That He Confer It Himself: Why Catholic Bishops Should Confer Confirmation
For over a quarter century, since our oldest child was baptized in 1996, my wife and I have marked the passage of time by our children’s sacraments. They’ve also proved a great way to keep the house clean. The spring often meant yard work to get ready for a First Communion, and the fall meant one last trimming of the hedges for Confirmation. This month was our last Confirmation, and our youngest child was sealed with chrism oil at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s cathedral-basilica, St. Peter in Chains, on November 8.
Sadly, it didn’t pass without controversy. As has been the case with half of our six children, the minister of the sacrament wasn’t our bishop, His Excellency Dennis M. Schnurr. To make matters worse, Schnurr’s replacement was a priest best known for emptying churches with his effete theatrics in the sanctuary. One frustrated fellow parent of a confirmandi, upon learning who would be filling in for the archbishop, said, “I can’t think of anyone less inspiring to a 13-year-old boy.”
We’ve taught each of our children during their Confirmation catechesis that the bishop provides a vital apostolic connection to the sacrament because he serves as a successor to the Apostles. The language of the Catechism (sec. 1313) couldn’t be clearer about the importance of this link:
In the Latin Rite, the ordinary minister of Confirmation is the bishop. If the need arises, the bishop may grant the faculty of administering Confirmation to priests, although it is fitting that he confer it himself, mindful that the celebration of Confirmation has been temporally separated from Baptism for this reason. Bishops are the successors of the apostles. They have received the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The administration of this sacrament by them demonstrates clearly that its effect is to unite those who receive it more closely to the Church, to her apostolic origins, and to her mission of bearing witness to Christ.
When we learned on the eve of our son’s Confirmation that Archbishop Schnurr would once more be absent, my wife emailed him directly and asked him to reconsider. A subordinate responded that it was “impossible” for His Excellency to celebrate all the confirmations in the archdiocese given the sheer number of them.
It might be helpful to review those numbers. Here’s the most up-to-date data for the number of confirmandis in Cincinnati, from the Center for Applied Research and the Apostolate (CARA):
That’s a drop of 35 percent in nineteen years, with over 20 percent occurring under Archbishop Schnurr, who arrived here in 2009. Note the two years the data don’t include (as they aren’t yet available): 2020 and 2021, when Covid opened a demographic sinkhole under the Church. There is little doubt the numbers have gotten worse.
Due to a lack of demand, our territorial parish no longer needs to sponsor Confirmations every year. Shouldn’t the Archbishop be even more available for Confirmations given this plunge? Or would losing another 2,000 confirmandis make it more manageable? At least in our case, Schnurr would not have had to travel very far. Our son’s Confirmation was at His Excellency’s own cathedral.
When he arrived here thirteen years ago, Archbishop Schnurr announced two goals or focus areas: 1.) increase priestly vocations and 2.) renew youth ministry. He has done admirably on the first goal, with ordinations up and the seminary full of good and holy young men. For that he has my admiration and praise.
But on authentic youth ministry, he brings to mind Woody Allen’s famous quip that half of success is showing up. It’s not enough to sponsor occasional youth conferences or high school retreats. Those are largely ephemeral experiences. Those are not sacraments. Confirmation is supposed to strengthen young people for adulthood and make them, as the old rite proclaimed, “Soldiers of Christ,” but what message does it send when their bishop won’t even show up for it?
Confirmation is the last Sacrament of Initiation, and as the Catechism explains, the whole reason for separating it from Baptism is so that the bishop can administer it. We catechize our children by showing the apostolic link the bishop provides to the sacrament. If you trace his pedigree back far enough, you’ll reach an Apostle, an original friend of Christ. The weekend before our son’s confirmation, we essentially had to walk all of that back and explain to him that for his Confirmation the link was limited to the bishop’s blessing of the chrism oil.
Serving as a Catholic bishop in 2022 is hard enough, with many difficult decisions. Whether or not to confer a sacrament by which I provide a connection between the Apostles and a cathedral full of teenagers, by contrast, should be an easy call. For many of those teenagers, this will be their only opportunity to meet their bishop face-to-face. It matters to them and to their parents.
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