What is the appropriate age for Catholic children baptized in infancy to celebrate confirmation? It might seem a relatively minor issue. Yet I believe the great efforts the U.S. Catholic Church has put into the new evangelization, its mission to “invite each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his church,” are unlikely to produce the desired fruit unless we have an open discussion about this question.
Data from a report in 2008 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate on sacramental practice reveals that between the Second Vatican Council and post-Vatican II generations there was a 12 percent drop (to 72 percent from 91 percent) in the number of self-identified Catholics who were confirmed. In the millennial generation the dropoff has been even greater; nearly one-third of young Catholics have not been confirmed—and in a significant number of instances, my experience suggests, they have explicitly chosen not to be.
The sequence of sacraments familiar to many brought up in the Catholic faith—baptism, Eucharist, confirmation—dates back to the early 20th century and has been in a state of flux since the Second Vatican Council. The reforms of the council introduced the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which stated that child converts who have reached the age of discretion (7 years) are to be confirmed in the same way as adults in the threefold celebration of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter vigil. Further, as the presence of Hispanic Catholics in the United States grew, more pastors and religious educators came into contact with children from Latin America who had been confirmed by a priest at baptism.
The question of the appropriate age for celebrating confirmation has been a source of serious discussion and disagreement among American Catholic religious educators and liturgists since the early 1980s. Some want to follow the universal canonical norm and administer the sacrament before first Communion, an approach that has been implemented in some dioceses for years.
Yet there are many others who advocate raising the age of celebration to 16, 18 or even older because they wish to make the renewal of baptismal vows by those being confirmed into a more authentic commitment. I believe that this well-intentioned approach to the sacrament has been a major contributing factor in the decision by many Catholic teenagers to postpone confirmation because they do not feel ready to make that sort of commitment.
This debate must be resolved if our efforts to evangelize the next generation of Catholics are to succeed. The discussion has been clouded for some time by cultural inertia; a genuine fear on the part of religious educators that the church will lose teens if we do not celebrate confirmation with them; and the desire of bishops to stay connected to what is going on in the parishes. These are serious concerns, and the meaning that a religious ritual like confirmation has for us is only partially shaped by theology and catechesis. Peoples’ cultural background, family history and personal experience are crucial information when we enter into discussion about any topic as complicated as this one.
The Faith of My Family
I have become a committed advocate of two simultaneous changes. First, we need to move confirmation back to age 7, before first Eucharist—its original position. Second, we need to create an alternative, nonsacramental rite for personal reaffirmation of baptismal vows later in life. I would like to make clear from the outset where I personally am coming from—and therefore where I believe that we should go.
My religious roots lie in the German and French Catholicism brought to the American Midwest by the immigrants of the 19th century. The culture and religion that they brought with them to the New World grew and flourished but kept in touch with its roots. Most of my ancestors brought with them a deeply liturgical piety. They worshipped with their bodies. To pray at Mass was not to kneel and say a rosary; it was to stand and sing to organ accompaniment in a room filled with light, color and fragrance. The stages of my adolescence were marked by sacramental celebrations; the cycle of family baptisms, first Communions, weddings and funerals taught me the flow of life.
I especially remember my own first Communion. Although there never has been an official Roman Catholic service for the occasion, there was a traditional ritual used throughout the region. Boys and girls were both dressed in white, and we carried our baptismal candles. Twice we entered the sanctuary (all in neat rows, of course)—first after the sermon to renew our baptismal promises and again to receive Communion not at the rail but on the top step of the altar. (The preparatory catechesis had been just as baptismal in its orientation.)
Both ritual entries into the sanctuary were significant to me—and interconnected. Renewing baptismal promises while clothed in and carrying baptismal symbols helped me to appropriate inwardly a new level of relationship with Jesus, a transformation reinforced by sharing his body. I suspect my ancestors brought this ritual with them from Europe; the family photos of my aunts and uncles clothed in white and carrying their candles show that its observance was at least two generations old. My first Communion taught me that a conscious recommitment to baptismal faith in the context of a community can be a significant experience. Even if we are aware that the Eucharist is the goal of baptism and the repeatable sacrament of initiation, “reliving” and reaffirming baptism can make the experience of the Eucharist stronger.
On the other hand, confirmation as a teen was much less significant for me. Although meeting my first bishop was cool, the ritual by comparison was dull and its purpose unfocused and vague. There are only two memories that I have of the occasion.
First, I was confirming nothing; rather, the bishop was confirming me. As the Latin formula that he recited clearly said, “I confirm you with the chrism of salvation….” Second, the tap on the cheek was the only indication of what I was being confirmed for. Historically the gesture was imported into the rite from the ritual for blessing a knight; I was catechized to see it as the sign that I was being strengthened to face the challenges that I would encounter as I stood on the brink of maturity. Confirmation was thus framed in terms of my physical, psychological and moral development and had no connection to my baptism or my sharing in the Eucharist.
I later learned that mine was only the second generation to follow this overall pattern for celebrating the sacraments of initiation. My grandparents’ generation had still known the classic medieval and Tridentine pattern of infant baptism, confirmation sometime between the ages of 7 and 12 and first Communion some years later. Although not the oldest Western tradition, which knew a unified threefold rite even for infants, this centuries-old pattern of separated sacramental celebrations reaching their climax in a full share in the Eucharist did have a power to it because it linked moments of personal and social maturing with rituals intended to facilitate and celebrate a parallel faith development.
That link seems in general to have worked in a world where only a minority of children even finished grade school. My paternal grandmother’s life was probably typical: baptism in infancy, confirmation at age 12, first Communion at 14, marriage a year later and motherhood soon after that. This pattern would not have been any different if my family had been Lutheran or Episcopalian rather than Roman Catholic. All three churches had inherited the same medieval pattern that connected sharing in Communion not primarily with baptism but with later, usually adolescent confirmation.
Graduating From Religion
But then things started to change for everyone. Pope Pius X broke the pattern in 1905 by moving the age of first Communion back to 7—leaving confirmation at the end of a process. This change is the probable explanation of why some people, including those who catechized me, have called confirmation the “completion“ of initiation. But how can confirmation complete a process whose goal is the Eucharist if the participants have been fully sharing in that sacrament for years?
With the introduction of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults came the reunification of the threefold celebration not only for adults but also for older children. The updated 1983 Code of Canon Law (No. 890) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 1306-8) maintained the default time for confirmation at age 7, unless a national conference agrees on a different age. (The catechism even quotes Aquinas: “Age of body does not determine age of soul.”)
The American bishops, however, have been unable to agree on a common alternative, leaving confirmation for those Catholics baptized in infancy in the same ambiguous status that I experienced, though now celebrated with more baptismal references. Yet at least 10 American dioceses around the country have implemented the canonical option and moved the celebration of confirmation back to age 7, reuniting it with first Communion.
Given my personal experience, I am in favor of that move. First, I believe my first Communion would have been more spiritually empowering if I had been confirmed at that same time—and the more passive experience of being confirmed would have made sense even at that age as the welcoming transition to the table. I was ready to “receive the gift,” not just of the Eucharist but of the Holy Spirit.
Second, since I do not live in a diocese that has restored the traditional sequence, every two or three years my somewhat smaller parish must try to explain to a group of adolescents what their upcoming confirmation is all about. The temptation, supported by so many of the preparation programs available from Catholic publishers, is to transform the celebration of the sacrament into the “graduation” from a catechetical program—often including mandatory service hours—based upon their greater maturity. Which raises the question: Are we creating the impression that grace must be earned? That is not the traditional Catholic approach to the sacrament that celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Further complicating this problematic approach is the very different social milieu in which Americans now live. In my grandmother’s day, adolescence was very much about socialization into the structures of society. Today, especially for those whose education continues not just through high school but into college and beyond, adolescence and young adulthood are much more about differentiation from society and finding one’s own path in life. Young people today have many groups and clubs at their disposal, and so I suspect that taking a catechetical and mature-commitment approach to confirmation seems to legitimately scare many adolescents away and to pretty much guarantee that a significant segment those being confirmed will regard the ceremony as their liberation from religious education classes and even religious practice while they continue to explore their other options.
That said, I have personally known young people for whom adolescent confirmation really was a transformative experience and 20-somethings who had somehow “missed it” in adolescence for whom celebrating confirmation was a powerful and freely chosen event. Grace happens when it happens; God is still in control, and people respond to the call to conversion on their own timetable. But the question remains: should confirmation be the default ritual for people who experience spiritual growth and transformation in adolescence and beyond?
After all, grace builds on nature, and becoming a mature Christian is a growth process with many phases. That is why I have come to see the importance and psychological good sense for the Catholic Church to develop some nonsacramental ritual to celebrate and reaffirm our Christian initiation later in life. The other mainline Christian churches have in general taken just that approach. During their own liturgical reform during the 1960s and ’70s, the Episcopalians, Anglicans and some Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians in this country and in Canada disconnected Communion from confirmation and moved it back to infancy—just as the Eastern churches have always done.
Yet they kept their “nonsacramental” service named confirmation. The purpose of this “pastoral office” is perhaps most clearly defined in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church:
In the course of their Christian development, those baptized at an early age are expected, when they are ready and have been duly prepared, to make a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism and to receive the laying on of hands by the bishop.
It is important to notice that this pastoral office is repeatable: confirmation is simply the name given to the first time that an individual celebrates such a personal, public reaffirmation. The subsequent celebrations in that person’s lifetime are simply called reaffirmations.
This approach respects the most traditional understanding of the sequence of the initiation sacraments, whose high point is the Eucharist, the sacrament of initiation that is repeated every Sunday. Yet it also respects the reality of Christian development and the need to ritually mark significant life stages.
More important, in my view, it respects personal freedom. It allows for an adolescent program of catechetical and psychological development (and service hours) ending in a public ritual of commitment. Yet if a young person does not feel ready to make that sort of commitment, there will be more chances to do so later. Moreover, it gives anyone the opportunity to mark publicly the further stages of their development as well. It is a truly open-ended approach.
What sort of catechesis should be developed for those who desire to make a public reaffirmation? What shape should such a ritual of reaffirmation take? These are good questions that need to be addressed in any future discussion, since the answers would seriously influence the efforts of the new evangelization. The first step, though, is to rethink seriously the role that confirmation can play in the faith development of our young people.