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How Prepared is Prepared Enough?

Fr. Jim Tucker is a priest in my diocese, but not at my parish. He has a post on the Sacraments that leaves me with such mixed emotions.

So, yes, the faithful have a right to receive the Sacraments from their pastors. But that right presumes that the person is adequately prepared to receive the Sacraments. To give out the Sacraments indiscriminately without bothering to ascertain the readiness of those who are seeking them is a sham on a number of counts. First, it treats a Sacrament like a party favor, given just to make people feel good. It turns religion into a rote ritual, empty of its true meaning and any necessary connection to faith in Jesus Christ and discipleship to Him. It cooperates in the tragedy of turning the practices of the Faith into quaint cultural observances, like Groundhog's Day or eating cabbage on New Year's. And I really think it reduces the Christian Sacraments to the equivalents of superstitious magic rituals, or perhaps a good excuse for a party. In the case of the Sacrament of Matrimony, it also can contribute to a whole lot of heartbreak if the couple hasn't been sufficiently prepared for what they're about to commit to.

So, whether all that applies to the woman in Belleville, I don't know, and I'm not interested in knowing. And whether the bishop was mean and rude or not really isn't my concern. And whether the priest in question actually said the stupid things he's alleged to have said, I don't care. That particular situation is their situation, not ours. My general observations, though, are things I've seen over and over again in the parish. Even when we insist on religious education, when we meet with every couple seeking to baptize a child if there are red flags about their practice of the faith, when we interview every kid to be confirmed in the parish, when we get personally involved with couples seeking marriage -- even though that is the way we do things here, taking seriously the duty to catechize and prepare, one often wants to pull out one's hair and just give up.

It's great that people are asking for Sacraments. But what spiritual value does the Sacrament in question really have when one begins to realize that it's being sought for reasons that have next to nothing to do with faith in God and discipleship to Jesus Christ? Or when it's based on the most superficial understanding of what a Sacrament entails? When the rite of Baptism is an afterthought to the big party and family reunion, and the several thousand dollars one has spent on the reception hall? When parents don't understand why they should be expected to keep coming to Mass once their child has made his First Communion? When people who haven't been into a church in years make an appointment to get married, and make the point to tell you they really can't be bothered with Sunday Mass, that they don't know if they'll raise their children in the Faith, and really they need to pin down the date and where photographers are allowed to stand? When parents bring their kids to get confirmed "in case they want to get married in the Church later on"?

After reading his post, it is a bit easier to see how our parish program could have evolved into this elaborate series of hoops to be jumped through. A series of significant requirements will weed out those who seek Confirmation as a customary social ritual and not an opportunity for spiritual grace. But by increasing the burden to everyone, we have weighed down those who truly approach the Sacrament with a proper disposition. What should be joy-filled preparation is now a dreaded bureaucracy-filled obstacle course.

I also think we need to be careful of judging too harshly the fitness of candidates for the Sacraments. Of course, Fr. Tucker is absolutely correct in pointing out the flaws in the above examples. However, most situations are not so extreme. We also should not treat all Sacraments the same in evaluating what is required of the recipient.

There are three sacraments of initiation--Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist--in that order. While these should not be handed out indiscriminately, their use should be liberal. The grace of these sacraments exists regardless of the preparation of the recipient. The preparation enables the recipient to better receive this grace. So when evaluating the suitability of a candidate for one of these sacraments, I would advocate that we give the candidate the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Marriage and Holy Orders are sacraments of service. The preparation for these sacraments is much more extensive and the scrutiny of the candidates for these sacraments should be much more critical. I am much more concerned about a priest who will marry anybody than I am about a priest who will baptize anybody.

Anointing of the Sick and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are healing sacraments. They should be readily available to the faithful. I have heard criticism of the current push to get people into the confessional because the vast majority of folks are so poorly catechized. I say that first step into the confessional may be the catalyst to inspire a renewed commitment to their faith. Again, we do have to trust in the power of Sacramental Grace.

Thus my conflicting emotions: I do want to emphasize the serious spiritual undertaking of those receive the Sacraments and I want to avoid the casual reception of the Sacraments. Yet I don’t want to deny reception to those who while perhaps imperfectly catechized are prepared enough to benefit from the Grace of the Sacraments. As it always seems to be, the challenge is striking the proper balance.


James said…
It makes one wonder whether the move towards giving the Sacrament of Confirmation before the First Eucharist is on to something. It avoids these precise dilemmas and keeps in balance the need for these young ones in the faith to receive all the graces and help they can get, especially in today's age that challenges the youth on a daily basis. In my mind, as long as a young person, whether he be 8 or 18, has the most rudimentary forms of the faith and is an active member of a parish, he should be received with open arms by the Church for confirmation.
Anonymous said…
I completely agree with Fr. Tucker's words. Most Catholics today are so superficial, they want all the benefits and social culture of Catholicism without the hard work.

Most Catholics today have time to play golf and baseball but don't have time for mass.

Everyday I want to pray for my priests. . . it is enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Why would they want to give their life for the Church with the attitude of most Catholics today? And if the priests say anything, they are labeled mean and unfeeling.
Michelle said…
Heaven is not a country club with entry available only to those who pay their hefty dues through church attendance, charity, and prayers.

Sanctifying grace through the sacraments is conferred on even the most unprepared - which is why we are able to baptize infants who have no idea what is happening. The grace is there and has the potential to work its miracles. It is like a seed that falls on infertile ground. It is not that there is no hope - there are other factors like wind, rain, erosion, wildlife or human intervention that could still help that seed to sprout through transplantation and proper care.

I tremble to think of the children, unwelcome in the Church because their parents have neglected their spiritual upbringing, who grow up unbaptized, with not even the one year of catechesis needed to receive 1st Holy Communion or confirmation, who are then left to fend for themselves as adults in this fallen world. They will have received no sanctifying grace in their lives and have dim prospects for adult conversion.

I count myself as one who has received every sacrament, even marriage after marriage prep and confirmation at the dicoese-delayed age of 17, with limited appreciation at the time for its value. But I can look back now and see the results of that grace in my life, and I hate to think what my life would have been like without that grace.

We have to try to encourage parents to do their part, and, no, I don't think marriage or holy orders should be done on a whim. But yes to the sacraments of healing to anybody at all (although I do think priests could tell someone who is obviously unrepentant that they need to try harder and come back later and give no absolution). And yes to the sacraments of initiation being given as early as possible after a period of catechesis with as much reminder about the seriousness of the sacrament to the participants as possible. And then hard prayers for the fallen away brethren.

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