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The Role of Christ and Sacramental Graces in Sacramental Catechesis

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | May 05, 2015

Earlier last week, Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu, Hawaii issued a letter stating that his diocese is returning to the proper order of reception of the sacraments of initiation:

If one looks at the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” one notes that the first three sacraments are covered in the proper theological order. Our baptismal covenant with God is sealed in Confirmation; the two sacraments go together like Easter and Pentecost. Received third, the Holy Eucharist is then seen as the summit of initiation. “The Holy Eucharist completes our Christian initiation” (“Catechism” 1322).

Over the course of history in the Western (Latin) Church, great emphasis was placed on the importance of Baptism soon after birth, opening the door of salvation to our youngest members. Unfortunately, delays started occurring with the reception of Confirmation and First Holy Communion. Pope St. Pius X in 1910 addressed the problem of children receiving First Holy Communion at too late an age and directed that children be given Holy Communion at the age of reason, that is, about age 7. This resulted, however, in the sacraments being given out of order. Current practice is like counting 1, 3, 2.

Some may point out that we have been doing what we are doing for 100 years, so why change now? The reason is simple: What we are doing is not working very well. Confirmation is often experienced more as a graduation from the Church than as a free gift of God’s grace. Pope Francis acknowledged this: “There was this experience: the sacrament of Confirmation — what is this sacrament called? Confirmation? No! Its name has changed: the ‘sacrament of farewell.’ They do this and then they leave the Church. … Many young people move off after receiving Confirmation, the sacrament of farewell, of goodbye, as I said. It is an experience of failure, an experience that leaves emptiness and discourages us. Is this true or not?” (Sept. 22, 2013).

Bishop Silva isn't addressing an isolated problem. The General Directory of Catechesis of 1997 touched on this issue:

181. In general it is observed that the first victims of the spiritual and cultural crisis gripping the world (75) are the young.... Very often at this time the pre-adolescent, in receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, formally concludes the process of Christian initiation but from that moment virtually abandons completely the practice of the faith. This is a matter of serious concern which requires specific pastoral care, based on the formative resources of the journey of initiation itself....

I am heartened to see this change, and pray that it will come to our diocese, and maybe even become nationwide. When children receive the sacraments at a younger age, the sacraments strengthen them to fight against the evils of today's society. In general children are exposed to much more and lose their innocence at a much younger age than previous generations. In making this change, Bishop Silva is recognizing the importance of the sacramental graces and Christ's role in catechesis.

Bishops, priests, parents and catechists have much to do to catechize children. So many studies, documents and textbooks have been issued on how best to approach catechesis. Religious education programs spend so much time in finding ways to "capture" children's attention and make sure they have received enough dogma before receiving the sacraments. Because the sacrament of Confirmation has become, as Pope Francis says, "the sacrament of farewell," the religious education programs want to wait as long as possible and pour in as much information before they lose the child. There is also a prevalent idea that a child cannot receive the sacraments of initiation unless they meet some doctrinal and social goals. They have to "earn" the reception of the Eucharist and Confirmation.

These approaches are quite unbalanced. So much weight is put upon the human factor, emphasizing on how we can educate, propagate, evangelize, prepare, entertain and catechize.  This is not denying a human factor in catechesis, but the larger role is often missing or downplayed. That larger role in the catechesis of children is filled by the Person of Jesus Christ and the cooperation of sacramental graces.

Christocentric

The Person of Jesus Christ is at the heart of catechesis. St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae emphasizes that catechesis IS the living Christ, and Christ is the Teacher.

The primary and essential object of catechesis is..."the mystery of Christ". Catechizing is in a way to lead a person to study this Mystery in all its dimensions.... Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity. 

6. Christocentricity in catechesis also means the intention to transmit not one's own teaching or that of some other master, but the teaching of Jesus Christ the Truth that he communicates or, to put it more precisely, the Truth that he is.12 We must therefore say that in catechesis it is Christ, the Incarnate word and Son of God, who is taught everything else is taught with reference to him and it is Christ alone who teaches anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ's spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips. Whatever be the level of his responsibility in the Church, every catechist must constantly endeavor to transmit by his teaching and behavior the teaching and life of Jesus....

The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis reiterated this truth: 

98. Jesus Christ not only transmits the word of God: he is the Word of God. Catechesis is therefore completely tied to him. Thus what must characterize the message transmitted by catechesis is, above all, its "christocentricity"....

And Christocentricity means Christ is the center of catechesis, the center of salvation history, and the centrality of the Gospel and also that:

– Christocentricity, moreover, means that the Gospel message does not come from man, but is the Word of God.... Christocentricity obliges catechesis to transmit what Jesus teaches about God, man, happiness, the moral life, death etc. without in any way changing his thought. (315)

The Gospels, which narrate the life of Jesus, are central to the catechetical message. They are themselves endowed with a "catechetical structure"....

Catechesis is not just dry truths to memorize but the Living Person of Jesus Christ as Teacher and the Word. Establishing and nurturing a relationship with the Person of Christ, or the "Way, the Truth, and the Life" is quite a different approach than a checklist of doctrinal truths to relate. And recognizing that Christ is the only Teacher can help us see that cooperating with Him, the most Perfect of all Teachers will be the best catechesis. It is freeing to let Him take the larger role, because He is the Truth we are trying to bring to the children. 

Role of the Sacramental Graces

The other factor largely ignored is the cooperation with the graces conferred by the Holy Spirit at the reception of every sacrament. Sacramental graces, in particularly the sacraments of Christian initiation, strengthen, nurture, and help in growth in the life of Christ in His Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

The sacraments of Christian initiation - Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist - lay the foundations of every Christian life. "The sharing in the divine nature given to men through the grace of Christ bears a certain likeness to the origin, development, and nourishing of natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life. By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1212).

Recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit through the gift of grace, catechesis can be much more effective when a child is strengthened with the sacramental graces. The Holy Spirit can communicate the Truth to the child. A catechist could teach until he/she was blue in the face before the reception of the sacraments of initiation, but cooperating with the Holy Spirit and the graces of the sacraments can make the job easier, because it is supernatural work. Current thinking forgets the supernatural life and workings of the Holy Spirit. Humans forget to trust; they want to feel in control and sit in the driver seat, because it looks like there is no one driving. But there is a Perfect Driver. And even if the child stops attending Religious Education, Jesus' work is ongoing. 

First Communion Instruction

St. Pope Pius X recognized this role of Christ and graces of the sacrament, and in 1910 issued Quam Singulari that changed the approach to reception and catechesis of first communicants. I think many would be surprised to read the minimal requirements for receiving Communion:

1. The age of discretion, both for Confession and for Holy Communion, is the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less. From that time on begins the obligation of fulfilling the precept of both Confession and Communion. 

2. A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary either for First Confession or for First Communion. Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability. 

3. The knowledge of religion which is required in a child in order to be properly prepared to receive First Communion is such that he will understand according to his capacity those Mysteries of faith which are necessary as a means of salvation (necessitate medii) and that he can distinguish between the Bread of the Eucharist and ordinary, material bread, and thus he may receive Holy Communion with a devotion becoming his years....

Some parishes, in seeing the dearth of catechized children especially since Vatican II, have gone to the extreme of not allowing children to receive unless they "know" certain prayers and doctrinal facts. If they pass the "test" they have earned the reception of the sacraments. But notice how Pius X said "Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability." This is in cooperation with sacramental graces. Receiving Jesus is first priority and the foundation. After reception, the doctrine can be learned, and much more easily because of the graces.

Teaching the Christ-Life 

I recently I came across a wonderful article, Teaching the Life of Christ, written in 1940 by Father Virgil Michel, OSB, one of the leading American apostles of the Liturgical Movement. Throughout the article he recognizes how Christ and the life of the Church through the liturgy and the sacramental graces are key factors in catechesis of the children, not just doctrinal distillation. The whole article is worth reading in entirety, but a quick extract:

Too long has catechetical instruction been divorced from channels of grace, from the only source of divine life and growth in Christ, of the formation of “other Christs.” Instruction of this kind, never connected up consciously to the sources of divine grace, could of course not produce the best fruits before God, since it was not consciously made an integral part of the supernatural life both of the teachers and of the taught. Yet the whole purpose of it was an increase of the theological virtues of faith and hope and charity, precisely the products of the sacramental action of the Church. The great losses to the faith that we have been suffering are sufficient evidence of the need of a religious instruction better coordinated with and orientated towards the prayer-life of the Church, fortified by the sacramental graces of Christ, and aided by the prayer-power of the Church.

Whatever efforts at instruction are made by both teachers and pupils should, as it were, be immersed in the channels of God’s graces, in the sacrifice of the altar, the sacraments and the prayer-life of the Church. Thereby they receive not only the added inspiration and motivation found in these, but they are by conscious connection with these official channels of grace elevated to the supernatural efficacy of the energies of Christ which alone can produce the ultimate effect that is being aimed at. In the abundance of our efforts we have indeed planted and watered, but we have almost forgotten the most important of all, that God alone can give the increase. We may have given the divine increase a small opportunity by reciting a prayer in common before beginning the instructions; but we have not thought of giving it a maximum opportunity of operation and attainment by constantly referring all efforts at teaching and study to the divinely established sacramental means of all growth in Christ.

He continues, using as an example the change instituted by St. Pius X. Once the children receive Jesus, Christ works within the child's heart:

The principle is well illustrated in the recent change towards the early first Communion of children. The older practice of our time was a maximum of instruction and of human effort through many years before giving the Eucharistic grace of Christ a chance to be effective. The new practice, after the minimum required amount of human effort, immediately connects up with the essential source of God’s grace through early Communion. That has the great advantage of giving God’s grace an opportunity to be operative in the souls of the children throughout all the subsequent years of instruction. These subsequent instructions will have a much greater chance of being fruitful because of the presence and operation of the sacramental graces in the souls of the children, even where this subsequent instruction is not consciously linked up, as it should be, with the frequent offering and the reception of the Eucharist. If it is consciously linked up, however, what opportunity is there not for the full operation of God’s grace in hearts seeking Christ above all and still free from the many hindrances that the transgressions of an older age place in the way of this grace?

While Father Michel does not specifically mention Confirmation, moving the timing of the reception as Bishop Silva mentions is the next step to restore the balance of recognizing Christ's role as Teacher and the benefits of the sacramental graces. Restoring the proper order to the sacraments of initiation gives a recognition that while children are younger and may not have learned all the doctrinal facts, the graces received from the earlier reception of the communion are even more effective (and dare I use the word "powerful"?) than all those extra years of religious education.

This is the true object of catechesis, to bring each child in communion with Jesus Christ. As the General Directory for Catechesis states:

80. "The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ". (236) All evangelizing activity is understood as promoting communion with Jesus Christ. Starting with the "initial" (237) conversion of a person to the Lord, moved by the Holy Spirit through the primary proclamation of the Gospel, catechesis seeks to solidify and mature this first adherence.

Learning one's faith is not just doctrinal facts, but an integrated unity of Christian life, drawing one to communion with Christ. The Faith is believed, celebrated and lived and prayed through the Church in the liturgy and the sacraments. 

The Liturgy itself is prayer; the confession of faith finds its proper place in the celebration of worship. Grace, the fruit of the sacraments, is the irreplaceable condition for Christian living, just as participation in the Church's Liturgy requires faith. If faith is not expressed in works it is dead and cannot bear fruit into eternal life" (John Paul II, Fidei Depositum).

Parental Role

I'm not providing any new discovery, but since my youngest son just received his First Confession and Communion this past week, many of these thoughts are fresh in my mind. I mentioned earlier that his preparation and reception was through an atrium of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS). CGS does provide this balance of presenting Jesus as a Person and developing that intimate relation. The emphasis is on the Word of God and the Liturgy.  The catechist recognizes that he/she is not a teacher, "remembering that the only Teacher is Christ himself" (See Characteristics of the CGS). 

And being the primary educator of my child, I recognize that all this applies to me and my husband. We need to keep in mind and implement at home that we must cooperate with grace, and allow Jesus to be the Teacher. We try to encourage the living of Faith through the Word, liturgy and the sacraments. Living the liturgical year is one part of this sharing in the life of Christ. At home we are trying to nurture that personal union with Christ. 

We have physically witnessed a change in my son since his reception of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. The sacramental graces have changed his heart, and we see more growth and understanding in the matter of days than what we have tried to do in seven years. In the joy of being a witness and a cooperator with Jesus, we are eager for both my sons to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, to complete the sacraments of initiation. I don't want to approach it as a graduation, but as a foundation. May Bishop Silva's return of the proper order of the sacraments of initiation begin a widespread change which not only changes the order, but also recognizes the role of Jesus and the sacramental graces in catechesis.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rosemariedoyle9560 - May. 09, 2015 7:54 PM ET USA

    Just saying... the first Christians were baptized, then reconciled (got their feet washed) prior to Eucharist (Last Supper).Lastly they were confirmed (Pentecost). In obedience to Jesus, they waited in prayer a novena of days in Jerusalem until "endowed with Power from on High" before going out to fulfill the Great Commission. Isn't this pattern worth emulation? This Confirmation Request Form offers another way to prevent the "Graduation" effect of Confirmation: http://www.youturns.org

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 08, 2015 6:18 PM ET USA

    Difficult in 500 chr. The order of reception of the sacraments depends on how they are viewed as aids to growth and sustenance of the spiritual life. If sacraments of initiation are just that, and no more, then confect all 3 at birth, as this would be most efficacious. But if the sacrament of Confirmation truly makes a person a "soldier of Christ," then some serious preparation seems to be in order. Students would stay in their CCD programs if parents did their job properly at home and at church

  • Posted by: nix898049 - May. 06, 2015 1:09 PM ET USA

    Hallelujah! Amen! I lucked out when I was confirmed long ago in a diocese far, far away. We made our First Communion on the Feast of Christ the King and the Bishop was scheduled to make his once in 4 year visit to the parish the following Spring. Anyone who had received could be confirmed. The graces were (are) invaluable! I agree with the writer who said it is wrong to think of children as the Church of tomorrow. They are the Church NOW! Hopefully the bishops will restore the proper order.

  • Posted by: MisSpellin - May. 06, 2015 11:21 AM ET USA

    I don't see how the order of the sacraments will change anything. If you want people to view confirmation differently shouldn't you then teach it differently? Maybe I'm not understanding this, but are you saying that 7 year-olds in Bishop Silva's diocese will now be confirmed before they receive Holy Eucharist? Don't kids stay involved in the church when they feel a personal connection there? How do they get the connection? There's a question. I think it comes from the example of the parents.