by Tim Gabrielli
Back in 2013, as my Confirmation book was coming to press, I was privileged to have a conversation with a scholar well-established in the field of sacramental theology who had also written about Confirmation. As I was new to this stuff, this scholar offered greetings they had also given to others before me whose work took them to Confirmation: “Welcome to Hell.” I laughed. And then wondered if I should be laughing.
One of the reasons this eschatological greeting seemed apropos, I assume, is that the history of Confirmation is so muddy. Sorting out the ways in which the tradition might inform our contemporary practice, while parsing also the ways in which our contemporary practice is so varied and unsettled, can leave a scholar with the feeling of working in the utter absence of Divine Love.
More recently, though, it feels like Hell might have emptied out. Perhaps we’ve figured out what C.S. Lewis asserts in The Problem of Pain, that the doors are locked from the inside. Few books and articles on Confirmation have appeared over the past decade or so. Even fewer in scholarly outlets. And those who have written do not take a keen interest in the question of the age of confirmation or the order of celebrating the sacraments of initiation, but rather offer approaches for navigating formation and preparation around the sacrament. This is true even as a diocese, here or there, gets attention for “restoring the order” (i.e. celebrating Confirmation ahead of First Eucharist, typically with both at age 7), an initiative that began in the 1990s but hasn’t enjoyed sustained momentum. There’s an ambivalence about the “restored order” even as it finds supporters from across some typical ecclesial divides, evidenced by the fact that a number of dioceses who have done it, subsequently returned confirmation to adolescence. Surely, the preferences of bishops who make these decisions matter – the changes almost always occur after the appointment of a new ordinary – but there is also resentment of parishioners fueled by their own memories of Confirmation and by pastoral workers’ hopes for more engaged religious education.
Have we lost interest in the Confirmation question? Has it been solved?
Back in 1978, John Roberto wrote a resource paper for the National Conference of Diocesan Directors of Religious Education, which identified two schools of thinking about Confirmation at the time: 1) the liturgical-initiation school and 2) the theological-maturity school. The latter emphasized Confirmation as a rite of passage, the completion of Baptism’s gift of the Spirit, and adult commitment to the faith. The former strongly situated Confirmation between the other initiation sacraments of Baptism and First Eucharist. Thus, if Confirmation is the completion of the gift of the Spirit at Baptism, then it does so in an initiative way to prepare a person for reception of the Eucharist. The issue, in Roberto’s analysis, is primarily about order, not age. That is to say, the main difference he identified among members of these schools was whether Confirmation should come before or after First Eucharist. Roberto placed the great liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh, for example, in the liturgical-initiation school, even as Kavanagh argued for relevance of the adult-initiation paradigm in our secular society.
It strikes me that most writing about sacraments today is liturgically inclined. It comes from scholars trained in programs of liturgical studies or those who have come to sacramental theology through an understanding of sacraments as firmly situated in the liturgical rites. The structures of formation supporting Roberto’s theological-maturity school are mostly gone. Among those who offered theological support to the primarily pastoral position that Confirmation was about maturity or commitment were theologians like Ray Noll, Joseph Martos, or Bernard Cooke, all of whom have retired or have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.
For a number of years, I was on the faculty at Seton Hill University in the diocese of Greensburg, PA, where in 1987 Bishop Anthony Bosco moved Confirmation to age 7. Bosco, I learned from interviews with a number of diocesan priests involved with the change, got the idea from a pitch made to then Pittsburgh bishop Anthony Bevilacqua by two priests, Frs. Frank Almade and Eric Diskin in 1985 or 1986, when Bosco was auxiliary bishop. Because the 1983 Code of Canon Law left the age of Confirmation to the consideration of bishops’ conferences, Bevilacqua, a canon lawyer, wanted to know the best course of action for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Tasked by Bevilacqua to initiate a study of the question, Almade enlisted Diskin to develop a theological approach and present it to the priests’ council. In Almade’s estimation, Bevilacqua knew he wasn’t long for Pittsburgh and, as an outsider, wasn’t particularly tied to the diocese’s previous practice, which at the time had been to confirm around age 12 or 13. In their research, Almade and Diskin found in the literature exactly what Roberto described. Almade’s research was eventually published in the collection When Should We Confirm? (Liturgy Training Publications, 1989).
So in fall 1986, they laid out the liturgical-initiation and theological-maturity options for the council and bishops, along with an argument emerging from the liturgical-initiation paradigm and the RCIA as the primordial model of initiation, that they should move Confirmation to age 7 or 8, in the same year as First Eucharist. Bevilacqua did not follow the proposal. In fact, before he offered a formal response, he left to serve as ordinary of Philadelphia. Almade, in a 2017 interview, speculates that Bevilacqua knew he was on his way out in a month or two and didn’t want the upheaval.
But Auxiliary Bishop Bosco was listening. After his appointment as Bishop of Greensburg in April 1987, Bosco moved Confirmation to the earlier age. While they never had a direct conversation, Almade suspects that Bosco’s commitment to lifelong learning immunized him from the argument that earlier Confirmation would undercut religious education. According to many involved, priests and other parish staff never bought into Bosco’s initiative, whether because of their inherent skepticism or because they didn’t feel well-supported in explaining it. And many parishioners were dissatisfied with the upheaval.
When Bishop Lawrence Brandt arrived in Greensburg in 2004, he found a program that caused some distress for his flock, one in which he had no investment. In a 2017 interview, Brandt emphasized the formative influence of secular culture in describing his complete satisfaction with Confirmation as the carrot on a stick that would keep young people in religious education.
This is merely the outline of one story, but it demonstrates both how changes in Confirmation practice can be driven by bishops’ initiatives and also how pastoral response or implementation plays a key role. A few bishops are still inclined toward Confirmation celebrated at a younger age. There are also a number of folks in pastoral work who tend tothink – like Bishop Brandt – that there are advantages to keeping Confirmation later. In other words, my impression is that the driving considerations against earlier celebration are not really theological as Roberto called them in 1978, but rather practical, “it’s too heavy of a lift to change,” and pastoral, “it gives us a shot at keeping kids in religious education.” In that case, the divide is not really between liturgists and theologians (as Roberto mapped it in the 70s), but mostly between theologians and parish/pastoral workers, who are convinced somewhat by inertia and somewhat by pastoral expedience.
My book argued in 2013 that Confirmation debates were often a kind of cipher for larger issues. I wonder if we’ve realized that tweaking the age of Confirmation, or its occasion of celebration, is not going to solve our issues around what we now call disaffiliation. If so, those larger cultural-ecclesial issues are largely still driving the Confirmation question, or lack thereof.
by Tim Gabrielli, Ph.D teaches theology at the University of Dayton