Easter season is traditionally the time when most Catholics receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Fittingly, then, last Sunday’s first reading came from chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles. The deacon Philip was preaching in Samaria. Many came to believe and were baptized. When the apostles learned about this, the apostles Peter and John went to Samaria to lay hands on the newly baptized so that the Holy Spirit would fall upon them. The Church has always associated this episode with Confirmation, which is an integral part of Christian initiation.
During what we might call “Confirmation season,” we receive many questions about this sacrament. One of the most frequently asked questions concerns the appropriate age for Confirmation, as the practice varies widely throughout the United States, from first or second grade all the way up to senior year in high school.
The short answer is that the universal Church gives local Churches significant latitude in this area. Certainly those dioceses that postpone the sacrament to the high school years are within their rights to do so, and in fact there is something to be said to for allowing more time for maturation and catechetical formation so that Confirmation involves an adult decision to commit oneself to Christ.
All the same, I think the better approach is an earlier, not later, administration of the sacrament. Here are five reasons for my position:
(1) Age of discretion. I think we should begin by looking at what the Church actually requires for the reception of the sacrament in canons 889-91 of the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 889 §1. Every baptized person not yet confirmed and only such a person is capable of receiving confirmation.
§2. To receive confirmation licitly outside the danger of death requires that a person who has the use of reason be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises.
Can. 890 The faithful are obliged to receive this sacrament at the proper time. Parents and pastors of souls, especially pastors of parishes, are to take care that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the appropriate time.
Can. 891 The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion unless the conference of bishops has determined another age, or there is danger of death, or in the judgment of the minister a grave cause suggests otherwise.
As one can readily see, the requirements are vague and not particularly onerous. One needs to be baptized, obviously, and also “suitably instructed,” “properly disposed,” and “able to renew the baptismal promises.” These requirements need to be read in the context of canon 891, which foresees the age of discretion (about seven years of age) as a normative, “appropriate” age. So, the sacrament does not require a fully “mature” faith as we are often led to believe, but rather the faith of a “suitably instructed” seven-year-old.
(2) Christian Initiation. With the restoration of RCIA, the Catholic faithful have a renewed sense of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist as sacraments of initiation. At the Easter Vigil, adult converts receive all three sacraments, with Confirmation coming after Baptism and before their First Communion.
The initation of children should follow the same model. Roughly a century ago the age of First Communion was moved to the age of discretion, and in more recent years the time of Confirmation has been pushed back, leading to a reversal of the sacraments. Part of this involves what seems to me to be a lack of clear teaching as to the nature and purpose of Confirmation, which is a separate discussion. The point here is simply that, all things being equal, Confirmation should precede First Communion (cf. Catechism, nos. 1212, 1275).
(3) Presumed Readiness. Building on that last point, we know that the Eucharist is the high point and culmination of Christian initiation. Not surprisingly, then, the requirements for admission to Holy Communion are at least as demanding as the requirements for Confirmation, yet we routinely admit seven-year-olds to Holy Communion. If in fact they are ready to make their First Communion, then surely they are ready for Confirmation, as readiness for the greater (Eucharist) implies readiness for the lesser (Confirmation). And such being the case, the right of properly disposed Catholics to have access to the sacraments should prevail over other considerations.
(4) Navigating Adolescence. An earlier age for Confirmation means that the child will have already received the grace of this sacrament when they reach the difficult teen years. The strengthening of baptismal grace that comes with Confirmation surely is not a magic potion, but it is real and operative even if the youth isn’t always aware of its presence. And of course I’m not at all suggesting that once the child is confirmed there is no longer a need for effective, ongoing Christian formation. Rather, I am saying that in today’s culture, young people are called to swim upstream amidst tremendous challenges. Why not proactively equip them with the sacrament? In other words, beyond “sacramental readiness” we can say today’s youth have “sacramental need.”
(5) Sacraments are not carrots. One argument for deferring Confirmation to the junior high or high school years is to encourage (coerce?) families to keep their children involved in religious education programs. The often-realized fear is that once the child is confirmed we will no longer see him or her in church. Tragically, in such situations Confirmation becomes an outward counter-sign, having the opposite of its intended effect.
We all know that if the faith is not valued or lived at home, parish-based sacramental preparation courses are not likely to be effective. The problem runs much deeper than the age of Confirmation. One can argue that the older age at least affords the parish a “teachable moment,” just as the time of engagement is a “teachable moment” for a young couple that desires to get married in the Church.
There is some merit to that argument, but I think such an approach is like a golfer with a bad slice aiming to the left of the fairway to compensate for the slice. This may at times yield about as good of a result as can be expected, but the better solution is to fix the slice and drive the ball straight down the fairway. Confirmation is what it is; making it something it’s not–even with the best of intentions–is at best a bandaid and not a cure for what ails the Church in America.
Or, to put it in different terms, sacraments must not be considered enticements or diplomas, but rather encounters with the living God whereby we receive the grace to live faith-filled Christian lives.
Blessings to all of this year’s confirmandi, and to their families and sponsors!