Whither Confirmation?

As some of you may know, I’m a columnist for Commonweal magazine. My most recent column concerned the age of Confirmation. I am in favor of what Bishop  Samuel Aquila of Denver and Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu are doing by lowering the age, and I make a couple of arguments in support of their decision. You can read the whole thing here.

The “agdove-confirmatione of confirmation” in the dioceses of the United States at present is 7 to 16. This isn’t a coherent vision, it’s an admission of failure to arrive at a coherent vision. I remember once being lectured by a representative of the Catechism office who claimed the question was “settled.” This is nonsense.

Pope Benedict in Sacramentum Caritatis encouraged bishops to study the question. He did not foreclose the option of a return to the traditional order. What he did, wisely I think, was to prioritize Eucharist.

Concretely, it needs to be seen which practice better enables the faithful to put the sacrament of the Eucharist at the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation. In close collaboration with the competent offices of the Roman Curia, Bishops’ Conferences should examine the effectiveness of current approaches to Christian initiation, so that the faithful can be helped both to mature through the formation received in our communities and to give their lives an authentically eucharistic direction, so that they can offer a reason for the hope within them in a way suited to our times (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). (Sac. Car. 18)

Pope Francis acknowledged the “experience of failure” of adolescent confirmation in an address he gave in Sardinia, calling it the “sacrament of goodbye.” He urged his audience of young people to trust Jesus even in the face of failure and to “put out into the deep”; he did not minimize or paper over the problem. Perhaps it is time for us to “cast our nets to the other side”?

As you’ll see in my Commonweal article, I think there are some critical issues at stake: most importantly, the role of Eucharist as the culmination of Christian initiation.

I look forward to continuing the conversation here at Pray Tell.

25 comments

  1. A major pastoral issue is to be found in those places where both Confirmation and First Eucharist are received in the same celebration. That doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      I have to deeply disagree… we bat no eyes when adults are baptized, confirmed, and communed at the Easter Vigil (or any other time)…

      My children were chrismated (confirmed) at their baptism in infancy. All have been receiving communion from their infancy.

      My first child was baptized and chrismated at 2 months of age by the bishop, but I was told not to admit her to the Table until she could eat solid food reliably without spitting up. That meant 11 months of age.

      My second child was baptized and chrismated at 1 1/2 months of age by the bishop. I told him I was uncomfortable waiting another 9-10 months for first communion, and was told that I could begin at my discretion, but later. So I did it the following Sunday.

      I never felt right about these delays… and even my (at the time) 25 month old daughter questioned, “Why no Jesus?” when my son didn’t get to receive Communion right after he was baptized.

      My bishop was unable to be present for our third child’s baptism, so after wrangling around to make the arrangements, I had another priest come to administer the baptismal promises and I performed the baptism and chrismation myself. I admitted my third-born to the Table that same day, as I was given no instructions to the contrary after clearly stating my intentions. My then nearly-5 year old daughter, after the Liturgy, stated in no uncertain terms, “I’m happy that you decided to do it right this time.” I thought perhaps she was referring to that preference for me to baptize (which ha always been my wife’s preference)… but no, she was referring to receiving Communion. “Gracie needs Jesus just as much as you do,” she said. What can I say…

      Confirmation, in the western use, is still – in my opinion – a sacrament seeking a clear theology. It hasn’t found one yet. I’m really not sure it ever will so long as it is divorced from its proper understanding as sealing the baptismal covenant at the time of its conferral.

      1. @Father Robert Lyons:

        I am absolutely with you. My problem is with baptizing at the age of a few days, and then doling out Confirmation and Eucharist at the same Mass at the age of 7.

    2. @Paul Inwood:
      I’m curious as to why (presumably) it’s a good idea for adults and not a good idea for children?

      Also, if one wanted to restore the order of the sacraments (and I think there is a theo-logic to the sequences that would commend this) then one would have the anomaly of having children confirmed but not receiving communion at their confirmation. I realize that before the Council confirmation was often celebrated outside the context of the Eucharist, but I would think that most today would see this as less than ideal.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

        Fritz — see my answer above. It’s not just about restoring the sequence of the sacraments but about restoring the chronology (as I posted in another thread: it seems that Bishops Silva and Aquila have not yet broached this issue).

        If I had my choice, I would baptize, administer Confirmation and first Eucharist in the same celebration, to babes in arms, as the Orthodox do. But since we are not yet at that stage, I think the questions we need to ask include:

        — What signals are we giving when we lump Confirmation and First Communion into the same celebration at age 7? Are we devaluing one or other sacrament?

        — If, as happens at the moment, some children are presented for Confirmation and Communion, while others will be confirmed later on, is that making one or other group into second-class citizens? (It’s the same pastoral problem as at the Easter Vigil, when you confirm children of catechetical age ahead of their peers who will not be confirmed for a couple of months.)

        — Would it be better to follow the French custom of confirming earlier and having a Communion Solennelle at the age of puberty to give the young people a Church rite of passage (with a sense of commitment) ?

        — Should we, as Aidan Kavanagh suggested in order to make people sharpen their thinking, defer baptism until the receipients are capable of making a real commitment ?

  2. Most parishes I’ve been at try to leave confirmation up to the individual discretion of children and their parents. I’ve seen some parents who wait until their kids are in middle school and then prod them along, but I’ve also been around kids who express an interest as early as 8-10. I realize in a large parish, it’s more efficient to standardize ages, but that impulse must be tempered with pastoral sensitivity when possible. On the one hand, an older kid who clearly doesn’t want to be in confirmation class shouldn’t be forced into it, not least because their lack of proper intention calls the validity of the sacrament into question. On the other hand, a younger kid who is clearly interested probably shouldn’t be turned away, either.

    I do like, Rita, that you say the Eucharist is “the culmination of Christian initiation.” That view contextualizes more properly the roles of baptism, first communion (if it’s a practice), and confirmation. They are steps carrying us toward the altar, rather than ends unto themselves.

  3. It would be my take that the driving force about Confirmation not having a home is because in the original set up, Baptism is out of place. We are trying to fit Confirmation into a practice based on infant Baptism.

    Because the “reason of the year” (like soup du jour) has moved Confirmation around each Catechetical Sunday, we get varying practices and abilities to correct Rita Ferrone saying the issue is settled.

    The Church moved Baptism to infancy for numerous reasons and when that happened the other two Sacraments of Initiation became moveable feasts. The issue is not Confirmation’s right place …the issue is Baptism for infants.

  4. … And infant baptism is not an issue at all in the Catholic Church. It is encouraged and preferred.

    The Eastern rites administer Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion to infants, and that is a wonderful model to emulate.

    The point that I got from the american bishops talking about confirmation age is this: Those children need the graces found in Confirmation sooner than they ever have before.

    Children come to love Barney (subconciously) early in life. They need something to balance that.

  5. Other than the stubborn resistance of the “Catechetical/Industrial Complex” why delay taking up the millennial practice of the Eastern Church, both Catholic and Orthodox? Roman Rite Rituals and rubrics and Canon Law do present this practice as ‘the ideal’ for adults (as well as for children). With very few practical changes this change of practice could be easily implemented. (Of course, on the other hand, it would lessen the need and justification for ‘Auxiliary/Titular Bishops’.) The ‘catechetical programs’ could then become Mystagogy, a process of a continuing ‘growing up and maturation’ in the Faith — and not something to ‘graduate from’ and ‘put aside to grow out of’.

  6. Rita – You seem to have overlooked the Pope’s second concern in his address: “The other experience of failure: young people aren’t in the parishes”

    Can you show that parishes/dioceses which confirm at baptism have a significantly greater retention rate among their young people?

    And regarding “restoration”… Christ was baptized as an adult when He began His ministry. The first Eucharist was three years later and the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples some time after that. Why should that not be the ideal?

  7. Sean Keeler : And regarding “restoration”… Christ was baptized as an adult when He began His ministry. The first Eucharist was three years later and the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples some time after that. Why should that not be the ideal?

    *Because the sacraments have never (until the early 20th century) been celebrated in that order.
    *Because the order in which sacraments are instituted is not the order in which they are celebrated.
    *Because the sacraments are not a three act play about the life of Jesus.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt at #9:
      And Jesus didn’t need baptism for his salvation.
      And there’s some Johannine basis for considering the conferral of the Holy Spirit to have occurred within the original Paschal Triduum. (And in the Lucan tradition Emmaus is a closer thing than the Last Supper itself.)

      I think proposals to normalize credobaptism to the exclusion of paedobaptism in Catholicism is worse than a ginormous distraction. That boat sailed. For good.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

      Thanks for your replies. However…
      – the first one sounds much like the argument for those who wish to “restore” the Latin liturgy.
      – the second is wrong in my generation’s case at least: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation was the order (and still is in our diocese).
      – it’s not a three-act play indeed, but the three acts as you would ‘perform’ them seem every bit as arbitrary. Change for the sake of change is not always a good thing.
      I’m still awaiting the proof that swapping things around is a worthy endeavor from the perspective of strengthening our future generations. There are bishops who’ve chosen your route, so where are the results of the experiment?

      1. @Sean Keeler:
        First of all, I fully agree with Fritz Bauerschmidt’s reply @ #9. Sean, you seem not to know anything about the history of Christian initiation. Some study of this subject would be in order, and it can’t be taken up in all its detail here in a comment box. But Fritz is right, straight down the line.

        Second, I thought you were joking when you asked for statistical data. Surely you know that no data on earth would satisfy the case because there are too many variables. Also, my argument is not based on marketing reseach, it’s an argument from principle. I would also note that not a shred of data was ever advanced for raising the age when it was raised initially.

        This does not mean that I don’t expect a lowering of the age of confirmation to help in retention. I do. I do so because the results will be more coherent, and it will mean we place the emphasis on Eucharist again.

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        With apologies, Rita, I do know a few things about it. I’ve taught RCIA for about 10 years, and have seen and heard the battles between ‘now’ and ‘then’ for receipt of the sacraments.

        No, I am definitely NOT joking about the retention stats. My last diocese was split, with about 15 parishes doing an early confirmation (age 12) and the balance, including ours, doing HS junior year (age 17). The diocese had been doing this for about 6 years and remained silent about the results. Informal conversation with other instructors indicated that the retention of the younger confirmands was equal to that of the olders, indicating that the age of confirmation had no demonstrable effect.

        Among our RCIA group, our parish had several entire families convert, and their school-age kids, regardless of grade, were baptized, communed and confirmed at Easter Vigil. Quite bluntly, that did not go over well with our older Confirmation students.

        The discussion of ‘added graces’ and the like falls rather flat with me. I find it difficult to believe God would withhold essential graces from people because the local Ordinary decides not to confirm until later.

        For the record, I support earlier confirmation (I was confirmed at age 10) but not prior to the age of reason when a child can at least be said to have had a voice in the process.

        I’m really not sure what you mean by “the results will be more coherent”. Nor do I understand how later Confirmation takes the emphasis off the Eucharist. It sure doesn’t in our class.

      3. @Sean Keeler:
        Kids need it earlier. If the concept of “added graces” falls flat with you, then why baptize in the first place?

        God surely won’t withhold graces from a child simply because his parents didn’t see any need to baptize him, or raise him in the faith….

      4. @Sean Keeler:
        To your second point: a correlation of the order of Baptism, first Eucharist, and Confirmation with Jesus’ baptism, the last supper, and Pentecost might be something that should make us go, “huh, fancy that.” But it is not any sort of argument for that order. If it were, then presumably Confirmation (Pentecost) would also have to come after Ordination (last supper/resurrection appearance—depending on how one sees the institution of holy orders) and marriage (wedding at Cana) would have to come before first Eucharist (last supper). Also, why wouldn’t Confirmation be celebrated after first communion for adults as well (say, before the final blessing at the Easter Vigil)? My point is that the events of the life of Jesus do not establish the order in which sacraments are received. They simply don’t and never have.

        So what does? Well, lots of things. Tradition. Church authority. The intrinsic logic of the sacraments. All of these, I would argue, should predispose one to favor the order Baptism/Confirmation/Eucharist. Among other things, it makes the Eucharist the climactic initiatory sacrament that is then renewed each week at the Sunday Eucharist. It doesn’t present initiation as something that has a terminus (i.e. Confirmation as graduation) but rather as entry into an ongoing practice (Eucharistic worship). I believe this is what Rita means in speaking of placing emphasis on the Eucharist.

  8. I believe you could stretch that age range to 0 to 16, Rita, given that people who have received chrismation as infants and later become Latin Rite Catholics are not reconfirmed. (At the other end of the range, my older daughter was confirmed at 17; we had been out of the parish when she was at the usual age for confirmation, so she prepared by going through RCIA with the grownups.)
    Like Father Lyons, I’m not sure that a coherent vision of this sacrament is even possible. In my untutored state, I can find something convincing in the arguments for every age, from newborn to the end of secondary school.
    I once heard this debate characterized as between liturgists and catechists. Even though I know more about liturgy than catechesis, it seemed to me that the catechists should win, because they need all the help they can get. But now it appears to be disputed whether adolescent confirmation is catechetically superior after all. Where are we?

  9. I presented my proposal for my Roman brothers and sisters in my book. My own opinion is to grant children access to the fullness of the communion of the Holy Spirit immediately after Baptism and anointing, based on Irenaeus’s notion that the descent of the Spirit upon us – including tiny children – capacitates us to grow into Christ.

  10. The issue of the bishop seems oddly absent, except for the dismissive remark about auxiliaries. The bishop is central to confirmation in the West, consecrating the chrism and (mostly) administering the sacrament.

    A joint Confirmation/first Communion brings the bishop to the most important moment in a person’s religious life. It makes the office palpably more important and makes it clear that the Eucharist is centered around the bishop, and the bishop is centered in the bishop. Most people will never see their bishop again, but they will have a more centered idea of who he is from the experience. And hopefully the bishop will have a better idea too.

    Once first Communion has been celebrated, catechesis can give way to mystagogia, as pointed out earlier. Instead of dispensing answers to questions, a lifestyle of finding ever more meaning in the Sacraments, of deepening a relationship to Christ, can be taught. This in itself would encourage continued involvement in a way that current catechesis does not.

    I have no idea if this is anything other than fantasy, but it gives a perspective in which to approach these sacraments.

    1. @Jim McKay #15:

      If by “the bishop” you mean the ordinary of the diocese, I wonder how many people ever see him. I was confirmed by some American-born bishop of a diocese in Brazil (it was the Baby Boom; there weren’t enough local bishops to cover the need). Nowadays, in larger dioceses at least, it’s auxiliary bishops who seem to do most of the confirming…

  11. I have to admit that I’m uneasy when I read that people have been “teaching RCIA”. That’s not what you do. The process of becoming a Catholic Christian is not about injecting packets of doctrinal knowledge into people but about the organic development of those looking to join the Church, when those responsible accompany catechumens on their journey. It can take a year or two, or it can take twenty. And you don’t teach a process, only a programme.

    I’m similarly uneasy when I read about “Confirmation class”. It’s the same kind of thing. Not about head knowledge but about the heart’s attitude. Not about making people jump through hoops, but about preparing their spirits for the gift of God. Anything more calculated to turn young people off than yet more “classes” is hard to imagine.

    None of this is to say that doctrinal knowledge, etc, is not important. But the process of the rites of initiation is not about pedagogy. We need to embrace a different style of imparting what it means to be a Catholic. Rather like the difference between education and formation.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      Paul, you’re absolutely correct about “teaching” RCIA. The process is more one of “guided discovery” for the person(s) involved. The impetus is in the hands of the one considering membership in the Catholic Church. I prefer to think of the “education” from the original meaning “to lead forth from within”.

      Confirmation Class is, unfortunately, different. The Dioceses in which I’ve served have laid out very specific items to be discussed (and avoided) and do include tests. Name the seven sacraments. Name the seven gifts. You’re right that more classes is the last thing the kids want, and perhaps leads to much of the defection after the sacrament is received.

      Kids within the RCIA framework also seem to get much more support from the home. Confirmation kids, not so much. I wonder what would happen if we made attendance for the parents mandatory as well!

  12. I don’t support the solution of celebrating Confirmation before First Eucharist for second graders. I think we have yet to address the issue of putting humpy dumpy back together again. We need to restore unitive initiation in the west. It is strange to me that one would suggest the sealing of baptism, which is what Confirmation truly is, be once again removed from baptism and placed before First Eucharist at age 7. Maybe we should wait to the age of reason to celebrate the three sacraments of initiation?

  13. Funny how reactions can be the same on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the culture difference !
    In Brussels, Belgium, under impulsion of our bisschop Mgr Jean Kockerols, we reintroduced these last 2 years the unity and traditional order of the sacraments of initiation, following the inspiration of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. If you understand French, you can take a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mI4oGaNwFHY or http://www.grandirdanslafoi.be. Quebec (Canada) took the same path 10-15 years ago and France and Northern Italy are also much concerned by these questions.
    In Brussels, we celebrate Baptem-Confirmation-Eucharist in a single ceremony around the age of 11, after 2 – 3 years “accompagnied journey”, with liturgical steps. Those children baptized in infancy get the opportunity to reappropriate their baptem along with the other catechumen. Confirmation has nothing to do with the “I, grown up, confirm the baptem decision taken by my parents” but underline the principle of ecclesiality. Eucharist is the top and the source for all christian life. Catechesis do not prepare for a one-day “party” but introduce to the everyday Joy of Faith. Teens and adults are invited to a process of a continuing growing up and maturation. And community catechesis brings everybody in movement.

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