A New Age for Confirmation

The Code of Canon Law was designed to direct the activities of Catholics toward the mission of the Church. When it addresses the sacrament of Confirmation, it states that all Catholics must be confirmed: “The faithful are obliged to receive the sacrament of Confirmation at the proper time.” This begs the question: what is the “proper time” for Confirmation? Ask Catholics when they were confirmed, and chances are you will wind up with a myriad of different answers. Throughout our lifetime, particularly since the time of the Second Vatican Council, the trend has been for Catholics to receive Confirmation later and later. Forty years ago, most Catholics were confirmed in the fifth or sixth grade. Thirty years ago, most were confirmed in seventh or eighth grade. In the last twenty years, Confirmation has moved to ninth, tenth, and even eleventh grade.

The “latest trend” is for children to be confirmed at or before their First Communion ceremony – a practice that has been successful in dioceses such as Portland, Maine. Now, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and that includes this tradition. In fact, throughout church history, infants were often confirmed at their baptism – a practice that continues today in Orthodox churches. The model used in Portland, now finding its way into more and more dioceses throughout the United States, was notably “confirmed” in 1897 when Pope Leo XIII wrote to the Bishop of Marseilles to commend him on the practice of confirming children before they receive Holy Communion, and expressed his belief that the practice was more in keeping with the ancient practices and tradition of the Church. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI echoed the voice of Leo XIII and encouraged bishops in the United States to confirm children before they receive First Communion. This practice has not yet spread to our own Archdiocese.

“There has been a general concern that the restored order of the sacraments of initiation completed at age seven would result in a drastic reduction of participation in subsequent faith formation of our young people. As a matter of fact, all teens who participate in any parish or diocesan program, event, retreat, or service project, now come willingly as called by the holy Spirit in their lives, rather than to fulfill a requirement.” – Bishop Richard Malone, Portland ME

In any case, why is there inconsistency and confusion? Blame canon law, which states: “The sacrament of Confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion, unless the conference of bishops has determined another age, or there is danger of death, or in the judgment of the minister a grave cause suggests otherwise.” The age of discretion, also known as the age of reason, is defined by the Church as: “The name given to that period of human life at which persons are deemed to begin to be morally responsible. This, as a rule, happens at the age of  seven, or thereabouts…” While canon law requires that children receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion at this age, it gives great latitude to bishops when it comes to Confirmation, allowing bishops the freedom to determine that a later age is more suitable for the reception of the sacrament.

The sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist – are not about age alone. They are about growing in faith and sharing in God’s grace:

Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need “ratification” to become effective. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us of this: “Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: ‘For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.’ Many children, through the strength of the holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1308)