As the controversy over the age of confirmation continues, Stephen Wright OSB examines the issue in the first of two articles
NEARLY everyone involved in either Catholic education or in Catholic parishes is today aware of the debate over the age of confirmation. In these two articles I want to see the debate .in a wider framework and to suggest that there are more opportunities than perhaps some of us realise.
To begin with let us zoom out of the confirmation issue for a moment and have a look at what really happened at the Reformation. The reformers aim was to promote very real reforms which were needed in the practice and theology of the time — the scholastic system had run to ground, and needed a new direction. However, when the new direction came, the structure of the time proved to be hardened so they could not adapt, and hence there resulted the division of western Christianity and its fragmentation. The central authority of the Church and Pope had been rejected. But something more happened. The reformers developed their own theology and spirituality. It rested on the Bible and on inner experience. These and conscience were the authorities to lead on the individual soul. The sacraments were downgraded and even thrown out; priests were replaced by ministers and elders; the community or the "gathered church" was emphasised and cemented together with vernacular hymn singing; spontaneous prayer replaced the carefully formulated, ancient Latin texts, and there was a great emphasis on the experience of God, on conversion, on knowing the Lord Jesus as one's personal saviour.
One of the main roles of the converted Christian was to pass on the faith to pagans, both in foreign countries and to the industrialised masses at home. (I have here pulled together issues which developed in different Reformed communities over the years, but these themes were, I believe, implicit in the principles which underlay the original reform. The experiential, immediate, spirituality which resulted, I would like to call phase one spirituality. It also corresponded to the first period of the Church's history, and its main sources were, of course, the Acts of the Apostles, and the writings of Saint Paul). The Catholic community consolidated its teaching round the scholastic system. It asserted the authority of the Church, and the fundamental role of the Sacraments, especially the Mass. In the Council of Trent, it laboured to make explicit the area of theology in which it differed from the reformers This teaching was expressed in the catechism. Because of the threat to the Catholic faith, the Church emphasised its organisation and discipline, its history, especially through the lives of the Saints, and its historical continuity with the Apostolic times.
In the wake of this struggle to preserve the old, there appeared a strongly organised and devout Catholic laity whose spirituality was well catered for by well trained priests wise in the new spiritual principles especially those of St Ignatius. This sacrament-centred, priestdirected, Mass-assisted spirituality I would like to call phase two spirituality.
However, the effect of the reformers was to give the north European Church the image of an army at war. It developed and thrust forward its own terminology (transubstantiation, Blessed Sacrament, the Mass, breviaries, missals and monsignoris); it had its own special language Latin; it had its own battle hymns, (God Bless our Pope), Faith of our Fathers); it had its own training camps, its schools and seminaries; it had its, officers (the priests), its colonels (the bishops) and its special Commander in Chief, (the Pope). It had its own commandos (the Jesuits).
Young men and women were trained in debating and fighting skills, called apologetics, so that they could answer the jibes and arguments of the enemy. In this context it was presumed that the Catholic children would be trained in the Faith, and would continue to uphold the Faith of their Fathers all their lives: that their children would take their father's places in the Catholic schools and that a proportion would continue the tradition of joining the priesthood and the religious life.
The fear of every Catholic parent was that his child would disgrace the family, show up his parents and fall into mortal sin by lapsing.
Since the reformation and especially in our own day it has been the phase one, reformed Protestant churches that have brought the faith to the working people especially in our industrialised towns. Movements like the Methodists and the Salvation army, using their phase one strengths of concentrating on Jesus as Lord and Saviour, of knowing God as the living Father, that have brought the gospel effectively into the lives of millions.
The Catholic Church with its emphasis on phase two (the Sacraments, the Church, the Mass) has been unable to touch these masses because her language was theological, and her message did not reach their inner lives.
However, While the Catholic Church had no phase one to bring it new members, the Reformed tradition had no phase two to develop and deepen the spirituality of its followers once the inititial stages had been passed, no mysticism to lead them on (cf G Hughes God of Surprises). Therefore the Reformed tradition replaced phase two with mission, taking -the gospel to the unbelievers. However, though this mission is essential in the life of every Christian and every Church, it does not replace the deepening, and maturity of phase two.
Thus Catholics lacked phase one, and the reformers phase two.
With the Vatican Council, both sides are now able to look at each other with more objectivity, are able to appreciate the other's values. They are brother Christians sharing a single commitment though with different tradations in which the Holy Spirit was working through the ages.
". . The Catholic Church accept them (communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church) with respect and affection as brothers . . . all those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honoured by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons of the Catholic Church." (Decree on Ecumenism Sect 3).
So in our day Catholics are free to discover phase one spirituality, and the reformed tradition to rediscover phase two. It is at this point that confirmation comes in.