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We should confirm our youth sooner

How late is too late for confirmation?

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How late is too late for confirmation? 

By Father Mark R. Francis, C.S.V., who is currently President and Professor of Liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book, Local Worship, Global Church, Popular Religion and the Liturgy was published by Liturgical Press in 2013.

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It’s time to stop celebrating confirmation as the sacrament of departure. There’s an old joke about two pastors discussing their mutual problem with bats in the attics of their respective churches. “I’ve tried everything,” Father Brown complains to Father Smith, “exterminators, electric wires, traps, poison—everything…but I just can’t seem to get rid of them.” Father Smith smiles and says “Don’t worry. I have found the perfect solution…. I had the bishop come to confirm the bats … and they never returned!”

Unfortunately, this joke is as sad as it is funny because it accurately reflects the experience of so many pastoral ministers in the United States: confirmation—when celebrated during the teenage years as a rite of Christian “maturity”—often marks the moment when adolescents set aside the practice of the faith, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

Pew Research Center recently reported the sobering statistic that more than half of adults raised Catholic have left the church at some point in their lives. Although a significant number of these former Catholics eventually return, four in ten do not. This reflects the statistic that fully 1/10 of the US population is made up of former Catholics—many of whom have been confirmed.

Despite this reality, many pastors and youth ministers genuinely fear that if confirmation is conferred at another time—say, at the moment of first communion—an even higher percentage of young people will be lost to the church. They contend that confirmation programs in parishes that last sometimes two or even three years and that require attendance at catechism classes and service projects seem to keep at least a percentage of young people engaged with the church through their teen years.

It is time to openly acknowledge that this approach to the sacrament of confirmation—that it is a “mature decision” on the part of adolescents to live as committed members of the church—is no longer working. Instead, it seems to mark the end of catechetical instruction, serving for many as a “graduation” from the practice of the faith. The reasons for this are historical as well as pastoral and theological. Let’s start by looking at how we arrived at the current practice of adolescent confirmation.

The Unintended Consequences of a Good Idea

It comes as a surprise to many Catholics that confirmation was not always celebrated in the 8th grade. We tend to have a short memory when it comes to the church. What we regard as a tradition handed down from the time of the apostles is sometimes only a practice that began a few generations ago.

In 1910, Pope St. Pius X, in order to encourage more people to receive communion, decreed that any child who reached the age of discretion (7 years old) should be allowed to receive communion. Prior to this decree, most Catholics received first communion during their teenage years—after they had been confirmed. After the decree, the sequence of the reception of these two sacraments was reversed: first communion followed by confirmation. The decree regarding lowering the age for first communion did not mention confirmation, so pastors had to adapt to the new situation without much guidance. After several decades, confirmation was usually conferred at the age when first communion was previously celebrated.

Because there is no obligatory policy in the church stipulating the age for confirming someone baptized as an infant, after the publication of the Rite of Confirmation in 1971, The Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices of the National Council of Catholic Bishops of the United States noted five possible moments for confirmation: before first eucharist, around sixth grade, adolescence, entrance into adulthood, and during adulthood.

In keeping with previous practice, the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church prefer that that confirmation is celebrated at the age of 7 unless a national conference agrees on a different age. At present, in the United States, each bishop is free to set the age for the conferral of confirmation in his diocese.

A Sacrament Linked to Baptism and Eucharist

So, why all of this confusion regarding the age for confirmation? The trouble lies in its remote, rather complex history. In the first centuries of the church, confirmation was celebrated right after someone (usually an adult at the Easter Vigil or Pentecost) was baptized, and just before his or her reception of first eucharist. These three sacraments were celebrated in one liturgical celebration and constituted the way everyone was admitted into the church as a full member. This is still the practice of the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches today—even for infants. Infants are baptized, chrismated (confirmed), and then given a drop of precious blood (eucharist) in one celebration.

The Roman Rite developed two post-baptismal anointings: one given by the priest, and the second by the bishop that became confirmation. Due to the required nakedness, baptism was celebrated by a priest during the liturgy of Easter Vigil or Pentecost in a baptistery apart from the assembly. After being dressed in white garments and being anointed by the priest in the baptistery, the newly baptized were led into the church and received by the bishop with an anointing and a laying on of hand as a sign of welcome into the eucharistic assembly.

Initially this second anointing was easily arranged since the bishop presided at the initiation of all the faithful of his local church. However, as the church grew, it was no longer possible for the bishop to preside at all of the initiatory celebrations of the diocese, and confirmation was delayed for the week following baptism. Soon after, confirmation began to be regularly celebrated as a separate sacrament at any time that the bishop was available. 

Medieval theologians in the West, largely unaware of the origins of the sacrament, developed a theology of confirmation based on the practice of conferring confirmation as a sacrament separate from baptism and first eucharist. Much of this theology was based on what was thought to be the authoritative teaching of Pope Melchiades who reigned in the early 4th century.

In reality these decretals were written by a fourth-century bishop from the south of France who taught that as a consequence of the gift of the Holy Spirit, confirmation gave a special strength to witness to the faith in adversity (robur ad pugnam) and hence was a sacrament to be celebrated in maturity. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, for example, based much of his approach to confirmation on these teachings, thinking that they were genuinely from a pope.

Let’s Stop Adolescent Confirmation

Given the complicated history of this sacrament, it is important to admit that, at its origin, confirmation was never meant to be the separate “sacrament of maturity” it has become. Theologically, it only makes sense when closely tied to the other sacraments of initiation, baptism and eucharist. Furthermore, given that our present culture marks one’s “coming of age” when people reach their 20s (do we really think a teenager is capable of making a permanent life choice?), it is time to scale back the contention that this sacrament celebrates “maturity.”

Celebrating confirmation after completing required catechetical classes and service projects says that one has to “earn” one’s right to this sacrament, rather than see confirmation as a gift given gratuitously by our loving God. The time and effort expended on adolescent confirmation programs that reach only a small percentage of our Catholic young people could be better spent in developing more robust youth ministry for young people, the majority of whom are not ready to make a “mature commitment” to the church, but would be willing to explore following Jesus as way of life leading to joy and human fulfillment. 

Let’s restore the traditional order of the sacraments by confirming at the age of 7, just before first eucharist—a practice that makes more pastoral sense and avoids making confirmation a sacrament of departure. 

Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

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