If you are a cradle Roman Catholic, you were baptized as an infant and you probably received your First Holy Communion in first or second grade. Then you waited, sometimes for up to 10 years, to receive the final Sacrament of Initiation – the Sacrament of Confirmation.
It’s curious that in a just a few dioceses in the U.S., Catholic children are Confirmed when they are in third grade, while in most other dioceses children are not Confirmed until they are in fifth grade, or in eighth grade, or even in high school. Why does this disparity exist?
It Wasn’t Always So
In the early Roman/Latin Church the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation were celebrated in one continuous rite of initiation, prior to First Eucharist. And in Eastern Rite Churches, all three Sacraments have traditionally been celebrated simultaneously. In the Eastern Rite, infants receive a small piece of Eucharist when they are Baptized and Confirmed (called “Chrismation”).
Consider, too, that the Roman Catholic practice of conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation on children at seven years of age, before they receive their First Holy Communion, more closely adheres to the Church’s traditional order of sacramental initiation. It also more closely adhers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and to Canon Law.
What’s more, the traditional order of the Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and then First Eucharist – is also the prescribed order for those past the age of discretion. Adults who join the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA), receive all three Sacraments of Initiation at one time, in all dioceses/archdioceses. (Reconciliation also takes place prior to Confirmation and First Eucharist, but it is not a Sacrament of Initiation.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1307 states: “For centuries, Latin custom has indicated “the age of discretion” as the reference point for receiving Confirmation.” And as Can. 97 §2 states: “A minor before the completion of the seventh year is called an infant and is considered not responsible for oneself (non sui compos). With the completion of the seventh year, however, a minor is presumed to have the use of reason.” (Note that the terms age of discretion used in the Catechism, and age of reason used in the Code of Canon law, are interchangeable, both meaning about 7 years of age.)
So why do most U.S. dioceses follow a different order in conferring the Sacraments of Initiation on young Catholics? And why do most U.S. dioceses wait to Confirm young Catholics until they are 11-, 14-, or even 15-years-old?
Confirmation in the U.S.
Out of 177 Roman Catholic dioceses/archdioceses (including the Military Ordinariate) in the U.S., only 13 follow the traditional, proscribed order. In these 13 dioceses the Sacrament of Confirmation in conferred on children at seven or eight years of age. Only after they are Baptized and Confirmed do they receive their First Holy Communion.
The Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico became diocese number 13 in the U.S. to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation in February of this year. Bishop James Wall announced the restoration of the traditional order in his pastoral letter The Gift of the Father, on February 11. Prior to this, the Archdiocese of Denver, Col., became diocese number 12 to restore the traditional order, having done so in 2015.
In his pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Denver, Saints Among Us: The Restored Order of the Sacraments of Initiation, announcing the return to the traditional order of the Rites of Initiation, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila explained how the change in practice of waiting to Confirm young Catholics until they reached 10 to 15 years of age (or later) originally came about.
“As the early Church grew, the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation were celebrated in one continuous rite of initiation leading up to the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
“After the fifth century, it became harder for a bishop to make the rounds in his diocese to baptize and confirm all at once. This obscured the intrinsic connection between Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist.”
As a result, infants were baptized by the priest, Confirmed by the bishop at some later date, and the Baptized and Confirmed children received their First Eucharist much later than they do today.
“In the Middle Ages,” Bishop Aquila noted, “children were confirmed at the age of reason, around seven years old, but they did not receive First Communion until the age of 11 or 12.”
Archbishop Aquila went on to explain how the modern custom came about.
“Pope Pius X unintentionally began our current displacement of Confirmation in 1910 when he lowered the age of First Communion to seven years old. He said nothing of Confirmation in his letter, Quam Singulari, and seemed to assume that the practice of confirming at the age of reason would be maintained. His main concern was that the children have all the resources they need to live a rich spiritual life and carry out their mission as Christians in the modern world. Thus, the custom of receiving First Communion as a second-grader and later receiving Confirmation in middle or high school is a recent practice in the life of the Church.”
Bishop Aquilla’s pastoral letter in Denver mirrored a previous pastoral letter he issued when he was the Bishop of the Diocese of Fargo, ND. In 2002 he “restored Confirmation to its original place” in the Diocese of Fargo. In his more recent letter, however, Aquilla pointed out that when he was able to meet Pope Benedict in 2012, he shared with Benedict the process he used to restore Confirmation to its original place in Fargo. Pope Benedict replied, “You have done what I have always wanted to do.”
So Pope Benedict wanted to restore Confirmation back to its traditional place in the Rite of Initiation, and Pope Francis also supports restoring the order. Even so, the majority of dioceses in the U.S. still follow the ‘unintentionally displaced order’ that Pope Pius X brought about. Of the 13 dioceses in the U.S. that have restored the traditional order, 4 restored the order in the 1990s, 4 restored the order between 2000 and 2005, and 5 restored the order in just the last 4 years.
Confirmation is not Catholic Graduation
An obvious concern in restoring the traditional order of the Sacraments of Initiation is the impact on the Religious Education of young Catholics. Just how will curriculums in parochial schools, and especially in parishes without parochial schools, need to be restructured as a result of the reordering? More importantly, how will this impact the faith formation of young Catholics, especially those not attending parochial schools?
Over the years Confirmation has become to be viewed as ‘Catholic graduation’ – once Confirmed, formal religious instruction is thought of by many parents as complete. Children in parochial schools still take religion classes but children going to public school stop attending Faith Formation classes.
As I’ve mentioned in articles here at CS before, a common saying amongst catechists in my parish is ‘once these kids are Confirmed we won’t see most of them in church again until they want to get married.’ This is a sad but all too true observation. And an even worse ‘sad but true observation’ is that in some parishes and dioceses, young Catholics are dropping out of religious education programs altogether, and are not even receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.
As Bishop Wall notes in The Gift of the Father, “An alarming percentage of our Catholic children who were baptized and received First Holy Communion, do not continue their formation for the Sacrament of Confirmation, and in too many cases, never receive the Sacrament.”
As Bishop Wall also points out, “Receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation long after the reception of Holy Communion tends to weaken the understanding of the bond and relationship that the Sacraments of Initiation have with one another.
“Faced with the challenges young Christians face in today’s world, it has become all the more important for them to receive the strength of the Sacrament of Confirmation as soon as possible to assist them.”
What is ‘the right age’ for Confirmation?
As the Catechism tells us (1285), “the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.”
Pope Paul Vi affirms in Lumen Gentium (Ch. 2, #11), that in Confirmation Catholics “are more perfectly bound to the Church by the sacrament of Confirmation, and the Holy Spirit endows them with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ.”
It does make sense then, to seal the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit within young Catholics, and fully open them to the graces bestowed on them in Baptism and Confirmation, as early in their lives as possible. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are both if favor of this. So if we truly believe that “the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace” why make young Catholics wait for those graces and the positive effects God’s grace can have on their lives?
In today’s secular world, helping young Catholics deal with the confusion of entering puberty, and the mixed messages and pressures being put on them in public schools, by their peers, social media, and the entertainment industry, seems like a no-brainer.