My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Having looked previously at the first four declarations of our fourth diocesan synod, we now look at the fifth declaration: “Formation for discipleship and stewardship as a way of life shall be the primary focus of the catechetical programs in our Catholic parochial schools, high schools and parish schools of religion, as well as our faith formation programs for youth, adults and those with special needs, with sacramental preparation seen as a step in this process, but not the end of the process. Being a practicing Catholic must be taught as a way of life. Thus, religious education is a personal obligation that does not end with the reception of the sacraments, but continues into adulthood.”
Since the previous declarations of the synod addressed our communal commitment to the discipleship and stewardship way of life and described for us as individuals what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, the fifth declaration of the synod addresses the life-long catechetical formation needed to prepare people to be disciples of our Lord and stewards of his creation. This relates to the proper sequence and age for receiving the sacraments of initiation. We will take up this issue in more detail with the next declaration, but it relates to the fifth declaration in terms of clarifying what the primary focus of our catechetical and faith formation programs should be.
In practice, it seems that people frequently view sacramental preparation as the primary focus of our catechetical programs and faith formation programs. Sacramental preparation is definitely important, but it is not the ultimate goal. Too often we see students completing their sacramental preparation and then they stop going to church after they receive the sacrament of confirmation.
Even Pope Francis has addressed this sad situation, saying, “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. Is this true or not?” The pope was not making a joke, but was lamenting this fact of life that is unfortunately experienced so often in the church. In fact, Pope Francis called this “an experience of failure.” He then noted another experience of failure: “young people aren’t in the parishes. … This [is an] experience of a failure, something that goes wrong, a disappointment.”
We should take these words to heart and consider it a “failure” and a “disappointment” if people stop practicing their faith upon being fully initiated into the church. Initiation by definition is a beginning, not an end. It is possible to receive the sacraments validly without receiving the grace of the sacraments. The recipient of the sacrament must be properly disposed to receive the grace of the sacrament. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 1128, “the fruitfulness of the sacraments also depends on the disposition of the one who receives them.” Thus, for example, a person who receives the sacrament of confirmation in the state of mortal sin is validly confirmed, but receives no habitual grace because of the obstruction of mortal sin. Upon going to confession and receiving sacramental absolution, the person would receive not only the grace of forgiveness of sins, but also at that moment would then receive the graces of the sacrament of confirmation that were held in reserve.
Our goal, therefore, should be not just to prepare children to receive the sacraments validly, but also to receive the graces that will help them to live in a spiritually fruitful way as followers of Jesus Christ for the rest of their lives. Since growing in one’s relationship with Jesus it is a life-long project, religious education is a personal obligation that does not end with the reception of the sacraments, but continues into adulthood. Formation for discipleship and stewardship as a way of life cannot be seen as completed when someone receives the sacrament of confirmation, nor when one graduates from grade school or high school or even college. We must continue to grow in our relationship with the Lord until we take our last breath here on earth.
May God give us this grace. Amen.