"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nicholas Denysenko on Chrismation and Catholics

My friend Nicholas Denysenko is a prolific fellow. I interviewed him in late 2012 about his first book, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition. Now his second book in as many years has recently been published: Chrismation: A Primer for Catholics (Liturgical Press, 2014), xxxvii+209pp. I am looking forward to teaching my graduate class on liturgy next year precisely so that I can have the students read this book, for with my students few topics incite as much heated though inconclusive debate as the topic of the ordering of the sacraments of initiation in the Latin Church.

This new book is at once deeply immersed in the history and theology of the East, particularly (but not exclusively) Byzantine practice, but also written, as the sub-title clearly suggests, for Catholics navigating these issues in their own contexts. It is not in any way a polemical work in which an Orthodox apologist attempts to, well, pontificate about how the Latin Church should structure her life. It is, on the contrary, irenical and helpful scholarship at its best. To use a phrase I used in my own book on the papacy, a phrase that the late Pope John Paul II and the late Margaret O'Gara both popularized, Nick's book is an "ecumenical gift-exchange" of the best sort: it looks at some of the contemporary struggles around sacramental practice in the Latin Church and says, with genuine solicitude and without any triumphalism, "Have you considered some possible alternative practices used in the East?" The history and theology of those practices is then displayed here along with some suggestions as to possible ways forward. It is not smugly prescriptive but it is, to reclaim the verb I just used in its typical pejorative sense, a pontification of the best sort: the word, of course, comes from the Latin pontifex and is usually translated as bridge-builder. Nick builds bridges between, if you will, old and new Rome, offering the former some of the wisdom that comes from the practices of the latter in case they may be of use. In short, this is ecumenical scholarship of the best possible kind.

I asked Nick for an interview about this book, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us what led you from a book on Theophany and water blessings to a book on Chrismation

ND: In writing the book on the blessing of waters, I engaged numerous historical monographs on the history of the rites of initiation. These studies opened my eyes to the labyrinthian history of Confirmation in the West and contributed to my interest in the question of anointing with Chrism. To be honest, I was inspired largely by my classroom experience. Students were shocked and perplexed by my historical presentations of Confirmation, and I noted a dissonance between the liturgical theology of the sacrament and its popular perception among the laity. It became a research project at a meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy when several Episcopalian and Catholic colleagues remarked that the Orthodox are the only ones who have really retained tradition. I wondered to myself, "have we? Do we really understand the anointing with Chrism, or do we just define it through Western lenses?" These are the events and conversations that inspired me to look into the question.

AD: Your preface notes that much of the inspiration for writing came from participating in real baptisms and chrismations with real people. Following something Robert Taft said a few years ago about liturgical studies moving from a focus on texts to the experiences of people in the pews, do you see your book as much more "experiential" in nature? Is that what you mean by using the word "primer" in your sub-title?

Real life experience is central. I have provided diaconal service or chanting at dozens of Chrismations, and no two pastoral explanations are alike. Two aspects of the rite of Chrismation struck me profoundly: first, when infants are anointed, Chrismation is really a continuation of the rite of Baptism. There is no particular moment where the assembly pauses with the deacon announcing, "we have now transitioned from Baptism to Chrismation and N. is receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit." The memory of Chrismation as belonging to a complete process of initiation remained with me when I began to research this topic in earnest. Also, when converts are received into the Church, they tend to describe it as a strong liturgical moment marking belonging. I really wanted to explore these aspects of anointing I had observed from ritual and I believe that my book was strengthened by including this dimension. My use of "primer" is a short way of saying, "here's an immersion into the real meaning of Chrismation."

AD: What was your purpose, as an Orthodox deacon and professor of theology, in addressing your book to Catholics? Was that focus born out of your experience at LMU and your Catholic students there?

This book is for everyone; Orthodox, too. But I primarily addressed Catholics because the tension in academic and pastoral discourse on Chrismation often leaves representatives of all sides referring to Orthodox Chrismation as supporting a particular point. My hope in this book was to bring the two liturgical traditions into dialogue, not so that one tradition would be absorbed by the other, but to promote healthy mutual understanding. Let me add this: ecumenical dialogue is a precious asset for promoting self-understanding, too.

AD: My own Catholic graduate students, most of whom work in parochial schools or parishes as catechists or RCIA directors, regularly get into lengthy and inconclusive debates with each other and with me about the proper ordering of the sacraments of initiation. They are often sympathetic to the historical arguments about the order Baptism-Chrismation-Communion, but worry that restoring that order would drain Catholic programs, parishes, and parochial schools of many kids who attend only long enough to get confirmed at or after eighth grade. They thus view the historical ordering as a real risk today not simply to the viability of schools but also to the opportunity for longer formation and catechesis. I admit I never have any good counter-arguments here. What are your thoughts?

I think that Catholics would really benefit from initiating their children into the complete life of the kingdom by allowing them to participate in the Eucharist. The current sequence of sacraments results in Eucharistic communities stratified by age groups. I really sympathize with ministers and catechists who are committed to retention of youth, but I am utterly unconvinced that Confirmation as adolescent initiation is an effective approach. Initiating all our children into the fullness of the life of the Kingdom and permitting them to partake of the banquet is essential for faith communities that promote and exalt the dignity of human life. All Christians should be concerned with retaining youth and encouraging them to exercise their divine citizenship. Too often, we hijack sacraments in attempts to fulfill a particular objective, but in so doing, we do not honor the fullness of Christ's body. In an ideal world, I'd love to contribute to a thinking group that works on creating mystagogical programs that encourage our youth to live in a Spirit of thanksgiving and connect their Eucharistic participation with daily life. To do so, isn't delaying initiation into the Eucharistic assembly setting them back?

AD: Unlike some other sacramental and liturgical actions you review, you note that Chrismation or Confirmation, whether in the East or West, is too often for most people "a cloaked mystery" (xx) whose meaning it is not easy to extract. Tell us briefly why you think that is.

Despite the twentieth-century linkage of liturgy to ecclesiology, in practice, many sacraments are still private family matters. If we think about unrepeatable sacraments like Baptism and Chrismation, they often occur as quick and necessary pastoral tasks without much community engagement. Obviously, the reinvigoration of the RCIA has contributed to a paradigm shift on this matter, but in general, Baptism and Chrismation are often faded memories and we gain a glimpse of these sacraments when we have to participate as godparents or friends of families "invited" to the event. Given the theological and soteriological weight invested in initiation, the gap between "faded memory" and "capacity to shape daily life" needs to be filled. I'm hoping that this book might prove to be an asset in filling that gap.

AD: You note that despite some similarities as a post-baptismal rite conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit, nonetheless Orthodox ideas of Chrismation and Catholic ideas of Confirmation "have many differences" (xxv), and one of these is the number and timing of anointings. It seems to me that in some respects contemporary (post-conciliar) RC practice tends to "fudge" the difference or blur the boundaries between Baptism and Confirmation by conferring at baptism "the first of two different anointings with Chrism" (xxvii) on children (but not adolescents or adults) before their first Confession and Communion, both of which occur before their Confirmation. Is that your read of the situation?

I discuss this history in the book. Catholic infants are indeed chrismated after Baptism, whereas those who participate in the RCIA do not receive the post-baptismal anointing. The separation becomes problematic when we also separate theologies and make Confirmation THE sacrament of the Spirit, as if Baptism is not pneumatological. If Confirmation continues and completes Baptism, then it would be best to restore its order so that it literally completes baptism in sequence. This requires a pastoral adjustment permitting presbyters to confirm, because the retention of episcopal presidency at Confirmation - which is a historically venerable tradition - simply cannot be sustained in our time without significantly impacting the meaning of Confirmation.

AD: Part of your emphasis through the book, you signal in your introduction, will be on the "crisis of belonging" experienced by people today, especially when it comes to the "institutional" church. When you talk about that crisis, what do you have in mind? Is it just that people don't come to liturgy on Sunday as often as they should, or is there more to it than that?

Almost all churches in America are experiencing attrition, no matter how much we try to bolster our numbers. For the Orthodox Churches, a good introduction to the topic of belonging is provided by Amy Slagle in her recent study on converts, The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity. We are on the tail end of a painful paradigm shift. In the past, one used to attend the parish or congregation of one's village. In urban areas, people attended church in their neighborhood, often by foot. Now, one might drive 25 or more miles to church. Church is a significant commitment and people attend for all kinds of reasons that ultimately begin with a sense of belonging. In the paradigm shift, the criterion for choosing a church - and yes, it is a matter of voluntary selection - is whether or not one can identify with the pastoral leadership and the people to say with confidence, "we belong." Sacramental theology is all about "belonging," and in this study, I have attempted to demonstrate how the anointing with Chrism happens to be a rite that communicates a rich sense of belonging to the community of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I compared the language of the liturgy and its expression of belonging to the responses of people who experienced anointing in an attempt to parse out how Chrismation communicates belonging. When we talk about the sacraments or mysteries of the Church, it's essential to illuminate that initiation is not fleeting: one does not merely belong to a congregation with plenty of single people where one can enjoy a happy social life with like-minded folks. Rather, one might have joined a culturally and politically pluralistic community where difference prevails with one exception: everyone participating can refer to a common citizenship in God's kingdom, the most powerful foundation for meaningful daily life. Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist deliver an eschatological reality: we belong to God's family. What we need is to find creative ways to communicate why this beautiful reality of belonging to God - forever - can be life-giving and life-changing today, in this life. In my opinion, this is an urgent pastoral matter.

AD: Your second chapter reviews the diversity of practices governing the reception of converts. If you could suddenly vault yourself to a position of omnipotence over all Orthodoxy, would you retain that diversity or try to institute one universal practice, and in either case why? 

In principle, I find liturgical diversity healthy, and I'll be writing about this in the next manuscript I need to finish. In contemporary Orthodoxy, we need an adjustment that brings more uniformity to the rites of receiving converts. In our time, conversion is really equivalent to changing denominations (the unchurched are baptized, and not received by anointing). Pastors need to exercise discretion when they require candidates to renounce particular teachings because the received tradition espouses a theology of exclusion that does not conform to progress in the ecumenical movement. If I had the power you describe here, I would require Orthodox seminarians to learn much more about the historical and theological traditions of the West to understand why certain positions were assumed. Too often, we repeat polemical statements we inherited for no good reason. I think one can cause irreparable damage by accentuating theological deficiencies in Catholic and Reformed traditions, and requiring renunciations only perpetuates this problem. Asking people to renounce ideas also denotes some renunciation of the communities who hold some variants of those theological ideas. In real life, this can isolate people and create unnecessary friction, especially if the person who has become Orthodox through anointing with Chrism belongs to a non-Orthodox family. Instead of renouncing, why not affirm with enthusiasm what the Orthodox Church confesses and teaches while helping our own faithful understand other Christians without insulting them?

AD: Your fourth chapter repeats the oft-heard line about Confirmation being a sacrament in search of a theology. Why is that? How did it come to seem theologically adrift?

Bp. Kevin Rhoades, Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend
Confirmation's detachment from Baptism became permanent around the thirteenth century because of the Roman reservation of episcopal presidency at the sacrament. The Church's geographical diffusion did not permit bishops to visit parishes frequently which resulted in delayed Confirmation. With children receiving Confirmation at an older age, a new theology emerged in conjunction with this ritual evolution that explained the delay. Confirmation was construed as a sacrament of strength and maturity demonstrating one's attainment of sufficient development to live as faithful Christians. This explanation is somewhat incoherent with the liturgical theology of Confirmation, which reveals the sacrament as imparting the Christic offices of priest, prophet, and king to participants and granting them the manifold gift of the Holy Spirit. We learn an important lesson of liturgical history from Confirmation: pastoral explanations of sacramental meaning evolve in response to the historical circumstances that dictate the sacrament's evolution. The existence of multiple theologies of Confirmation reveal it as a sacrament in search of a theology.

AD: You note that the Pauline reforms after Vatican II attempted to more clearly restore a connection between Baptism and Confirmation. Do you think that intent been undermined by the diversity of practice across even just American dioceses, where some retain a clearer connection while others interpose one or both of Confession and Communion (and not always in that order)?

The renewal of baptismal vows and confessions of faith at Confirmation refer to Baptism. The most important Pauline reform was the illumination of Confirmation as the sacrament imparting the gift of the Holy Spirit, mostly through the adoption of the Byzantine formula, "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." The diversity of ritual practices in the Roman Church manifests the competing theologies of Confirmation. I think a stronger rehabilitation of the Eucharist as the repeatable and repeated sacrament of initiation is the key to promoting a sound understanding of how the sacraments of initiation establish a pattern of God giving the gift of the Spirit to the assembly: in baptism, anointing, and Eucharist, over and over again.

AD: You note (p.146) that Paul VI's adaptation of Byzantine emphasis in the revised rite of Confirmation went largely unnoticed by the lay faithful. But what about Orthodox liturgists and theologians, then and since? Have they remarked on this at all or seen it as significant?

The Orthodox theologians tend to view Catholic sacramental theology and liturgical reform as a reference point for comparison. To be honest, most Orthodox theologian haven't attended to revisions in Catholic liturgy and tend to contribute to the fissure between perception and reality. Has anyone heard of an Orthodox theologian discussing the composition of three new Eucharistic prayers and their addition to the Roman Missal? Paul Meyendorff's contributions to the Faith and Order Commission's work on the sacraments of (the World Council of Churches) exemplifies Orthodox attention to the realities of liturgical and sacramental life in global Christianity. Typically, Orthodox theologians are asked to explain their own tradition, so it is most convenient to refer to other Christian traditions by referring to their differences. I hope that my work might inspire Orthodox theologians to read the Catholic liturgical tradition more carefully, to note similarities in ritual structure, euchology, and especially the theological foundations underpinning liturgical structures. Perhaps a more careful reading might help the Orthodox realize how much we actually have in common with other Christians. I have more to say about this, but I'll save it for my next book on liturgical reform.  

AD: You note that "the Vatican II reform of confirmation was incomplete" (p.153).  If Francis dies tomorrow, and Catholics elected you as pope, what would you do to complete the reforms?

Well, as a faithful son of the Orthodox Church, I'd have to respectfully decline, despite my fondness for Papal vesture. All kidding aside, the most urgent task would be a restoration of Confirmation to infants, followed by granting infants access to holy communion. If the Eucharist is the sacrament of the Kingdom, the Church needs to ritualize it and allow children to partake of the table since they too participate in the offering. Such a ritual reform would be faithful to Roman Catholic tradition and Catholic theologians would certainly capture the opportunity to expound theologically on the reform.
AD: Having finished Chrismation: A Primer for Catholics, what are you working on now?

I just finished a book on contemporary Orthodox architecture, which is currently under review by a major university press. Now I am in the process of completing a book on liturgical reform in the Orthodox Church. In this book, I'll assess Orthodox participation in the liturgical movement and compare instances of liturgical reform with ample attention to Father Alexander Schmemann and New Skete Monastery. 

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