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In his own introduction to today's commentary Tom McMahon writes: "Our train of thought now approaches territory CONFIRMATION … guard your spiritual wallets … there is no way that we can envision newness without ploughing through the debris of the old … the salt has lost its flavour; the territory is marked with ermine red."
The "Exit" Sacrament…
My mind clutters with bad images and unhealthy stories as our train of thought passes through Roman territory marked CONFIRMATION; something like the black pall used in pre-Vatican Two funerals clouds my mind and my defensive anger is on "red" alert. Frankly, based on my 26 years of institutional clerical experience I see the sacrament of confirmation as one big hierarchical ego trip and an abusive fraud perpetrated by clergy on the innocent.
In looking back over six parishes I estimate I had the responsibility of preparing 475+ young people for confirmation. I was well aware from the first class in 1956 that we had really nothing to offer but a rigged ceremony by a jolly old St Nick type that was supposed to bring grace or do something for the recipients. Over the quarter century the candidates got ripped off. I have carefully chosen each word in this commentary; when titling "guard your spiritual wallets" I was aware of how robbed the youth were of any Christian understanding; in the mechanical ex opere operato approach I am reminded of innocent children being marched into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. American youth have retaliated on the forced reception by their ignorant parents and clergy by calling it today THE EXIT SACRAMENT — time to grow up and leave the Catholic institution. They marched in crusade form to be "knighted" in a medieval empty ceremony. Of all of Trent's sacred signs the anointing with oil by a Roman figurehead has no connection or relevance to Jesus.
Post-Vatican Two some elements of Christian involvement may have been included in the training but the core experience has not changed since 1542. Confirmation, now a simple matter of statistics, is a forced attempt at swearing allegiance to the representative of Rome, namely the local bishop. Rome can boast of millions of Catholics, based on inflated chancery office reports; for most it is the second dose of becoming a number-statistic. For uneducated parents it is a necessary evil.
Evidence from "real life"…
Let me present "evidence" for my anger, starting with the last group (15) with whom I worked; they averaged 16-17 years of age and were accustomed to dialogue homilies at outdoor Sunday Mass under a huge oak tree and Vatican Two theology for five years in the COMMUNITY OF CHRIST OUR LORD AND BROTHER. I coordinated the 12-session weekly gatherings in a rural farm house (rectory), after which we would pile into our old bus and go down to McDonalds for a burger together; no books were used but lots of plain talk about Jesus and the Gospels and everyday life and how Jesus could fit into their everyday thinking; they knew how to use Vatican Two. Space wise I take here only one experience to show the interchange and trust level that we shared. In the 11th session I put an old shoe (it had been found during renovation under the old mission church built in 1898) on the mantle piece and I got down on my knees and kissed the floor, inching toward the old shoe. I explained that this was the 8th sacrament, recently discovered and a genuine sign of a sacred tie to the Mystery we call God; "it was invented by Jesus himself" and I invited them to join me ……… stunned silence! …… minutes passed! … .and finally Tim said boldly "this is nuts! this has nothing to do with Jesus!" … and a lively discussion followed as to how Jesus appears in modern society. Those of you who have read my commentaries on sacraments are getting what those discussions were all about back in 1979. Tim went on to be a Peace Corps worker.
The young of Almaden were cheated of a meaningful ceremony. Our mother parish, from which our new enterprise had been separated four years back had confirmation; Father "Slick" arranged to have an African cardinal do the job, a churchman on the rounds to make some money for his home diocese. Not to be outdone by the mother parish I arranged to have him come to rural Almaden, to the little wooden church built in 1898. The cardinal was in a hurry, annoyed at a time delay and the heat, and frustrated with the tiny space allowed to clergy. The 15 candidates were well primed concerning Vatican Two, but there was no homily or exchange between hierarchy and commoner. The questions asked of me after the ceremony were inquiries about the cardinal's clothing and particularly his pointy hat and why he took it off and on so often. Father "Slick" sided up to me during the anointings and confidentially questioned "Tom, how much are you going to give him? the other parish offered only $100 bucks." I refused him an answer, secretly wanting to shout out publicly that I had a check ready for $500, but I did not want to expose the fraud to the assembly. The amount was more than we took in two Sunday collections. We was robbed!
When I write my commentaries on priesthood I will include the story of the cardinal having dinner with us and his ugly views of raising children; this man was among those who were in the race for papacy before Ratzinger beat him out.
The original purpose and meaning of Confirmation…
What was the original purpose and meaning of confirmation? Those of us who owned English translation missals before Vatican Two will remember the duality of the MASS OF THE CATECUMENS and THE MASS OF THE FAITHFUL, those not yet baptized being dismissed under sponsorship before the Creed was recited. After completion of their probation the candidate sought full admission to the community of faith by baptism.
We use here a radical but common experience that I saw evidence of in a 1960's tour of ancient European churches; the water pond of baptism stood outside the structure with a large entry hole allowing the waters entry into the church inners. The candidate literally drowned her/his old self by emersion into the cleansing waters and emerging faced a welcoming community of believers; the bishop confirmed this act of faith. Baptism and confirmation were one sacred sign experience. One needs an educated community to accomplish this end.
After Constantine a person could not hold a government job unless he was baptized Christian. The rush was on and the meaning of baptism was lost and as communities disappeared the bishops left to live in their palaces, separated from the people. The bishop would return to parishes with the meaningless empty ceremony that Trent invented in its attempt to reclaim originality. Missing for Trent were community and commitment. One story about confirmation as we close this first commentary; we need a little humor (hum = earthy) as after all sacraments are about human experiences that connect us to God.
The late Tim Unsworth told this story in one of his books and to me personally. The pastor was bedridden, dying of cancer, attended by a lovely Irish housekeeper and the bishop had come for confirmation. On his way to ceremony, fully vested the bishop felt the urge of nature and leaving the clerical entourage ducked in to the pastor's toilet which had two entry doors. With the bishop astride the throne in full regalia the housekeeper, carrying bedpan, enters from the pastor's bedroom and startlingly cries out "oh your excellency" and proceeds to kneel and kiss his episcopal ring. Tim held that this was authentic New York Cardinal Spellman; I always kept the story in mind when I dealt with the power bishops.
Tom in reality at outpost San Jose, Ca. 18/09/2008 — See ya next week, we'll chat as the Polar Express stays at station CONFIRMNATION!
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