During Mass the other morning our parish priest asked the congregation to pray for a “Day for Priests” that will be held in our diocese in July. He told us that several areas of concern would be discussed at this meeting, such as: when should the sacrament of Confirmation be administered? When should Holy Communion first be given? What should be said to cohabiting couples wanting a church wedding?
After Mass I cornered him and asked him to expand. He told me that in the early Church Confirmation was given at baptism, as the seal of faith; it seems this is still the case in the Eastern churches. Now the question arises whether it should be given to children when their faith is still immature or whether to wait until it has matured.
The pp told me that in his experience modern children were simply not ready to make their First Holy Communion at the age of seven. I mentioned St Pius X who had first ruled that children were ready by the age of seven to do so. “Ah yes” said our priest, “but in Pius X’s day the atmosphere in homes was much more pious than is generally the case today. Today children might be extremely knowledgeable in certain areas by the age of seven, such as knowing how to operate any number of technological gadgets and watching all sorts of programme on TV, but they are woefully immature when it comes to their faith. He added with emphasis, “They simply don’t have the spiritual maturity today to receive Christ with proper devotion at that age.”
He told me that once, as a school chaplain, he had been informed later that eight Hosts had been found discarded in the school hall when Mass was over. “I have called children back when I see them walking away with the Host in their hand” he added. Personally, he believes that First Holy Communion should be delayed until the Sacrament of Confirmation.
On the question of marriage, the pp told me occasionally he sees couples who, although nominally Catholic, never practise their Faith, yet tell him they want a “proper church wedding”. After a conversation with him, in which he points out what a Catholic wedding means and the responsibility of raising any children as Catholic, they usually walk away.
Over the question of baptism, he says he would have a “pleasant but frank conversation to elicit the couple’s intentions and to discover if there is a spark of faith left”. If they have no faith, he says, they also “usually go away”. For those who are cohabiting, he reminds them that if they want to receive Holy Communion they must do so in a state of grace – so need to go to Confession before the wedding.
Our pp feels embattled. He is in his late-50s and tells me that as a young man he could never have imagined the secularism he sees everywhere today. He remarks to me he thinks that “God is purifying our faith. He is telling us that we must either re-Christianise the surrounding culture or live a more spiritual Christianity ourselves.” In his view, in the past many people were cultural Catholics rather than truly pious: “This didn’t matter so much when the surrounding culture was a Christian one – but when this changed the faith of many people was weak so it collapsed likewise.” He adds, “When people tell me that everything was so much better before Vatican II, I point out to them that if this was the case, why did the faith fall away so quickly?”
Our conversation reminds me to pray harder for priests. They have an uphill battle in our society today. Yet there are also fewer of them and we need them more than ever. In this connection it was good to read Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury’s address to seminarians and staff at Oscott for the Ascension, in which he said that “Celibate chastity is a Christian sign for our times… The challenge today is to offer priests all the support they need to sustain this generous response to the call of Christ. Celibacy is not just a discipline or a practical requirement. Evangelical celibacy is a vocation.”