St. Edmund Campion Parish, Maidenhead

Pastoral Letter from The Bishop (15 Jan 2017)


Dearest People of God,
The Church has now begun the cycle of Ordinary Time, in which we follow the life and teaching of Jesus, this year according to the Gospel of St. Matthew.1 Today we stand on the banks of the Jordan, listening to St. John the Baptist saying he saw “the Spirit coming down on Jesus from heaven like a dove and resting on him.”2 This descent of God the Holy Spirit makes us reflect on the Sacrament which gives the gift of that Spirit, and which this Eastertime many of our young will be receiving, namely, the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The Holy Spirit is powerfully active in all the Sacraments, but especially in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation completes and perfects the grace of Baptism.3 It is Pentecost made personal. 4 The Holy Spirit helps us to pray, to be spiritual, to become firmly rooted in the life and Word of God.5 He unites us with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, in a personal-passionate friendship. He seals us with seven spiritual powers, three for the mind and four for the will, to help us find the right way in life, to conquer sin and evil, and to reach our heavenly home. He keeps us firmly in communion with the Catholic Church, enabling us to spread the Faith, enhancing us with charisms and gifts for service and mission.6 This is why everyone should be confirmed. 7 Nowadays, the Sacrament is conferred not by fire and wind as at Pentecost but by the laying on of hands and an anointing with the oil of chrism. In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the priest administers Confirmation after a baby’s Baptism, but our Western practice has been to reserve the Sacrament to the Bishop and thus to confer it after Baptism at a later, suitable moment.8

Over the last decades, there has been much discussion about Confirmation. For instance, how might our theological understanding of this Sacrament be deepened? Would it be better to adopt the Eastern practice of conferring Confirmation at Baptism? Or to restore the ancient order of the Sacraments, putting Confirmation before First Holy Communion? Many wonder about the best age for Confirmation: seven, eleven or eighteen?9 But to me one thing is clear: we cannot continue indefinitely our current practice, because many of the young who receive this Sacrament afterwards drift away.10

Recently someone lamented to me that only two of their 40 newly confirmed practice their faith, despite a fine programme of catechesis and an uplifting celebration in the Cathedral. I replied provocatively: “You catechised them. You sacramentalised them. But did you convert them?” Evangelisation is first and foremost about conversion, a religious experience of meeting Jesus Christ and being called personally by Him with a transformed heart. We need to enable the conversion of young Catholics, not just to catechise them.11 This also applies to adults. Surveys shew that many practicing adults, even leading parishioners, are not sure God is personal, that they can have a real friendship with God, or that serving God is more than a habit or a hobby.12 Further, we need to take care that our catechesis tackles the real blockages to faith many people today struggle with: the existence of God, why a good God allows so much suffering in the world, the uniqueness and divinity of Christ, freedom and responsibility, sexuality, and the relationship of science and religion.13

Let me endorse – at least for the time being – some aspects of our current diocesan policy on Confirmation.14 Normally, the Bishop confers Confirmation at the Cathedral on the weekends of Eastertide. This underlines the Western tradition, which links Confirmation to the Bishop, and enables the celebration to occur in the correct liturgical season. A ‘Going Forth Mass’ and celebration for the newly confirmed can then be arranged subsequently in their home parish or Pastoral Area. Candidates should be at least 13 years old. Resources permitting, the Confirmation course should span two years: one year up to the Sacrament, then a follow-on year of continuing formation, with prayer, fun and a work of practical charity. This helps deepen the call to discipleship, by forming a peer support-group that will also enable links with our diocesan youth programmes. Each Pastoral Area will have Confirmation every two years, except where local circumstances suggest otherwise. Finally, I ask candidates to choose as a Confirmation name a Saint from the current Roman Missal. This ensures that they have a Patron Saint they can readily relate to, as well as an annual celebration with the rest of the diocesan community.

In today’s secular culture, only a small minority of Catholics practice their faith.15 New evangelisation is about reaching out and fanning into a flame smouldering wicks. We need to review our pastoral practices around Baptism, first Holy Communion and Confirmation. The Sacraments are not magic. They effect what they signify, but, as Vatican II taught, they are Sacraments of faith, presupposing faith.16 In June this year, I have called a Convocation of the Clergy; one topic will be the Sacraments of Initiation and their celebration in today’s context. Please pray that over the coming years we might discover new ways forward, appropriate to the 21st century. This is why what I have said above about Confirmation is not forever, but simply “for the time being.”

Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will. These words of today’s Psalm should not only be on the lips of those to be confirmed but on our lips too. The world at the moment is full of uncertainty and immense problems, as well as violence and war. Today is a Day of Prayer for Peace. As Christians, our task is to work for peace, that is, for the coming of God’s Kingdom, for justice and for a sustainable ecology. For this, we have been baptised by Jesus with the Holy Spirit. We are called and gifted persons. We are meant to be dependent upon and animated by the Holy Spirit. Please say each morning the prayer Come Holy Spirit.17 Say too: Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will. Pray that we will be a young, fresh, missionary Church, one with deep love for our splendid Catholic Tradition, yet one thoroughly open to modern ways of working.18 Indeed, through the intercession of Mary Immaculate and St. Edmund of Abingdon, may God bless us all abundantly this New Year, 2017.

In Corde Iesu
+ Philip
Bishop of Portsmouth