CONFIRMATION IN THE RCA

As my niece made her confirmation in her local Catholic parish this past weekend, it evoked memories of growing up as a teenager in Detroit at a time when we were all being asked to make a formal commitment to our local churches.  For most of my friends and classmates, eighth grade was a pivotal year, as the majority of them were practicing Catholics.  My very best friend since kindergarten was Lillian, an only child of second generation Italian-American parents.  So her confirmation was a very important event in her close-knit Italian family. I still remember the event to this day as I was the one and only non-Catholic, and probably non-Italian, guest at this climatic event.  It was also the first time I had ever attended a Catholic mass.

But even before that eventful day, there were special catechism classes that required her attendance every Sunday morning for approximately 2 months, since she attended public not Catholic parochial school.  On one of those Sundays I accompanied her to class at St. Raymond Catholic Church as her non-Catholic guest.  I remember the topic of the day: the seven sacraments, one of them being Confirmation, of the Catholic Church.  This was all very new to me as the Dutch in their Calvinistic churches only recognized 2 sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist (which we commonly just referred to as the celebration of the Last Supper of Christ). 

However, that does not imply that the Dutch Reformed Church did not recognize confirmation.  But hardly with such pomp and circumstance as I witnessed that spring day.  No special dress, although a newer Sunday best outfit was definitely appropriate for the occasion. No special official of the church, like the Bishop that attended Lillian’s confirmation ceremony.  And definitely no big family celebration that followed.  Remember I said Lillian was an only child in an Italian family (quite rare by Catholic standards in the 1960s).  I had never attended a celebration of such magnitude, with plenty of food, liquor, dancing and gift money flowing to honor this momentous occasion. The few family wedding receptions that I had attended were no match for this party.

Just like Lillian and my other Catholic classmates, I would be required to attend special classes before officially joining the church.  We also called these classes Catechism, and they were held on Sunday morning in place of the usual Sunday School lessons, which were centered around the teachings of the bible.  The Catechism classes would teach those prospective new church members the ins and outs of our Calvinistic faith – how the Reformed Church in America was structured, what our particular faith was based upon, (such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Apostles Creed,) how our church services were organized (the 3-part flow of approach, word and response), and the purpose of communion.  These particular classes were taught by our minister and church elders (in contrast to Sunday School classes which were taught by lay members of the church).  We were at times asked to explore the depth of our faith, but I quickly learned not to cross the line of inquiry too far.  Normally quite quiet and shy, I was beginning to emerge from that shell by 8th grade.  I believe I shocked a church elder during one class when I challenged whether his position on attending both the morning and evening services (for years the RCA conducted 2 services every Sunday, and before WWII there was even an afternoon service too) would make me a better Christian.  One thing you rarely did in the conservative Dutch church was rock the boat, and I sure did that on that particular Sunday morning. 

By replacing our normal routine of Sunday School for those eight weeks in late winter in junior high (I think it was when we were in the 9th grade and approximately 14 years old), the Reformed Church of America was taking the objective role of preparing its baptized  adolescent members for full participation as members of the church.  But unlike my Catholic friends, the actual act of public confession to such commitment was purely subjective, leaving my church classmates to decide when they wished to make that final step.  Upon completion of those special classes we could individually decide to move on to the next step, Confirmation (as we unofficially referred to it back in the 1960s).

At that time Confirmation in the RCA (the correct term was “The Profession of Faith”) was a 2-step process.  First you were required to privately confess your profession of faith to the church before a committee of church elders.  The elders would ask several questions of the candidate to determine if he/she was truly ready to make that lasting commitment to the church.  Once it was confirmed by the elders, then you would do so before the entire congregation at a specified Sunday morning service, seated in the front pew of your peers.  The day I made that formal commitment only 3 of us stood before the congregation from that catechism class of approximately 12 youths.  Eventually most of us would make that commitment before graduation from high school.  Confirmation was our ticket to finally partake in the Eucharist.

What those catechism classes failed to mention was what had recently transposed in the General Synod of the RCA on the process of accepting members to partake in the Eucharist.  When my father, his siblings, my grandparents, and grand aunts and uncles grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church there was no such ceremony, although the stage had been set for the idea of confirmation with the passage of the 1906 Liturgy “The Office for the Reception into Full Communion of Those Who Have Been Baptized in Infancy” by the General Synod.  This position by the RCA did not change until just before I undertook those catechism classes with the passage of the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order (The Order for Admission to the Lord’s Table) which laid the foundation for the process I went through in adolescence.  In 1990 this process came under scrutiny by the General Synod as it contradicted the very foundation of our faith the Belgic Confession, the official doctrine of the RCA,  and teachings of the Reformist, Calvin.  Confirmation was never intended to be a liturgy of the Dutch Reformed Church.  Remember I mentioned that the RCA only recognizes 2 sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist.  No historical records indicated any interim ceremony required to pass from infancy baptism to partaking in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  As one church scholar put it in a paper addressing this profound contradiction,  “confirmation is a ceremony looking for a theology.”  At about this same time in the church’s history, the right to partake in communion by children was being challenged by parents in the church. 

Today, confirmation remains a liturgy in many RCA congregations, but the process and significance has changed to bring the concept of profession of faith by those baptized at infancy into the church in line with the doctrines of the church, and is no longer a precursor to the one’s participation in communion.  So as times change so has the RCA.

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THE DUTCH AND CARNIVAL

For a long time I thought all Dutch were Protestants.  That misconception was rooted in my own religious experience, living my entire life in Michigan, and my public school education as it related to world history.  I had little exposure to world history in school until high school, and even then the Netherlands was only mentioned briefly in regards to the German occupation during World War II, and the subsequent war crime trials held in The Hague.  As an avid reader, I gobbled up reading Anne Franks’ Diary on my own accord, and that probably was my first realization that not every Dutchman was Protestant. Somehow, the shelter of my own life as a Dutch descendent in Detroit, led me to believe that the entire homeland had been converted to the Dutch Reformed Church following the Reformation and spread of Calvinism.  This was further engrained living in Michigan, where almost all Dutch immigrants and their descendents were Protestant, belonging to one of 3 religious denominations: The Reformed Church of America (RCA), the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and to a much lesser degree the Protestant Reformed.  All of these denominations stem from the RCA.  Other than my father’s older sister, who married a Catholic and raised her children in the Catholic faith, I had never met any other person of Dutch descent that was not Protestant.  Recently, I learned that there were some Dutch Catholic immigrants that settled in Detroit in the mid-1800s but their number was much smaller in comparison to the influx of Dutch emigrants of Protestant faith. Even my college experience, where I would learn about the Dutch masters and eventually spent three brief days touring Amsterdam did nothing to open my eyes to the diversity of religion in The Netherlands.

Then, as I began researching my family tree on my father’s Dutch ancestry side, my curiosity led me to learn more of the region of the Netherlands they emigrated from in the 1800s.  My misguided conceptions soon began to unravel, when I first learned that there are now more proclaimed Catholics than Protestants living in the homeland.  Next came the revelation that the once dominant Dutch Reformed Church, that was so instrumental in the decision of the first Dutch settlers in Michigan to leave their homeland, was no longer the state church, and in 2004 it actually merged with other Protestant denominations.  But there was more…my father’s paternal grandparents had lived in Noord-Brabant,  a province which was and still remains today predominately Catholic.  So it appears that the Reyst branch of my family tree may not have been Reformed Protestants for as long as I had originally imagined.  In fact my 4x great-grandfather is rumored to have been born around 1790 in the village of Holland, near Reusel-de Mierden, located in the very southern part of Noord-Brabant by the Belgium border.  It is reasonable to conclude that he may have been Catholic, and either he or his descendents converted to the Dutch Reformed Church after the family settled in Zevenbergen in the 1800s, which is located in the western part of the province, close to the predominately Protestant provinces of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland.  But even more enlightening…my great-grandmother, Helena de Reus, was born and lived until about 8 years old in Maastricht, Limburg, which has been predominately Catholic since 400 AD, and likely was raised Catholic.  Surprisingly, it is not inconceivable that at one time my ancestors may have participated in the pre-Lenten celebration known as Carnival.

Following the Reformation in the seventeenth century, the northern predominately Protestant provinces did away with Carnival.  Over time the festivities faded in the southern Catholic provinces, most likely do to pressure from the increasing influential Dutch Reformed Church.  However, following World War II, the tradition of Carnival was resurrected, mostly in the cities and towns throughout Noord-Brabant and Limburg, with Maastricht regarded as the top Carnival town.  The official start of Carnival in the Netherlands is November 11th (the 11th day of the 11th month) at precisely 11 minutes past 11 (called the “day of fools”) when the Council of Eleven names the Prince of Carnival.  Note the significance of the number 11. Thus begins the months of preparations by each municipality.  Festivities usually begin on the Sunday (sometimes Friday) before Ash Wednesday. There are parades dotted with floats containing large papier-mache figures, people dressed in bizarre costumes, some wearing painted faces or masks, music (sometimes with quite obscene lyrics), plenty of food, and lots of alcohol. This madness continues until the end of Shrove Tuesday, midnight marks the beginning of Ash Wednesday.  During the Dutch Carnival, some towns in Noord-Brabant, even change their name, like Den Bosch; it is known as “Oeteldonk” or “Frog Hill” during the days of Carnival. 

Like other Catholics around the world, Carnival is a time to indulge on those things that are given up during the 6 weeks of Lent, rich food being one of those forbidden items.  It was common for the Dutch to use almonds in lots of recipes during the Lenten fasting period leading up to Easter.  Traditionally animal foods were forbidden and almond milk was substituted for cow’s milk.  A popular cookie during the Lent was Bitterkoekjes (Bitter Cookies).  The name stems from the use of bitter almonds; today they are usually made with bitter almond oil.

Each day I learn how different the Dutch are from my childhood preconceptions.  There is more to the Dutch then the very private, conservative, hard-working relatives and other church members that I knew growing up.