Here is a very interesting article from Francis Phillips in the Catholic Herald, and a timely one too. The situations described and the questions raised are relevant for us in Ireland too.
In fact just last Sunday during my homily for Pentecost, as I was reflecting on our personal Pentecost - our confirmation, I asked similar questions: as confirmation seems more the Sacrament of exit rather than the Sacrament of greater participation and responsibility in the Church, do we now need to reassess when the Sacrament should be given, and be more careful in our discerning as to who receives it? I asked. I could see a few people shifting uncomfortably in the pews.
These are legitimate questions to ask in age when most Catholics are nominal at best, and for whom the Sacraments are nothing more than rites of passage. How often have I heard Baptism described as a naming ceremony? Or the Eucharist referred to as the "holy bread"? Of course I do not blame the children, they are only responding to what they have been taught.
Here in Ireland, though many try to deny it, there is a crisis of catechesis - two generations have not been taught the faith and that is largely due to an inadequate catechetical programme. Tinkering with this programme will not help matters - it needs to be scrapped and a new programme based on the Catechism should be written from scratch and (AND!) submitted to Rome for approval. This is, of course, a project for new personnel.
One of the issues that will also need to be considered is where we prepare children for the Sacraments. At the moment it is done in our schools which are overwhelmingly Catholic (in number if not completely in ethos), and we tend to leave the formation of children to the teachers. We priests go in and meet the children and meet parents, but the bulk of the work falls on the teacher. When the teacher has the faith, practices it and has the skills to pass it on they cannot be rivalled. However, in increasing numbers, our teachers do not have the faith, do not practice, do not understand it, and rely heavily on an inadequate catechetical programme to hand it on.
Is it not time to consider taking Sacramental preparation out of the schools (keeping religion as a subject to assist the process?)? Let each parish takes responsibility for preparing the children or teenagers, or adults, for the Sacraments, or if the parish cannot cope, it can be done on a deanery level. Abolishing the "age" for reception of the various Sacraments would also help, as would the "big day" ceremonies. Each candidate is assessed as an individual, and when they are ready, if they are practicing, they are given the Sacraments.
In terms of order, I would return to the original order of the process of initiation, and give Confirmation before First Communion - both in the same ceremony, again when the individual is ready be they seven, ten, thirteen or eighteen. The Sacraments should become a process of maturity in faith and not something done at a certain age. The Bishop can still come for the annual ceremony in a parish, there would be no need to be granting faculties to parish priests every week - that episcopal visit is very important for a parish - people love to see their Bishop.
A few, radical thoughts for an Irish priest (there goes my chance of a mitre, thank God!!), but I do believe we need to start asking questions and be prepared to break the mould which custom (and custom alone) has created. It does not undermine the decision of St Pius X, but as Francis Phillips points out, we live in a different age.
And today is the feast of St Joan of Arc, happy feast to you all!