My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The front cover of the last issue of Catholic Times heralded the headline, “Confirmations and first holy Communions to take place at Cathedral.” My column in that issue and the article with answers to frequently asked questions explained this change in greater detail. Unfortunately, judging from the letters, emails, and phone calls to my office expressing concerns about moving the celebration of the sacraments of confirmation and first Eucharist to the Cathedral, it appears that some people have misunderstood the reasons and the implications for this change.
Several people expressed their concern that celebrating the sacraments of confirmation and first Eucharist at the Cathedral would mean that they would never see me in their parishes again. I wish to dispel that fear in no uncertain terms. Actually, one of the primary reasons for this change would be to make it possible for me to visit parishes more often by consolidating the smaller groups for confirmation and first Eucharist from our smaller churches into the larger space at the Cathedral, thus making more dates available for me to schedule parish visitations.
The expectation stated in canon law is that a bishop is to visit each parish in his diocese at least once every five years. That timetable turned out to be just right as it took me my first five years (from 2010 to 2015) to visit each of our 129 parishes in 28 counties spread across 15,139 square miles from the Mississippi River to the Indiana border. I started another round of visits in 2015 but suspended them in 2017 while we were conducting our Fourth Diocesan Synod. I resumed them in 2018, but again had to suspend parish visits last year when things were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the governor’s recent announcement that Illinois is expected to reopen fully and restrictions on public gatherings will be lifted as early as June 11, it is my intention to resume regular parish pastoral visitations this fall.
A parish pastoral visitation normally consists of several components, including my celebrating one or two weekend Masses, a reception with parishioners after one of the Masses, and a joint meeting of the Parish Pastoral Council, Parish Finance Council, and School Board (if applicable). This would allow me to meet and hear from a wider cross-section of the parishioners. In contrast, when I would come previously to a parish to administer confirmation, typically only the confirmation candidates, their sponsors, parents, and family members would largely make up the congregation in attendance, while most of the rest of the parish would not be present.
I also want people to know that I have discussed further the new policy of confirmations and first holy Communions at the Cathedral with the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council in light of the apparent difficulty that some parishioners are having in understanding and accepting this change.
As one of the priests pointed out at the Presbyteral Council meeting, we must remember that there was a clear consensus at our Fourth Diocesan Synod in 2017 that our former approach to confirmation was not working. Even Pope Francis has lamented that confirmation has become the “Sacrament of Farewell” because we never see many of the newly confirmed back in church. We decided to try something different with the restored order. Celebrating confirmation and first Eucharist at the Cathedral flows naturally from that, not only from a scheduling perspective, but also in terms of emphasizing the ecclesiological dimension of the sacraments of initiation bringing the recipients of these sacraments into full initiation with the universal church, not just a local congregation.
Nevertheless, recognizing that change is hard and takes time for some people to digest, and in keeping with an exception that I have previously announced, pastors and parochial administrators have the option to request that I administer the sacraments of confirmation and first Eucharist in conjunction with a parish pastoral visitation, which will normally be scheduled for each parish once every five years. Pastors who feel that their parish needs more time to prepare for the move to the Cathedral can ask that they be given priority for me to come to their parish next year for a pastoral visitation, with the understanding that these sacraments will be received in subsequent years at the Cathedral.
I also encourage parishes to have their own local celebration soon after the Cathedral celebration by having the children attend a regular Sunday Mass in their Communion outfits and be publicly recognized. I am confident our third-graders will be excited about coming to the Cathedral for their own special day to complete the sacraments of initiation with their bishop.
Clearly this change, like any other change, has some drawbacks and negative aspects. I have read the concerns from people across the diocese and acknowledge those. It is my hope people will keep an open mind to this change and see how the children and families embrace the experience. Much depends on the attitude that is communicated by adults to the children about this. If children are taught, for example, that their parish is divided from the rest of the church, that parishioners do not see themselves at home in their own Cathedral, and if receiving these powerful sacraments at the Cathedral is viewed as a chore and spoken about negatively, then this experience will certainly discourage our children from embracing their Catholic faith. In contrast, I have been told that when children have learned about this change, the children’s response has only been excitement and anticipation. I am confident that if we are willing to see the positive aspects of this change, it will be a powerful experience for our children.
I again invite those who have not already done so to visit our website at www.dio.org/confirmation, where you will find videos and more information explaining the new policy along with answers to frequently asked questions related to this change.
Please know that it is my earnest wish and pastoral desire to stay as close as possible to the people of our diocese through these grace-filled opportunities both in our parishes and in our Cathedral, the Mother Church of our diocese.
May God give us this grace. Amen.