Confirmation Conundrum

Since August, I’ve heard from parents who were concerned about their children being confirmed by Bishop Malone this fall. One mother told me she was thinking of having her child take the necessary classes at a parish that normally has their Confirmation in the spring – in the hopes that Bishop Malone won’t be here then. Another parent told me that they weren’t looking forward to their son’s Confirmation and felt bad about it. Still another dad told me he and his wife were going to have their child confirmed as a senior and not a junior to avoid Bishop Malone as the confirming prelate.

While these comments made complete sense to me, they also made me very sad. Confirmation season used to be a joyful experience. How well do I recall the Confirmation scheduling that Fr. Ryszard and I used to do in the Chancery. Father was such a marvel at fitting them all in somehow! And, to top it off, he would coordinate all of the details for each ceremony and masterfully guide everyone through each Confirmation Mass. The fall and especially spring Confirmation seasons were very busy for the Chancery, but it was a “good busy” because of the importance of this sacrament.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is not a “coming of age” ritual or a graduation from religious education. Rather, Confirmation completes the graces of Baptism. Together, Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confirmation constitute the sacraments of Christian initiation. As the Catechism explains: “by the sacrament of Confirmation, the baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.” The Catechism further notes that “Like, Baptism which it completes, Confirmation is given only once, for it too imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark, the ‘character,’ which is the sign that Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness.”

Simply put, Confirmation is a big deal. It is a special outpouring of gifts by the Holy Spirit which seal or “confirm” the baptized in union with Christ and equips them for active participation in worship and apostolic life of the Church (from the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The significance of this sacrament is also made known by its celebrant: a bishop. Anyone can (technically) baptize while priests give us the Eucharist, Reconciliation and the Sacrament of the Sick. Brides and grooms confer upon each other the Sacrament of Matrimony. Bishops are the primary ministers for only two sacraments: Holy Orders and Confirmation. Both sacraments involve a bishop anointing the confirmands or ordinands with chrism oil.

Because of their significance, Confirmation ceremonies were always included in Bishop Malone’s public calendar, which used to be published monthly online and in print. But since October, the Bishop’s public calendar has not been published. I assumed these special ceremonies were taking place as usual, but had no idea when and where they were happening.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read the following message, which was sent at approximately 9 pm last night to the Confirmation families of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Williamsville:

We would like to let you know that we have received word from Bishop Malone that he will not be with us at the Confirmation Mass. So here are the details that we want to share with you. As you know from our earlier emails, we have tried to be transparent through a difficult time in our diocese.

Originally, Bishop Malone wanted to be with us to help work towards unity and healing with us and all the parishes where he was scheduled to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. However, recently, several people have alerted us that there were plans for protesters to assemble outside our church to protest the Bishop’s role in the handling of the victims’ cases of sexual abuse. We gave word to the Bishop’s office of this possibility.

The Bishop decided he would step down as celebrant of the Confirmation ceremony. He asked us to let everyone know that this decision was out of his concern that the students are not subjected to any disruptions on their special and holy day. 

Canon law allows the Bishop to give authority to a priest to confer the sacrament of Confirmation. So Fr. Ron has been given that permission and will confirm our students.

The sacrament of Confirmation is effected by and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bishop or priest is given authority to act in the person of Jesus to bring down the Holy Spirit so that each person will be sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is an act of God, not of man. 

Also, I want to share with you that the clergy and staff at Nativity are committed to outreach to the victims of clerical abuse. We continue to speak with and lift up the victims that we have met. We want to be a part of their healing. We want to work to heal our parish and our diocese. We will continue to work with you to bring unity and affirm each one of us in our Baptismal roles in the Body of Christ.

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish

My immediate tradition was one of shock. I didn’t even know there WAS a Confirmation scheduled today so I certainly wasn’t planning to assemble outside their church to protest Bishop Malone. Yet even if I HAD known of this ceremony, I would never have made plans to protest it.

Since I began participating in and coordinating protests, I have been very discerning about which events to protest. My focus has been on Bishop Malone’s meetings with important groups particularly the Presbyteral Council and Diocesan Pastoral Council. The only time I have protested a Mass, it was at the Seminary where we were standing by the side of the main driveway – not right by the chapel. And in all three cases, the Masses in question included relevant elements such as the Apostolic Nuncio’s attendance or the installation of the new Seminary Rector.*

Please know that I’ve done a lot of thinking about the protests I’ve called. I’ve thoughtfully assessed the following elements: purpose, impact, location, timing, safety, signage, parking, media involvement (if deemed appropriate), and even weather. I would never dream of protesting a Mass let alone a Confirmation Mass. The Mass is the primary celebration of the Church – the sacrificial memorial of Christ’s Passover. It is Catholicism’s greatest treasure for it gives us Christ Himself present in the Eucharist. For the reasons outlined earlier, a Mass of Confirmation has tremendous significance. On a personal note, I remember my own Confirmation with fondness and gratitude. I would not want to take away from other confirmands’ celebration of this great sacrament.

So we’ve established that I did not plan to protest today’s Confirmation or any other such ceremony. Then who are these mysterious people who were “planning to assemble outside (the) church to protest the Bishop’s role in the handling of the victims’ cases of sexual abuse”? I contacted the only other people I know who have organized their own protests – the aforementioned Stephen Parisi and his fellow former Seminarian and Whistleblower, Matthew Bojanowski. When I inquired, I received an immediate response: no such plans whatsoever!

As far as I know there have been only three active protest groups in the Diocese this year:

  • Bob Hoatson, who called a press conference and protest at the Seminary twice this past spring
  • Stephen and Matthew, who have protested at the Seminary, the Catholic Center and the Bishop’s Residence
  • Me and my crew, as it were, who have protested at the Seminary, the Catholic Center and the airport

None of these three groups had anything planned for today’s Confirmation Mass.

This left me wondering…

  • Were Nativity staff members concerned that some of us protesters might be there and acted out of an abundance of caution?
  • Were there rumors of a protest since our airport protest was in the news just last weekend?
  • Were there assumptions made that we would be showing up because it’s a Diocesan event?

As it turns out, the answer is much more interesting:

The people who intended to protest were Nativity parishioners! In fact, some of the confirmand families themselves were considering joining in the protest at today’s Confirmation. 

That’s right – a new group of protesters was organizing itself! Wow!

As you may recall, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish has had a difficult history. Three of their recent priests/pastors have been accused of sexual abuse: Maryanski, Leising and Sadjak. Leising and Sajdak were cleared by the Diocesan Review Board and Sajdak was returned as the pastor late last year. Maryanski’s case is hauntingly horrible and can be read about via this link. Suffice it to say that the people of this parish have suffered over the past 18 months as they’ve learned about the abuse history of a former priest-in-ministry and dealt with the removal and reinstatement of their current pastor, which is a very unsettling experience for a parish family.

To the folks who were going to protest today I say two things: Thank you and Bravo! Thank you for having the fortitude and conviction to protest Bishop Malone. Bravo for having the strength to stand up to this shepherd who does not care for his sheep! He put your parish family at risk by allowing an abusive priest to minister among you for years despite Bishop Malone and the Diocese “having full knowledge” of his abuse history. Bishop Malone pulled your current pastor from ministry right before a Vigil Mass last November with no thought of the turmoil and distress that would cause you all. Bishop Malone pulled Father Ron to protect himself and save face – not out of genuine concern for any of you.

Please note that my praise of the would-be protesters is not intended as a commentary on those who were not planning to protest. I’m certainly not saying that non-protesting parishioners at Nativity are not good people or do not possess fortitude or conviction. Far from it. This is an extremely difficult time for our diocese and everyone has to do what is best for them and their family. It can be very hard to decide what is best to do in each particular instance. Unfortunately Bishop Malone continues to cause this difficulty and distress for people. Parents should not feel conflicted about their child’s Confirmation and confirmands should not be dismayed about who’s going to confirm them.

According to my source, Bishop Malone was told earlier this week that protesters might be at the Nativity Confirmation. At the time, he was determined to still celebrate the Confirmation. It was only much later in the week that he learned about the protesters being Nativity parishioners. This change in the identity of the protesters is what lead him to remove himself as the Confirmation celebrant.** 

This is a very interesting and important development.

Remember – the Bishop “asked us to let everyone know that this decision was out of his concern that the students are not subjected to any disruptions on their special and holy day.”

But wait! Earlier this week, Bishop Malone was okay with run-of-the-mill protesters being there. He wasn’t suddenly concerned about Confirmands and their families being “subjected to disruptions.” Rather, he was suddenly concerned about HIMSELF. He didn’t want to be protested by members of the very parish he’s visiting, which would be a very new and embarrassing development. Worse still, he did not want it to get out that members of the Confirmation class (and their families) were among those who were protesting! He didn’t want to subject HIMSELF to embarrassment and the latest episcopal low. So he did what he always does when a situation become difficult: he made his exit.

While it’s disheartening and discouraging to be reminded of Bishop Malone’s narcissistic cowardice, I am very happy for the people of Nativity! Their protest efforts were so successful that they didn’t have to actually protest! And now they can enjoy the Confirmation ceremony this evening at 7 pm. Their parish bulletin indicates that they have over 80 confirmation candidates – how awesome! I pray that they will have a blessed and beautiful celebration of this tremendous Sacrament.

Final thought… this situation really demonstrates the power of the people! Let’s continue to speak up and take a stand.

* My critics will likely note the protest that I organized for Saturday, September 14th. The Diocesan Pastoral Council was scheduled for 10 am that morning at the Catholic Center. That meeting was the sole focus of our protesting. Thus I was dismayed when I saw that the Pro-Life In-Service Mass was to be held at 9 that morning at St. Louis Church, which is directly across from the Catholic Center. I scheduled our protest to begin at 9:30 so that we would not interfere with those attending the Mass. We were going to stand on the Catholic Center side so that we would not be close to Mass goers. But these thoughtful plans were all for naught because the Bishop ended up canceling the Pro-Life Mass and moving the Diocesan Pastoral Council meeting to the Seminary in an effort to stymie our protesting efforts. [It didn’t work. We moved with him.] Main point: we were not going to be protesting or causing a disturbance at that 9 am Mass.

That’s the Bishop’s residence behind us

Critics may further point to my participation in a protest at the Bishop’s residence on Sunday, August 18th. I was there to support Stephen Parisi, a seminarian at Christ the King Seminary who had just resigned after blowing the whistle on dysfunction and abuse at the Seminary. Those of us protesting remained on the public sidewalk on the Bishop’s side of the street. Across that street sits the stunning St. Stanislaus Church. As people exited Mass that morning, some of them expressed their outrage at our protesting presence. We explained that we were protesting the Bishop – not them or their parish. As I said at the time, “You can’t help your neighbors.” One older lady got extremely angry at me, told me I should be in jail and then flipped me off. Later, a former Diocesan colleague respectfully told me that it was disconcerting to see St. Stan’s in TV reports about the protest as it suggested the church was involved somehow. I really took that to heart and realized that protest plans have to be made very carefully or unintended distress can result.

**This information came from a very trusted source with connections to Nativity