbum, expresses the importance of understanding the literary context of the Scriptures:
[S]ince God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture… should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
… For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.
The historical context is vital to understanding the Scriptures. For example, the context of Genesis can tell us that the creation stories are not intended as historical or scientific texts. Therefore, it is possible to read the Bible without denying scientific evidence about the history of the created universe.
2. Be open to the message
Read from the Scriptures, not into the Scriptures. Let God try to communicate to you what he wants you to know. It’s easy to fall into a habit of reading a preconceived notion into a passage to fit our own ideology, but a more fruitful way is to let the Scriptures speak to us.
To ensure that the message you read is in accord with God’s intended message, look to the Church and the Bible as a whole for guidance. This can prevent you from reading your own ideology into the Scriptures. Taking one or two verses from the Bible and ignoring the context of the Church and the rest of the Bible often results in errors in understanding what those verses mean.
For example, take Jesus’ teaching on judgment. Many people read, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and decide that this means that we shouldn’t say actions are wrong. However, the Church recognizes that moral guidance is necessary, and this sometimes involves helping someone recognize when they are doing something wrong so that they can repent. Furthermore, if you read the rest of the Bible, you’ll see that God instructs the prophets to tell people exactly how they are sinning. We are not supposed to judge others in the sense that we should not say, “This person did this wrong thing so this person must be an awful person.” But we can say, “The thing this person did was wrong.”
3. Take time to reflect
Proper understanding comes through allowing yourself some time to think about what you read. Meditate on it. Think of how it might apply to your life. What is God trying to communicate to you through that passage? Although the human authors of Scripture wrote in a particular context and to a particular audience, God is the primary Author of Scripture. Therefore, the Scriptures were also written to you. That means that there is a message in the Bible that God speaks to you. An oft-used analogy is that the Bible is God’s love letter to each of us.
Some in-depth questions might be:
- What does this text tell me about God?
- What does this text tell me about the people of God?
- What does this text tell me about myself?
4. Read it more than once
Something as rich and vast as the word of God never exhausts its meaning on the first (or the hundredth) read. Re-read it as many times as you need to help unfold the various dynamics that might be taking place. A word or phrase might jump out at you on a second or third reading. Perhaps looking to a commentary will help you understand something better, and then you can go back and re-read the passage. If you feel like tuning out a Gospel at Mass because you’ve heard it all before, focus on the details that you may have missed before.
Re-reading the Bible is not only a good idea in the short term, but also in the long term. A passage that didn’t touch you a year ago might be exactly what you need to hear today. For example, if you’re going through a difficult time reading the Psalms of lament will probably be more comforting than the Psalms that express joy in God. But when you come out of that difficult time, the Psalms of rejoicing might be great guides for your prayer. This is one reason that Biblical stories we’ve read a hundred times still have something to say to us on the next reading.
5. Discuss the Scriptures with others
Reading the Scriptures in a group allows for a chance to discuss it and hear how God is revealing himself to other people. In fact you might learn how God is revealing himself to you through your discussion with another person! Hearing another person’s perspective on the Scriptures might also help you see details and messages you missed in your own reading.
It can be very helpful to discuss the Scriptures with a trusted friend. Another context in which to reflect on the Scriptures is a Bible study. Many parishes have Bible studies. If a knowledgeable person leads the study, it can help you understand both the historical background and the message God intends to send through the Scriptures.
The value of the Bible
The Church teaches that “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” (Dei Verbum). Knowledge of the Scriptures is essential for understanding Christianity as a whole. This is one reason for all of the Scriptures read at Mass and portrayed in religious art: even those who are illiterate can become familiar with the Bible.
The great treasure of Scripture is even greater when we come to a fuller understanding of each book and how to read it. God truly speaks to us through the Bible. What a wonderful gift!