The passage to adulthood followed by generations of Roman Catholics is being challenged by two dozen area churches interested in returning to the early Christian practice of combining the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation in a single rite.
Bishop Anthony Pilla has given permission to Ascension Church in Cleveland to offer both sacraments to second-graders next spring. Twenty-three other diocesan churches are waiting in the wings to explore the risky catechetical business of giving children as young as 7 the final Catholic sacraments of initiation.
The practice, permitted in about 35 dioceses in the country, runs counter to the trend of recent decades of delaying confirmation into high school to keep kids in religious education programs longer. In many churches, Protestant and Catholic, there is a mass exodus of children from Sunday school after confirmation.
But if children are not intellectually mature in their faith at age 7, their souls are in the right place, say advocates of early confirmation.
"Children are more spiritual beings than we are as adults," said Joyce M. Kelleher, director of the diocesan Office of Catechetical Services. "In this day, our little children need those gifts. ... They need the strength of the Holy Spirit. Why deny them that?"
Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church instituted by Jesus. In confirmation, individuals are anointed with oil to mark their reception of the seal of the Holy Spirit, representing what the Catholic Catechism calls "our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service forever."
In the earliest Christian church, all new members were usually baptized, confirmed and given the Eucharist, or Communion, in the same ceremony, often held on the Easter vigil. By the sixth century, infant baptism was a normal practice and the sacraments were separated.
The traditional order remained baptism, confirmation and Communion, but there has not been universal observance in the last 1,000 years in the Western church.
In the United States, the sacraments were separated in many churches early in the 20th century as the age of Communion was generally pushed up to the second grade. Since the Second Vatican Council in the early '60s, there has been a general move to delay confirmation to adolescence. Theologically, the emphasis shifted to the candidate's readiness to make a mature commitment of faith, but practically, the later confirmation dates were also motivated by the desire to keep kids in religious education programs as long as possible.
However, in a countertrend, the new Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, in which the three initiation sacraments are offered in one ceremony, has rekindled the discussion about sacramental practices for children.
When a 9-year-old child new to the faith is baptized, for example, the child is offered all three sacraments at one time.
In the United States, reflecting the diversity of opinions on the issue, bishops have decided confirmation may take place any time from ages 7 to 18. Children usually receive first Communion in second grade.
In the Cleveland diocese, Pilla has agreed to allow churches interested in combining the sacraments to go ahead with a pilot program. Churches desiring early confirmation are required to spend at least a year preparing their parishes for the change, then come up with a plan that is submitted to the diocese.
The key shift is in no longer seeing confirmation as a form of rite of adulthood, but viewing it as a bestowing of the Holy Spirit in a special way by God.
Age of body is not age of soul, Kelleher said.
In preparing parishioners for the change, she said, "We really try to talk to the parents about the tremendous spiritual capacity their children have."
At Ascension School recently, second-graders shared their special perspective of faith.
Rachel Kotulak said of God, "She's real shining, like a golden light." Kyle Connors said his baby brother reminds him of God "because he's so cute I don't ever want to hurt him."
The children spoke of a personal God who is by their side when they are frightened by fighting parents in the next room or when a bunny named Snowball dies.
When his grandfather died, Bradley Romaine said he could not stop crying until he heard the reassuring voice of God: "He said, `Don't worry, I will take care of him."'
The Rev. Joseph J. Fortuna, pastor of Ascension, said children have special gifts for the church.
"A good deal of faith is being able to look at the world with a certain sense of wonder, of awe, of imagination. And kids are really good at that," he said.
Fortuna and pastoral associate Laurel S. Jurecki said only one or two parishioners had raised concerns about the change. But they recognize there is a lot for people to get used to, including the loss of a rite of adulthood.
For many children, the two times in their lives when they are the center of a celebration involving friends, relatives and neighbors are first Communion and confirmation. Combining the two takes away one of those special moments, although it will save many families hundreds of dollars for parties and special clothing.
Another major concern is the fear that kids will drop out of religious education after first Communion.
The challenge falls back on parents and the parishes, church leaders say. "We don't feel having a sacrament as a carrot is a particularly good thing, nor has it worked. We believe we have to do a better job of youth ministry," Jurecki said.
What Jurecki and Fortuna hope to instill in children at Ascension is a stronger sense of identity, where children see themselves as part of the church's mission.
"There is an incredible spirit in children," Jurecki said. "Their faith runs very deep."