Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Catholic in me (4)

For those who are members of churches where baptism is conferred in infancy, Confirmation is a declaration that promises made on their behalf when they were baptised are now understood and willingly reaffirmed by themselves. It also signifies both their desire for and their acceptance of full recognition and participation in the Christian community.
In effect, it is a public announcement of one’s faith: standing up and saying to the community, ‘I am a Christian; and now that I am old enough to understand what that means, I make my own the promises made for me at my baptism, and I pray that the Holy Spirit will fill me, empower me and enable me to live my life as one of Christ’s true disciples.’
Being mature enough to do this and to understand the significance of what one is saying is essential for this to have any real meaning.
The sacrament itself is always filled with power and meaning: The Holy Spirit will burn and urge within, but without a similar and pre-existing fire in one’s will and a readiness to respond to the prompting of the Spirit, spiritual life can so easily fade into the shadows. That is not where we are meant to be, and Confirmation should enable us to more readily bring ourselves and our faith far from those shadows and into the light.

I know that within today’s broad sweep of Christianity, my own experience has confirmed me as a Catholic, but I do not actually experience my confirmation in that limited and differentiating way. I sense and feel that I am confirmed only as a Christian, as what Jesus called His followers to be. The Catholic Church, of which I am a part, is, for me, the closest representation there is of the Church founded by Jesus: Christ’s Church: The Christian Church. The link with the Apostles and the first calls to spread the gospel is least stretched and fragmented in her unbroken presence on Earth. All other denominations have arisen out of separation from that presence and from the inevitable and continuing fragmentation this has spawned.
Because of that fragmentation, there are times when it is necessary for a Catholic in today’s world to be specific about the Church into which she or he has been baptised and confirmed. For anyone outside the Catholic Church, professing to be a Christian does not lack the specifics of unbroken allegiance to Christ’s founding instructions as it does for one within it. It is in this way that, while feeling confirmed in general as a Christian, I am definitely and specifically baptised and confirmed as a Catholic.

My own sometimes unsettled feelings about Confirmation are born of a permanent discomfort over the timing of the sacrament in young people’s lives. When is someone old enough to understand? And what do we mean when we use that word ‘understand’?
The Annual Parish Meeting I attended some time ago included discussion around the need for inclusion of our young people in the life of the parish, and I suggested that those confirmed over the last few years might be asked what they themselves wanted or needed from the parish.
My suggestion was prompted by the notable numbers of young people preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, but as well as being a serious proposal in the context of the discussion, it was made to see if anyone other than myself had doubts as to the validity of any encouragement we might derive from those numbers. There were no expressions of such encouragement or doubt.
The numbers appear to be very encouraging but this is due to the fact that Confirmation, and preparation for it, is linked to the schools; the children reach a certain age, a certain class, and their school year leads them into Confirmation. This can do little for the Church other than enable communities to relax more deeply into complacency. A false picture is created, giving rise to time and energy being wasted on asking the wrong questions. I believe one of the right questions is whether the present arrangements for Confirmation really create the best chance of resulting in a confirmed faith at all.
It seems that Confirmation is regarded more as something to be done to our children while they are still a captive audience than something towards which they should be gently encouraged without any undue sense of urgency or external pressure.

Every increase in our understanding places us where we could not have previously been, and this continues throughout our lives. Where is the point at which we comprehend our faith sufficiently to declare it and work for Christ’s Church in mature and meaningful ways? For each one of us it is where and when we recognize it, and following any laid down pattern or timetable fails to take this into account. The greatest risk is that going through the accepted motions will leave individuals thinking they have finally completed the necessary stages regardless of where they actually are in their journey of faith.

The following statements from the Catechism of the Catholic Church conjure a worrying mix of premature and enforced obligation laced with inappropriate expectations based on a person having reached a developmental stage that may merely bring recognition of the difference between right and wrong.
1285 ' the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are ... more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.'
1306 '... Since Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist form a unity, it follows that "the faithful are obliged to receive this sacrament at the appropriate time,"
1307 'The Latin tradition gives "the age of discretion" as the reference point for receiving Confirmation.'
Each one of us has to travel beyond that point into the deeper understanding of our own sinfulness and potential before we can begin to grasp what Jesus has done for us, and eventually stand up to declare that truly, ‘I am a Christian’.

The following add-on, or coverall, (also from the Catechism), does not carry any weight other than perhaps to quieten voices that may question as I have now done. An underlying reluctance to accept utterances from all others proud enough to think they speak as the voice of Christ’s Church is not to be dispelled by anything that creates hints of unwarranted guilt or self-doubt.
1308 'Although Confirmation is sometimes called the "sacrament of Christian maturity," we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need "ratification" to become effective. ... Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: ...'

Maturity is built upon previous degrees of maturity in the same way that understanding becomes more perfect by building upon itself.
Both provide confirmation of what has gone before.
Confirmation, and the proclamation it demands, is for when the time is right.

About Me

Who I am should be, and should remain, of little consequence to you. Who you are is what matters; who you are meant to be is what should matter most to you. In coming closer to my own true self, I have gradually been filled with the near inexpressible: I have simply become "brim full", and my words to you are drawn from those uttered within myself, as part of an undeniable overflowing that brings a smile to my every dusk, and to my every new dawn.
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