Monday, May 22, 2023

The Tragedy of Mandatory "Sacrament Systems"

I remember how excited I was when I figured out that I could receive the Sacrament of Confirmation "earlier" than my peers at other parishes. My family had moved to a new state, and many churches in the diocese offered Confirmation for teens who were sophomores in high school. However, the Roman Catholic parish we joined offered Confirmation for high school students every two years--and it just so happened that I would be a freshman when the bishop came to administer this sacrament. With excitement, I tried to patiently wait for the day when I would receive this special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostles did in the Upper Room (cf. Acts 2:1-4).  

I was ecstatic to be confirmed, and I was immensely grateful to God that I would be confirmed "early." In my excitement, naivety, and self-centeredness, I didn't even think about how tragic this was: that while I got to receive Confirmation as a fifteen-year-old, many of my friends would be deprived of this sacramental grace for another year. This was just "how the system worked." 

The "system" ("the way things are done here") decreed that the availability of this particular Sacrament of Initiation depended on what parish you attended. 

I had many classmates who belonged to parishes where Confirmation was only offered to sophomores, but these teenagers needed this sacrament just as much as I did. Why did I get the special privilege of not "having to wait" another year? 

The "sacrament system" at our parish worked in my favor.  

When you've grown up Catholic and you've seen things done a certain way for several years, it can be easy to assume that the way things are done is the one right way. If the systems seem to be working fairly well, we can just continue doing what we've been doing. We see no need to change things, so we don't. We attend Mass, celebrate the liturgical year in our homes and parishes, and we abide by the systems that regulate how the sacraments are administered. 

I've found that often, the people involved in the "sacrament systems" have a deep love for God and good intentions. Many times, these people have moved into a job or parish with no control over the existing systems that are in place. They try to do the best they can, with what they've been given. These people--both clergy and lay--offer a tremendous amount of their time and their talent to God, the parish, and the community. I am grateful for their many sacrifices. 

Unfortunately, there is a basic element that--at some point in history--went missing in our conversations about the "sacrament systems": A foundational examination of the Sacraments of Initiation. 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Sacraments of Christian Initiation are Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. They 

"lay the foundations of every Christian life. [...] The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life. By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity." (CCC 1212)

Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist lay the foundation for our lives. They are signs "by which divine life is dispensed to us" (CCC 1131). As my fellow catechists and I tell preschoolers in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium, "Baptism is a shower of gifts!" This statement holds true for the other Sacraments of Initiation, as well. Confirmation is a "shower of gifts." The Eucharist is a "shower of gifts." These Sacraments of Initiation are the path by which God pours his divine life into our souls in a particular, unfathomable way.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit." (Jn 3:5)

Not only are these sacraments opportunities to receive countless graces and gifts from God, but they are necessary. In fact, the Code of Canon Law states that "The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Most Holy Eucharist are interrelated in such a way that they are required for full Christian initiation." (Canon 842 §2). Our children do not just need Baptism; they need all three of these sacraments! 


I've lived in, and travelled to, several states across America. While dioceses handle the administration of sacraments in various ways, I've noticed general trends. In many Roman Catholic communities, children are baptized as babies (a practice that goes back to the Church's beginning). Confirmation is offered to children or teens (this timing was developed later in the Church), and children receive First Holy Communion at the end of second or third grade (this timing also was developed later in the Church). 

We look around the culture and see the effects of poor (or no) catechesis in our church communities, so we operate or create programs to help people learn about the Faith. We don't want anyone to "fall through the cracks" and miss out on sacramental graces. We also want children to be properly catechized. So, we integrate the Sacraments of Initiation into our programs and systems of religious education.

We also start creating certain requirements for children, so we know that they are "ready" to receive these sacraments. We want families to understand that God's grace is necessary, and that these sacraments are the way that God's life enters into our souls. However, in our emphasis on "sacrament systems," this message can become obscured. 

Confirmation isn't a rite of passage, we say, as we push forms with "required community service hours" towards teenagers.

Baptism as soon as possible is important, we declare, while noting that parents can only have a new baby baptized if it conveniently fits on the existing parish schedule.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Faith, proclaim as we refer to the Gospel from the pulpit and in classrooms ("Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you."-Jn 6:53), yet we simultaneously tell families that children may not receive the Eucharist before the special "First Communion for second graders" Mass that occurs each spring. 

At some point in time, someone created sacrament systems for our parishes--and we have continued to accept them, even if the original reason for these systems no longer applies. Innumerable families have been affected by this reality. Not only are many children unnecessarily being deprived of the Sacraments of Initiation, but children and adults can begin to absorb the idea that we have to earn these sacraments.

Have you found time amidst pregnancy and childbirth to fill out and send in extra paperwork? How about the lengthy seminar that you've already attended three times? Fantastic-you are now "ready" to schedule your baby's Baptism, if there's room on the parish's schedule. 

Have you attended two years of classes and faithfully completed several hours of documented community service? Awesome-you now "have the right" to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. 

Have you dutifully walked into Sunday School class for an entire year as a second-grade student? Congratulations-you are now "prepared" receive the Eucharist. 

Even if there are good intentions or reasons behind the various requirements that we create, these manmade "benchmarks" can lead to erroneous ideas. We can easily start thinking that we must do a whole list of tasks to receive the Sacraments of Initiation; that we have to "earn" God's grace. However, this is false. God's grace is a gift which none of us deserve. It is freely offered and poured out into our souls through the Sacraments of Initiation. We cannot earn it; it is an unfathomable gift and mystery. 

"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof," we pray before receiving the Eucharist. None of us are worthy to receive the Flesh and Blood of Christ, but God, in his infinite love and mercy, offers us this tremendous gift. He offers us these sacraments in which He pours out countless more gifts. 

Let's take a moment to consider the story of the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, found in the Acts of the Apostles. An Ethiopian eunuch was seated in his chariot, returning home from Jerusalem. He was reading from the prophet Isaiah. All of a sudden, Philip--the apostle--ran up and asked: 

"Do you understand what you are reading?" 

He replied, "How can I, unless someone instructs me?" So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)

Philip proceeded to explain the Scriptures and proclaim Jesus to this court official. Then, something striking happened. 

"As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:36-39)

This account greatly contrasts with how we administer the Sacraments of Initiation today.

In this account, we see an Apostle accompanying a man who is eager to understand the Scriptures and learn about God. We see this man, filled with zeal, ask for the sacrament of Baptism. The sacrament is freely offered, and the Ethiopian eunuch "continued on his way rejoicing." 


In many Roman Catholic communities across America, overworked pastors in large parishes often rely on staff and volunteers to guide people through the process of getting scheduled for the sacraments. When people ask about the Sacraments of Initiation, they are given the "requirements" that they must complete before they (or their children) can receive these sacraments.  When the Sacraments of Initiation finally are celebrated, there is indeed rejoicing--but the time leading up to that moment can be filled with irritation, exhaustion, or disappointment as people deal with unnecessary requirements or waiting periods.  

We do not need to continue living this way. 

The rich sacramental life of the Church offers the very life and indwelling of God to us--young and old, single and married, rich and poor. Especially in our broken, secular culture, we need people to wholeheartedly strive for greater holiness. We all need the graces of the sacraments. Why then do we perpetuate systems that make it harder to receive the Sacraments of Initiation? 

It is true that the "sacrament systems" have helped some people over the years. They have provided a framework and timeline which has guided some families deeper into a relationship with God and knowledge of the Catholic Faith. In fact, some people seem content following the current systems that exist in many Roman Catholic parishes. 

However, there is no reason why we should force every person to operate according to these mass-produced timelines and requirements. 

Why should practicing Catholic children (even those who have personal relationships with their priests) be refused some of the Sacraments of Initiation unless they join "the system"? Instead, what if families could sidestep the existing system if they wish? This practice would open up greater engagement and personal communication between pastors and parishioners. It would also be a small step in making the Sacraments of Initiation more available to a greater number of children. 

I love this depiction of Jesus blessing the children. 

I was once told of a parish where this method is used regarding First Communion for children. The "system" still exists for families who wish to use it, but the pastor also works with families who choose to catechize their children at home and receive this sacrament on a different timetable. Rather than restricting sacramental graces, the priest at this parish makes a way for it to flow in abundance--and this parish is thriving. 

Today, countless children are being denied one or more of the Sacraments of Initiation--for no good reason, other than "the system." Will we, the baptized men and women of the Church advocate for our children? 

I think of Blessed Imelda Lambertini, in the fourteenth century, who was repeatedly refused her earnest request to receive the Eucharist...until the Host miraculously floated above her head and the priest finally agreed to her request.

I think of Saint Bernadette, in the nineteenth century, who desired to receive Jesus in the most Holy Eucharist, but was denied this gift because she had not received the standard education in the Catechism

Are we willing to examine this pattern in Church history and in parishes across the country--and consider changing the systems that delay (and effectively deny) the Sacraments of Initiation to children? 

We ensure that children receive food, water, clothes, housing, and any other material needs that they require. We also must ensure that their spiritual needs are met. Let's work together and find ways to address the spiritual needs of our children. Let's deepen our understanding of the Sacraments of Initiation and rediscover, with wonder and awe, the beautiful mysteries of God. Let's find ways to address this topic with humility, charity, respect, and joy. Together, with our pastors, bishops, and fellow members of the laity, let's take a good look at how we can make the sacraments more accessible to those who seek them. Let's challenge ourselves--and each other--to focus more on human souls than manmade systems. In all of this, let's continue to focus our eyes on Jesus Christ as we come to Him for mercy, help, and guidance. 

"And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them." (Mk 10:13-16)


  1. You have put words to my thoughts as my family has wrapped up our first year in the system with our oldest child! It was a decent program but very much felt like putting limits on the work of the Holy Spirit. And i am so tired of meetings

    1. Ellen, thank you so much for sharing your experience!
      Oh my, I didn't even think about the meetings-whenever I hear those announced at Mass or listed in the bulletin, I feel so sorry for everyone that has to fill their calendars with all this extra stuff that may or may not be actually necessary for e each individual person or family. It sounds exhausting!