Thoughts on sacramental preparation in the Catholic Church today

Note: some of what I’ve written here is based on my studies, and some on my lived experience and general impressions as a first generation Vatican 2 Catholic. I welcome comments from those with a living memory of the pre-Vatican 2 church, or with expertise or contemporary experience in sacramental preparation.

Let’s begin by reviewing the sacramental framework held by the Catholic church. The seven sacraments (the number and precise set of sacraments was finalized only in medieval times, and was defended vigorously at the Council of Trent) are understood by the church today in three groups:
– the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, eucharist
– the sacraments of healing: penance, anointing of the sick
– the sacraments of the state of life: matrimony, ordination

One of the great liturgical contributions of the Second Vatican Council was the retrieval, from the early church, of a theology and praxis of the sacraments of initiation as profoundly related and normatively administered to adults in one celebration, at the Easter Vigil. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) has been called one of the great successes of Vatican 2. It recovered (restored and adapted) several preparatory rites from the church of the first millennium, along with the expectation that preparation would occur over a minimum of several months, and involve the parish community in some way (eg, by praying for the catechumens, and celebrating the preparatory rites at parish masses).

Although the liturgical structures are from the church of the first millennium, it is clear from the New Testament and from patristic sources that Christians have always received some form of instruction, or formation, before being baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being admitted to the Lord’s Supper. So sacramental prep for the sacraments of initiation has always been part of Christian practice.

But remember, RCIA in its current form is a new practice: less than 50 years old.

It’s also beating against a couple of older traditions. The Catholic church has long practiced infant baptism, but delayed confirmation and eucharist until later. (Contrast this with the Eastern Orthodox church, which administers baptism, chrismation (roughly analogous to confirmation), and eucharist all together in infancy.) Starting in the early 20th century, children “of the age of reason” (typically around 7) were admitted to holy communion. The age of reason was important because, as I experienced in my own preparation for first communion, it was considered essential that children be capable of understanding the difference between the consecrated host and ordinary food. Confirmation was seen almost as the ratification of a conditional infant baptism, promising for yourself what your godparents promised for you in infancy, and voluntarily signing up to be a Catholic with all that implies and requires; so its preparation meant you’d better know exactly what you were signing up for.

Furthermore, the sacrament of penance had, functionally, become another sacrament of initiation, because of the (medieval origin, I believe) emphasis on being “in a state of grace” in order to receive communion. So a child must receive first confession before first communion, and “the age of reason” was also the age at which a child was considered capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong, and thus a moral agent who is capable of sin and repentance.

Well, if you’re doing sacramental prep for children, and the focus is that they need to understand certain things in order to receive the sacrament worthily, that naturally leads to a pedagogical model. Children go to school anyway; so add this to what we teach them.

And this naturally leads to a mindset in which the sacraments are something you earn by satisfactorily completing your sacramental prep classes.

Which strikes me as really bad theology. A sacrament is “a visible sign of invisible grace”, and that’s grace as in gratis, gratuitous, freely given and impossible to earn.

It also frequently leads to a culture in which confirmation becomes the functional equivalent of graduation from religious ed, and the subsequent disappearance of young people (and often their families) from active participation at church. And we don’t see them again until they’re ready to get married, and then not again until they’re ready to have their first child baptized, and then they’re often confused and angry if they’re told that baptism is intended for the children of actively practicing Catholics and when was the last time they came to Mass?

Infant baptism is supposed to be reserved for actively practicing Catholics because the theological framework is that, in this case, the child receives hir sacramental preparation post facto, the grace of the sacrament bearing fruit in their lives as they grow into it. And how can that possibly happen if sie’s not being raised in an actively practicing Catholic family? But that beats against an older and still very strong tradition that baptism is necessary for salvation, even for infants, and seriously, how dare the church withhold salvation from infants on the grounds that their parents are not actively practicing Catholics?

It is not presently the teaching of the Catholic church that unbaptized babies go to Hell. Or Purgatory. Or even Limbo. The Church has no formal teaching on what happens to unbaptized babies who die, other than to trust in the mercy of God. But that older tradition, which emphasizes what happens if we don’t receive the sacraments rather than what we must do to receive them worthily so they will bear fruit, is still very powerful.

The newer paradigm (by which I mean, the paradigm retrieved by Vatican 2 from the early church) emphasizes the kerygma, the proclamation and experience of the good news of the gospel in and through the faith community, the Body of Christ. Rather than a body of intellectual knowledge to be mastered, its sacramental preparation focuses on character formation, discipleship, which intrinsically must occur in community.

So that’s the sacraments of initiation. Let me comment briefly on the other sacraments.

Anointing of the sick does not require any special preparation that I have ever heard of, and I have received it without any such. There’s nothing to be learned. It’s a sacrament of consolation, embracing the afflicted person within the care and concern of the Church.

I’ve already talked about the sacrament of penance/reconciliation/confession. I don’t actually know, but I assume that people who are baptized as adults both need not and may not receive the sacrament of penance first (because baptism forgives all sins, because baptism is a license of admission to all the other sacraments), while people who were baptized in another tradition may perhaps need to receive the sacrament before they share in the eucharist.

The sacrament of ordination creates clergy, so it seems obvious to me that it requires a lot of prep. I suppose the standard seminary degree, along with the spiritual direction in seminary, constitutes its sacramental preparation? Well, only for priests, though. Ordination to the permanent diaconate has its own preparation program, though I don’t know anything about it. Ordination to the episcopacy…?? It too used to have several preparatory rites, most of which have been lost, involving the selection of a candidate, the presentation by the local church, the acceptance by the metropolitan (archbishop). I gather that there are courses for new bishops offered by the Vatican, but I think that occurs after they’re ordained bishops, not before? I actually have no idea about this.

Finally, the sacrament of marriage. In the old medieval model in which sacraments were licenses of admission to privilieges, the sacrament of marriage admitted the couple to licit sex. Presumably nobody thought you needed any particular preparation for that.

It is my recollection that, like RCIA, marriage preparation programs were also introduced after Vatican 2, specifically as a response to the rising prevalence of failing marriages. (“Failing” covers a multitude of things to talk about, there, but onward.) It was a response to the modern world, and an attempt to mitigate the Catholic church’s refusal to countenance divorce by at least giving the couple some tools for the actual practice of marriage, rather than letting people get into it without knowing what they were getting into and then refusing to let them get out of it.

Note that these marriage prep programs encompass both the pedagogical and the formational paradigms, at least in some dioceses. You can take classes together, or go on retreat together with other engaged couples, with married couples on the retreat staff.

It is my impression that there was no compelling need for marriage prep previously, for several reasons. It’s not a sacrament of initiation, so there’s no foundational tradition of preparation. When confirmation prep meant you were fully aware of what it meant to be Catholic, that meant you had learned what Catholic marriage entailed as well. When there was less social mobility and extended families were more cohesive, there were informal models of Catholic marriage available to young couples. When divorce was scandalous or generally unobtainable, and when domestic violence was considered a private matter, there was no need to explain why Catholics couldn’t get divorced. And before artificial contraception became commonly available, before other social factors started bringing down fertility rates, before Humanae Vitae, there was no need to teach about NFP and why it was the only method of birth control that good Catholics should use.

Before these programs were introduced and required, I think the general procedure was that the couple met with the priest once or twice, and that he would personally assess whether they were ready for marriage and whether there were any grave obstacles. I don’t think there was any formal preparation per se.

And remember, the idea of companionate marriage rather than purely economic and procreative marriage is pretty recent (19th-20th century). The idea that sex has both a unitive and a procreative function, which are equally important, is 20th century. The idea that religious life is not the only path to holiness but that marriage too is such a path is something the church is still coming to grips with: Therese of Lisieux’s parents were the first married couple ever canonized and that just happened last year… and they seem to have been canonized because they raised a whole family of children who went into religious life, so the message is still pretty mixed, there!

Honestly, I don’t think the theology of marriage, and thus its sacramental prep, has yet come to grips with how the social institution of marriage has changed in the last hundred years or so.

The existence of two currently operative but fundamentally different paradigms for sacramental prep (pedagogy, which would require homework in the traditional sense, vs formation, which would not) just complicates matters.

So, Rae, I suspect the reason you don’t understand it is that you’re looking for a self-consistent systematic approach to sacramental preparation. And at this point in historical time, the Catholic Church simply doesn’t have one. We’re still working out and ‘receiving’ the Second Vatican Council, in this as in a number of other areas.

Thanks for asking! 🙂

ps – I have written elsewhere about the poor state of Catholic education about marriage.

pps – For additional reading about the historical development of the sacraments, I highly recommend Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church by Joseph Martos, which I used in an online continuing ed course offered by Notre Dame.

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