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)
Those who receive Confirmation are able to reap its benefits from the moment of reception. The graces of this sacrament conferred at a younger age are of great assistance to young people as they grow toward adolescence and young adulthood. If we truly believe that the holy Spirit seals us with the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, understanding, piety, and reverence, then why delay that moment in the life of young people? Young people need these gifts before they face the many moral challenges that face them as teenagers.
The practice of high school reception of Confirmation, now on its way out in many dioceses across the country, has given the impression that somehow the sacrament is earned by virtue of age, training, or maturity. But sacraments are gifts of grace from our heavenly Father – they are not earned or merited. For this reason, Confirmation should not be perceived as “the sacrament of adult commitment to the Church.” In fact, the Church requires priests to confirm infants and children younger than the age of reason when they are in danger of death so that they may receive the fullness of the holy Spirit. An authentic mature commitment to Christ and the Church is expressed in full participation in the Eucharist and in the apostolic life of the Church. It is not achieved at a single moment but throughout the life-long deepening of our relationship with Christ. This begins in childhood and continues until death. Confirmation is an initiation, not a graduation!
The danger in thinking that Confirmation is a “sacrament of maturity” is that we put the focus on the one receiving the sacrament rather than where it truly belongs: on the One — the holy Spirit — who bestows the grace of the sacrament. The holy Spirit comes to us whether we are ready or not, worthy or not. God doesn’t shower us with his gifts because we have done anything to earn them. He does it because he is our generous and all-loving Father who wants to give us a share in his divine life. Once we “get” this, it becomes much easier to understand the call to stewardship. Stewardship isn’t something we embrace in order to obtain greater graces or “rewards.” Rather, it’s recognizing that we’ve already been given so many graces and blessings and God is counting on us to share them in the same way we have received them: what we have received as gifts, we should give as gifts.
Young people ought to receive Confirmation as a genuine gift, with as few strings attached to it as possible. When young people discover the generosity of our God in this way, they will be inspired to live more faithfully in response to it — not in a spirit of fear (fear that they may “lose out” on something or be denied the grace of Confirmation because they haven’t met their requirements or obligations), but in gratitude (gratitude that they have already received the graces and blessings of the sacrament).
Some religious educators believe that by withholding Confirmation until tenth grade, we keep young people involved in the life of the church for a longer period of time. Translation: “Let’s hold young people captive in order for them to receive grace from God.” How do we justify this? This attitude surely has a negative impact on young people and their experience of God and church. Is this the God we want them to know? One who withholds grace until we’ve jumped through all the hoops that our church tells us we have to jump through? If we keep dangling the sacrament over children’s heads like a carrot, we can’t expect them to have a positive memory or experience of the church or God later in life.
It is often said among religious educators that by having a strong Confirmation program for ninth and tenth graders, we can get back those kids who haven’t been in religious formation since First Communion. But, instead of working to get teenagers back into the life of the church in ninth and tenth grade, why aren’t we working harder to keep them — and their families — in the life of the church after First Communion? Many parishes invest so much time and resources in a great high school catechetical program, but fall short when it comes to elementary and middle school programs? We wait until it’s too late, then wonder why we don’t see any of our tenth graders at Mass or active in the life of the parish. The reality is that the same young people who are at Mass on Sunday with their family before they receive Confirmation are the same ones who are at Mass on Sunday with their family after they receive Confirmation. Therefore, our focus must be on keeping children (and their families) active and involved in the life of the church while they are young, rather than on “getting them back” when they enter high school.
Some people wonder whether eighth graders will be able to fully understand what Confirmation means. But, does an infant understand what baptism is? Does a 7-year-old fully understand the mystery of the Eucharist? Do any of us? The goal of our life as Catholics is to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s love for us each day throughout our lives. The sacraments are not the pinnacle of Christian life, they are its foundation – the foundation upon which we build our understanding and appreciation of how much God loves us. If we teach that Confirmation comes to tenth or eleventh graders as a result of their mature understanding of faith, then it becomes a graduation; an ending. “Here: you’ve earned it! You’ve completed your classes, you’ve done enough ‘service hours’, you’ve attended a retreat so, here ya go!” But Confirmation isn’t a merit badge! It doesn’t represent what we’ve done, it represents what we must do! We don’t merit the graces of the sacraments, and this is what makes them all the more powerful and meaningful. If we are being awarded the grace of the sacrament because of our work, or maturity, or some other condition, then it becomes something we’re entitled to, rather than a gift. But it is a gift from our generous Father in heaven, who — at Pentecost and in Confirmation — sends the holy Spirit to his disciples, not as the reward or the result of what we have done in the past, but as a divine help that empowers us to do all that must be done in the future!
Why wait? Eighth graders would benefit greatly from the divine grace of Confirmation. I share Bishop Tobin’s pastoral concern that many young adults are missing out on the extraordinary opportunity to “receive the gift of the holy Spirit” because of life’s demands and distractions that begin in high school years: driver’s ed classes, sports, work, and more responsibilities at home. While our faith often does require us to make choices that require sacrifices, I believe that young people can enjoy a “both/and” scenario rather than an “either/or” scenario. Confirmation preparatory programs must serve as springboards into the life of the church, not as obstacles.
In conclusion, we are happy to be part of the growing number of parishes in the diocese that celebrates Confirmation in the eighth grade. We will continue to create lessons that engage young people in ways that make faith and values easy to understand and, more importantly, relevant to them. We also like to have some fun along the way, and we look forward to the growth of our youth ministry program, which will facilitate the journey from learning about God in the classroom to experiencing God in the life of the parish community. The Confirmation preparatory program is a bridge, not a cliff! And there is no reason why this journey should not be a joy-filled experience! As we do this, please bless us with your support. Remember that it is always the parents’ responsibility to see that their children remain connected to the sacraments and to the life of the church, no matter how old they are. We – catechists and staff – are here to assist parents in this process, but we can’t do it without them. The only children who are at Mass on Sunday are the ones whose parents take them.
Many more dioceses and parishes will continue to think about what Pope Benedict XVI strongly encouraged: lowering the age for Confirmation. Don’t be surprised to see the pendulum continue its swing throughout other parishes and dioceses in the coming years. In the meantime, we hold to the truth that the sacrament of Confirmation is an effective vehicle of grace at any age. And, since those who receive the sacrament are able to reap its benefits from the moment of reception, we at Christ the King joyfully move that moment to an earlier time in the life of our young people, and we say: Come holy Spirit! Sooner rather than later!
For details about the current Confirmation preparatory program, see the Religious Formation page, or call the Religious Formation Office at (401) 789-0417.
“I congratulate you and your parishioners for your sensitive pastoral approach to the sacrament of Confirmation and your concern for the spiritual well-being of your youth. I hope that your new program will prove to be very successful!” — Bishop Tobin