The Simony of Sacramental Preparation

By Mattias A. Caro
April 23, 2018

Enthusiastically, I clicked on my local diocesan newspaper's article on "making" the Sacramental Preparation for Holy Confirmation "stick." The photo got me excited: Bishop Burbidge stood in front of a group of confirmandi, speaking with them privately. Since his arrival as Bishop of Arlington over a year ago, he has instituted a new practice wherein before administering the Sacrament of Confirmation, he meets, as a group, with the confirmandi sans adults. As a former Director of Religious Education, this change is exciting: personal contact with a bishop. What teen wouldn't be impacted by that?

Unfortunately, the article disappointed. There was no discussion of this encounter at all. In fact, the words "Holy Spirit" or "Gifts of the Holy Spirit" or "Fruits of the Holy Spirit" never appeared at all. The article had a different focus entirely: discussing what confirmandi could solely "do" to prepare for the sacrament, connecting with a sponsor and fulfilling service hours, among other things.

For ten years, I taught Confirmation prep. Every year I started with the same lecture. I wrote the words "Sacrament of Initiation" on the white board and then listed Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and Holy Confirmation. Then I asked the boys (because I had asked the DRE to separate the boys and girls at this age) to describe to me an "initiation." Inevitably, they spoke about the trials involved with making a sport team or even military boot camp. A few always knew about the "hazing" of fraternities.

Then I asked what the point of these initiation rites were. Embarrassment? Bullying? No. The basic point of each was to see, "Can you hack it?" In other words, a coach runs the new members of the team through the toughest drills in the same way boot camp beats you up in order to prepare you and to make sure you are ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow athletes and soldiers. Before we go to war (metaphorical or otherwise), let's see if we are ready to trust you with our lives.

I loved seeing the excitement in their eyes when this clicked. Then I'd go back to the white board and circle the Sacraments of Initiation and say, "Do you get it now?" Smiles. "Yes, we do."

"Yeah," I'd continue, "the Sacraments of Initiation have nothing to do with these rites of passage." Thud. As though I'd just dropped Thor's mighty hammer of confusion on them.

"What are the sacraments? Are they not conveying to us God's sanctifying grace? And is sanctifying grace nothing other than God's divine life." Yes. Indeed. And as I continued to them, I would remind them that God's grace is a gift, gifts are freely given and they are not dependent on what the receiver "does" to receive them. In other words, none of the sacramental prep we make you go through is oriented towards "proving" you deserve the Sacrament of Holy Confirmation. Nor is it designed to ensure you are "worthy." You can never prove you deserve a gift or are worthy of it. The disposition of gift-giving is solely upon the good graces and intention of the gift-giver.

Pope Francis emphasized this in his latest apostolic exhortation:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also reminds us that the gift of grace "surpasses the power of human intellect and will" and that "with regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality." His friendship infinitely transcends us; we cannot buy it with our works, it can only be a gift born of his loving initiative. This invites us to live in joyful gratitude for this completely unmerited gift, since "after one has grace, the grace already possessed cannot come under merit." The saints avoided putting trust in their own works: "In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you empty-handed, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justices have stains in your sight."  Gaudete et exsultate, 54
As a Christian, all I can help anyone do is to be well disposed to receive such a gift. Do you know what you are receiving? Do you know why? Do you know what might help you take advantage of this gift?

Too much of our sacramental prep revolves around saccharine hoop jumping. "But what if they don't jump through the hoops we set?" It would be canonically corrupt to deny anyone the sacrament merely because they failed to complete confirmation service hours or failed a knowledge test. Heaping requirements that transform from tools of formation, which assist our disposition, into merit badges to earn in order to gain access to grace has sometimes gone by another ignominious name: simony. Such hurdles cheapen the Sacrament, turning it into a rite of passage when it is anything but that.

There is a movement in the Latin Rite to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation to their ancient origin by putting Confirmation after Baptism (whether immediately or at the age of reason). Count me in on the side of ending the Catholic teenage Rite of Passage of Confirmation preparation. We're simply not doing it correctly, and avoiding the grave disservice we're doing by cheapening this holy and mysterious Sacrament is truly a matter of life and death.

Mattias A. Caro is the Executive Editor of Ethika Politika.