The Confirmation Conversation, continued

On March 27 Pray Tell posted an essay by Tim Gabrielli entitled “The End of the Confirmation Debate?” You can read it here. Today we are pleased to post a reply from Paul Turner, a noted authority on Confirmation, to continue the conversation. 

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I commend my friend Tim Gabrielli for again bringing new insights to contemporary approaches to confirmation. It does appear that the opposing positions of the liturgical-initiation school and the theological-maturity school have gained neither new research nor revived antipathy. It also appears that pre-First Communion confirmation never became the juggernaut that some envisioned—at least in the US. Our Australian confreres saw a stronger rise in the practice.

In Tim’s intriguing analysis, other factors drive the age of confirmation today. The first is the bishop’s preference. When a diocese receives a new bishop, he will likely determine the local age. He may or may not change the practice in force, but his desire can be the most decisive factor.

The conference of bishops also makes an impact. The US conference has put in force an exceptionally large range of ages for confirmation: from the age of discretion to about sixteen. We have many dioceses, and the bishops have been unable to agree on a narrower range. If they cannot agree, the canonical default takes effect: the age of discretion. Under the current range, confirmation ages may vary widely among the dioceses and even within dioceses.

Tim also names practical and pastoral reasons as criteria that let the air out of confirmation debates. Concerns over disaffiliation bring the reality check that divining the best age to confirm will not alone enkindle enamor for the church.

Something similar is happening with the preparation of validly baptized candidates for their reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Consider these same criteria: individual bishops, the conference of bishops, practical and pastoral reasons.

As a backdrop, the same liturgical-initiation school contrasts with a catechetical school. (Maturity is not so much the issue in this case as catechesis, which I propose as another way to describe the second school that John Roberto identified.) The catechetical school values joint formation of candidates and catechumens, leading to their combined celebration of respective rites of initiation. The liturgical-initiation school values the difference between candidates and catechumens, preserving the Easter Vigil for the initiation of the unbaptized and favoring the reception of validly baptized Christians into the full communion of the Catholic Church on multiple occasions year round, preferably at a parish Sunday Mass. The liturgical school’s vision derives from typical edition of the Rite of Reception, whereas the catechetical school drives from the many adaptations approved for the US in 1988.

Many individual bishops are unaware of this debate and rather like seeing large numbers of both groups at their combined Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion each year. The US conference of bishops is proposing that the revised English translation of the OCIA (née RCIA) preserve the catechetical approach for baptized candidates with which we are familiar: Give them their own set of pre-sacramental rites, offer to combine them with the unbaptized, and celebrate all the sacraments at the Easter Vigil for both groups.

This may be driven by practical and pastoral reasons: If it’s working, and if bishops and catechetical leaders are happy with it, why change? Besides, it’s simpler to catechize both groups together, simpler to celebrate the liturgies together.

However they are prepared, whenever they are received, these candidates will also be confirmed.

If the confirmation debate is over, it’s probably only over for now. Eventually the unresolved tensions will surface again as a new generation tries to figure out what to do with a sacrament being asked to fit more circumstances than its design may sustain.

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Paul Turner is pastor of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri and director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph.  He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.


  1. “If the Bishops and catechetical leaders are happy with it, why change?” Why? Because it isn’t about us. It is about the Catechumens and Candidates. It is about their experience and their formation that happens during the ritual that brings them closer in relationship to Christ. It is also about the community, who are participants in the ritual.

    “It’s simpler to catechize both groups together, simpler to celebrate the liturgies together.” How lazy of us! Is simplicity what we are going for here? Or is it about honoring what the catechumens and candidates need, no what they deserve. They deserve our best effort to help them on their faith journey. Our best in catechesis and liturgy!

    These rituals are not about us, and certainly not about looking good and “seeing large numbers”. These rituals about having an encounter with the one true God. How can we then only offer scraps instead of a feast because it is “simpler, working, or familiar”?

  2. If the US bishops are seeking to give baptized people “their own set of pre-sacramental rites, offer to combine them with the unbaptized, and celebrate all the sacraments at the Easter Vigil for both groups,” would that mean that the bishops intend to revoke National Statutes # 33 indicating a preference against reception of baptized people at the Easter Vigil? More to the point, would a revised translation of the RCIA/OCIA give, then, clear instructions about to insert the Rite of Reception into the Baptism liturgy of the Vigil? It is difficult for me to see how to do that without either interrupting the Baptism liturgy, making the Rite of Reception look like an afterthought, or both.

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