Sunday, March 20, 2011

Auxiliary Bishops and Confirmation

Sitting there at my sister's confirmation yesterday, I was forced to consider just what the point of waiting for an auxiliary bishop to confirm really is except to, basically, get to see a mitre and crosier.

No, seriously, it's a little more purposeful than that. But my thoughts were this: originally, the bishop baptized and confirmed the person at the Easter Vigil at the same time, back when the Christian community was small enough to initiate all the catechumens of a city in one service.

Later, as the Church grew and as baptism was done mainly immediately for infants due to people born into Christian families coming to outnumber growth by way of conversion, things were adapted to accommodate this differently in East and West.

In the East, baptism and confirmation were kept together, and so both are given to infants. However, since the bishop can't come around to every infant baptism, the priests are all delegated to preform the chrismations. The presbyters are extraordinary ministers of confirmation, so this is possible; I would even argue that, confirmation not seeming to be a Sacrament requiring jurisdiction like marriage or confession, the confirmations of simple presbyters (as long as they use chrism blessed by a bishop) are probably valid (though illicit) even without proper delegation in the purely juridical sense, like the non-emergency baptisms of lay people would be. But even with delegation, it does require "sacrificing" the fullness of the symbolism of connecting confirmation to the bishop.

In the West it was solved the other way. Since bishops can't come around for every infant baptism, confirmation is separated from infant baptism (with a "place-holder" anointing with chrism done at the baptism), and children are confirmed when they reach a certain age as a group once a year when the bishop is available. Splitting them up like this is possible, of course, but it also sacrifices the fullness of the symbolism of the connection between baptism and confirmation.

Traditionally, in the West, ones first communion would be taken at the same Mass as ones confirmation, but with the lowering of the age for the reception of first communion by Pius X (without a corresponding lowering of the age for confirmation), the traditional order of the three sacraments was disrupted. Some bishops are now splitting the difference and having slightly older children confirmed at their first communion mass again to restore the traditional order. I think that's just fine.

However, to me, the West's "sacrifice" of keeping baptism and confirmation for the sake of having a bishop confirm...seems justified mainly if the confirming bishop is the Ordinary. Because it's really not just any bishop who is the ordinary minister of confirmation, but specifically ones own Ordinary.

Auxiliary bishops, however, are not the Ordinary. Titularly, they are the bishop of some extinct diocese in partibus infidelium who happen to be resident, like refugees, in the diocese of some other metropolitan. In itself, I'm all for this; I think its good to keep the memories of these "lost" dioceses alive in this way. But, practically speaking, auxiliary bishops are just glorified extensions or assistants to the archbishop, made bishops mainly for the sake of confirmations, it seems! Very rarely do auxiliary bishops seem to ordain, and they don't have ordinary jurisdiction.

And yet, simple presbyters amount to basically the same thing, at that point, I'd think. I mean, what is a presbyter except a "hand" of the bishop, an extension of the Ordinary for the sake of multiplying the sacramental ministry locally?

In practice then, it seems like delaying confirmation only to have it preformed by an auxiliary bishop rather than the Ordinary...really deviates from the ideal almost as much as having a simple presbyter preform it (like at the Easter Vigil, or at all infant baptisms in the East). An auxiliary bishop amounting, in practice relative to the Ordinary, to something like a presbyter with pontificals.

Of course, I'll admit, there is still some purpose, I suppose, inasmuch as any bishop, even auxiliary, is an equal member of the episcopal college and a successor to the Apostles by the very fact of his episcopal consecration in the way a presbyter is not. As such, confirmation by any bishop might have a slightly fuller symbolism than one just by a presbyter.

But I do have to wonder how important waiting for a mere auxiliary bishop to confirm really is, how coherent the symbolism of that act is, if it really justifies delaying the grace like that...when both auxiliary bishops and presbyters are ultimately just delegated ministers vis a vis the Ordinary when it comes to the sacrament of confirmation, when both amount to no more than stand-ins for the ideal of the Ordinary himself, whose connection to the faithful (a spiritual fatherhood, mind you!) is really one of the main points of confirmation. I don't like the implication that "a bishop is a bishop is a bishop," as if all bishops are basically interchangeable.

A while back a reader sent me two great articles arguing/explaining that the primary purpose or grace of confirmation was this connection with the hierarchy and magisterium of the Church. That while baptism initiates us into the community of the universal Church (visible and invisible; militant, suffering, and triumphant) in an "undifferentiated" manner, confirmation unites us specifically to its visible hierarchal organ in the college of bishops. (And ordination makes one a very member of that organ). I think this argument makes a lot of sense and sheds a lot of light on the nature of confirmation.

But, let's never forget that as Catholics we do not really have a relationship to "the college of bishops" in the abstract, as if they collectively represent the whole Church (like parliament members "at large"), as if they all together preside over the Church as a whole, as the conciliarist heresy would have (and as the recent practice of national bishops' conferences can give the impression). But rather that, in the true notion of collegiality or synodality, our connection to that college is through our specific Ordinary, who has specific jurisdiction over a specific local church with his specific subjects therein.

So many Catholics seem to have a "direct relationship with the Pope" these days, and indeed he has immediate universal jurisdiction over each of us, is the vicar of Christ on earth, the visible head of the Church on earth. But let's not also forget our own bishop Ordinaries, who are not merely like vicars of the Pope (and therefore interchangeable), but rather are sovereign in their own dioceses (without prejudice to the universal aspect of the Church), and have immediate local jurisdiction which is properly all their own, not merely delegated. Who are, directly, the vicar of Christ in their own dioceses, the visible head of the Church in that diocese (and not merely as representatives of the Pope).

While the universal Church is definitely "more than the sum of its parts," and cannot be reduced to merely a confederation of local churches (as Orthodoxy seems to sometimes tend dangerously towards), let's be careful as Catholics also not to let our local churches (which are, in a certain sense, internally "complete" organic microcosms by themselves) be dissolved totally into the aegis of the universal either, as if we are all just citizens of the universal Church "at large" with the local dimension being merely an after-thought derivative of that. That sort of hyper-centralization or subordinationism on the part of the universal authority must also be tactfully resisted.

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