My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
After the coronavirus pandemic struck last March, I had to cancel 62 confirmation Masses that I was scheduled to celebrate this year in our diocese. My hope was to reschedule them so I could administer the sacrament of confirmation when restrictions were lifted. By mid-May it became apparent that the backlog of cancelled confirmations was just too large realistically for me to do all of them myself, so I delegated to the pastors and parochial administrators of the parishes in our diocese the faculty to administer the sacrament of confirmation to their parishioners who were to have received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit from me this year.
Again it was my hope to return to a more normal schedule of confirmations for 2021, but here we are in mid-November and there is still no sign when we will be able to resume having full capacity in our churches. With safe-distancing and 25 percent of capacity in our churches, it will not be possible for me to do all of the confirmation and first holy Communion Masses myself for the foreseeable future, so I have extended to the pastors and parochial administrators of the parishes in our diocese the faculty to administer the sacrament of confirmation to the faithful in their parishes who are properly disposed and prepared, effective Jan. 1, 2021 through June 30, 2021.
At the same time, since the tradition and the law of the church is that the ordinary minister of confirmation is the bishop, I am making opportunities available on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings for those who wish to be confirmed by me and receive their first holy Communion at the Cathedral. Those who wish to avail themselves of this option should give their names to their pastor or parochial administrator or director of religious education, who should forward their request with the pertinent documentation to my office by Dec. 15, 2020.
The tradition of the bishop as the ordinary minister of confirmation was explained in a letter by Pope St. Innocent I, who served as Roman pontiff from 401 to 417. In it, he wrote, “That this pontifical authority of confirming or of conferring the Spirit the Paraclete is proper only to bishops is clearly shown, not only by the Church’s custom, but by that passage of the Acts of the Apostles which affirms that Peter and John were directed to confer the Holy Spirit to those who were already baptized (cf. Acts 8:14-17).”
In 1199, Pope Innocent III explained that while the reservation to the bishop is not divine law, nevertheless priests could confirm only by concession of the faculty from the bishop rather than by right. Thus, while bishops are the ordinary ministers of confirmation in the Latin Church, priests are extraordinary ministers of confirmation when delegated by the bishop in extraordinary circumstances.
While it has been my practice to celebrate the sacrament of confirmation myself as long as I am able to do so, we are certainly living in extraordinary times during the COVID-19 pandemic, hence, the concession of the faculty is warranted under these circumstances.
Even when a priest is granted the faculty to confirm, the connection to the diocesan bishop is clear in that, for validity of the confirmation, the priest must be delegated by the bishop and the sacred chrism must have been consecrated by the bishop. Although confirmation administered by a priest properly delegated by the bishop and using sacred chrism consecrated by the bishop is certainly valid, nevertheless, some candidates for confirmation may prefer to be confirmed by the bishop as the ordinary minister of the sacrament. It is my wish that their preference should be respected and arrangements be made for them to be confirmed by me at the Cathedral.
At the same time, it should be noted that our fourth diocesan synod in 2017 adopted the following provision as particular law: “The Sacraments of Christian Initiation shall be offered in the proper sequence (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist) for children as well as for adults. To promote discipleship and stewardship as a way of life from an early age, those who are baptized as infants are to receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist at about the age of reason, which in this Diocese will normally be in their third grade of elementary school, after they have been properly prepared and have made sacramental confession” (Declaration no. 6/Statute no. 80).
The theological and pastoral reasons for the “restored order” of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are explained well by Father Daren Zehnle, director of our diocesan Office for Divine Worship and the Catechumenate, in his thesis, Order and Age: Confirmation in the Present Legislation of the Latin Church, written in 2016 for his Licentiate degree in Canon Law (J.C.L.) at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Father Zehnle notes that until about 110 years ago, it was the custom for children to receive their first Communion and confirmation at about the age of 12 or 13, often on the same day. When in 1910 Pope St. Pius X advanced first Communion to about the age of 7 years, he did not say anything about confirmation. This decision had unintended consequences concerning the sacrament of confirmation and disrupted the “ancient and constant” sacramental order.
In his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI said, “It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. Accordingly, our pastoral practice should reflect a more unitary understanding of the process of Christian initiation.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.