In the time that I’ve served as a catechist at my parish, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to pass on the Catholic Faith in some way to children of diverse age ranges. But one thing I’ve noticed, especially as we get closer to the sacrament of Confirmation, is that the kids really aren’t sure what the sacrament is all about.
In my diocese, the sacrament is conferred in the eighth grade, so typically at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Sadly, this somewhat recent practice of moving the sacrament of Confirmation until after one’s first Holy Communion (and at a much later age) has led many to see this sacrament as a graduation, or as Pope Francis so plainly put it, a “sacrament of farewell”. Even more distressing is to see that sometimes parents and other Catholics that I have spoken with also have an erroneous understanding of the nature of the sacrament.
For instance, there was a recent passing comment from a peer who, while discussing the sacrament, claimed that Confirmation shows that you’ve become an “adult in the Church” and that the confirmand has now “come into his own” as a Catholic Christian. To be clear, both of these claims are absolutely false and, unfortunately, are not uncommon among many of our Catholic brothers and sisters. This is yet another example of poor catechesis that many of us have received over the last several decades, but steps have been made throughout the Church in more recent years to correct the error and shed light on what this great sacrament of Confirmation actually does and is for.
As we take a look at these two claims and see what the Church does say about this sacrament, we’ll see that Confirmation has nothing to do with being an “official” Catholic, but instead it is a further outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the baptized.
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The Purpose of Confirmation
In the first place, it’s helpful to understand what the Church herself says about the sacrament of Confirmation. Along with baptism and the Eucharist, Confirmation is one of the three sacraments of initiation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace …
“Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace:
– it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, ‘Abba! Father!’
– it unites us more firmly to Christ;
– it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
– it renders our bond with the Church more perfect;
– it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” .CCC 1285, 1303
We can see here that the sacrament of Confirmation’s main function is to bestow God’s grace upon us, which is always a free gift. For many of us, we were baptized as infants, and we were given a free gift of grace at that moment. The same holds true for those who were baptized as adults, as we do not effect our own salvation; we cooperate with the free gift of God’s grace through our faith and good works. Salvation is God’s doing and we rely on him.
So with this in mind, pay close attention to the wording of the quoted sections of the Catechism. Are there any age restrictions, or anything hinting that being united firmly to Christ or increasing the gifts of the Holy Spirit are reserved for those considered “adults”? Of course not! Like baptism, Confirmation is a free gift and can be given at any age, thus making the first point about “being an adult in the Church” an incorrect proposition.
A Sacrament of Initiation
It makes no sense to see the sacrament as some kind of coming of age, as many children receive the sacrament more and more frequently, even before the age of thirteen or fourteen. Continuing from the Catechism:
“For centuries, Latin custom has indicated ‘the age of discretion’ as the reference point for receiving Confirmation. But in danger of death children should be confirmed even if they have not yet attained the age of discretion.
“Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective.”CCC 1307, 1308
Every baptized person is a new creation in Christ. Throughout his entire life, the Christian will need strengthening, and the best way to receive strengthening is through the reception of the sacraments. Since Confirmation works in such a powerful way, the Church has always taught that persons of any age may receive the sacrament. Just as we would be remiss in our duties to not baptize our children, why would we not confirm our children?
Indeed, the Catechism makes it clear that children in danger of death should absolutely be confirmed without delay to bring to perfection what was started in baptism. The point here is that one does not become an adult in the Church, or make a decision of themselves to be “full members” of the Church, by being confirmed. Instead, like we see with baptism, the grace our Lord gives us is free, and as each and every one of us regardless of age are God’s adopted children, we cannot claim that any sacrament makes us an adult. One is not more or less Catholic depending on age, whether this is spiritually or physically. The sacraments of initiation are meant for all the baptized to receive.
A Growing Trend
One concrete example from my own life might help to illustrate this more clearly. As a father of three boys, a godfather, and a catechist at my parish, I can see that many children are in need of the graces that are received in Confirmation, and I have sometimes wondered if postponing that reception of the sacramental grace to fourteen years of age is too long.
About ten years ago, an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese I was living in offered to give the sacrament of Confirmation to any child who desired to receive it regardless of age, so that they didn’t have to wait until eighth grade. This bishop recognized that the graces received in the sacrament would be extremely beneficial to those young people who had received their First Holy Communion, but not Confirmation yet.
Clearly, this bishop had put no stock into the claims that the sacrament was only for baptized Christians who were choosing to be adult Catholics. Four of my cousins, ranging in age from seven to eleven, took advantage of this, and I sponsored one of my cousins who was not quite yet ten. It was great to know that my cousin was receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, and that it would help him in living out Christ’s will. I hope the same can happen for my children, but we’ll wait and see if this trend continues to catch on in more U.S. dioceses.
Eucharist and Confirmation
With each passing year, more and more dioceses are instituting the restored order of the sacraments of initiation, placing Confirmation before First Communion again. This way, the children are still receiving their first Holy Communion at the age of seven or eight as Pope St. Pius X asked for, but are receiving Confirmation before that time just as Christians had done all throughout history. And what are the reasons for doing so? Grace, plain and simple. If we make grace (which is the work of the Holy Spirit) the main focus with our preparation and catechesis on Confirmation, we will start to see this “sacrament of farewell” cease being a concern.
Far from being a rite of passage as we have seen through the erroneous emphasis on “making the faith our own” with Confirmation, we can focus more on what the Catechism lined out above in terms of what the Christian receives through the sacrament. Actually, we need only look to our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters, especially those of the Byzantine Rite, who confer Confirmation (or Chrismation) upon infants (see Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, 428). Such infants receive the sacrament of Confirmation just as validly as any teenager or adult in the Latin Rite. We can see here that the grace flowing forth from the sacrament is front and center, and the first and most primary concern.
Recently, upon restoring the order of the sacraments to the Diocese of Manchester in 2017, Bishop Peter Libasci explained how a renewed emphasis on the grace of the sacrament is essential. Regarding the benefits of having children receive Confirmation at a younger age, he said:
“First, it will highlight that the Eucharist, not Confirmation, is the culmination of Christian initiation. Secondly, with the reception of grace of the Holy Spirit at a younger age, it will give children greater courage and guidance in facing the increasing difficulties of living a Christian life. Finally, it will allow for more opportunities for parents to take their rightful place as the primary educators of faith formation. It places sacrament preparation at an age when children are naturally more open and receptive to participating with their parents …
“This question [on whether or not children are capable of making an adult commitment to the Church] reflects a common misconception that the Sacrament of Confirmation signifies maturity and adult commitment to the Church. The maturity that is required for receiving any of the sacraments of Christian initiation is only what is age-appropriate. The Church expects interior dispositions of readiness, such as understanding and freedom, that are realistic at any given age, nothing more. To celebrate Confirmation requires nothing more by way of age-appropriate maturity than to receive the Eucharist. An authentic, mature commitment to Christ and the Church is expressed in lifelong participation in the Eucharist and apostolic life of the Church.”
Not a Coming of Age Thing
The sacrament of Confirmation is made for giving Christians, including children, that greater courage, just as I saw it work in the life of my young cousins. And to again give a concrete example from my own experience, all four of those cousins of mine (who are adults now) are still practicing the faith and participating regularly in the sacraments. I have no doubt that the grace they received from the sacraments was key in helping them navigate the rough waters of adolescence in the twenty-first century.
Bishop James Wall from the Diocese of Gallup is keenly aware of this reality as well, as evidenced from his pastoral letter earlier this year explaining why the diocese would also confer the sacrament of Confirmation at a younger age:
“Receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation long after the reception of Holy Communion tends to weaken the understanding of the bond and relationship that the Sacraments of Initiation have with one another. Since the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation lead the faithful to the culmination of their initiation into the Christian Life in Holy Communion, the practice of postponing the reception of Confirmation until the teenage years has not always been beneficial. An alarming percentage of our Catholic children who were baptized and received First Holy Communion, do not continue their formation for the Sacrament of Confirmation, and in too many cases, never receive the Sacrament. As your shepherd, I believe it is important for our children, before they reach their adolescent years, to receive the strength of this important Sacrament.”
Many directors of religious education across the country will also speak to how there is a steep drop off between the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation where it is postponed. No longer can we allow the sacrament of Confirmation to be a carrot on a stick, keeping children in religious education through primary and middle school years, just to see them walk away in high school. Instead, we must foster catechesis that focuses on building up families, using the sacraments for what they are intended to be used for: a conferral of grace by almighty God, not a pretense for making sure children are in religious education long enough to “come of age” as a so-called “full-fledged” Catholic.
It’s All about God’s Grace
As can be observed here, our understanding of the sacrament of Confirmation is of the utmost importance, because by this sacrament our divine mandate to spread the gospel is confirmed through the seal of the Holy Spirit upon us. Pope St. John Paul II gave a beautiful reflection on the sacrament in 1998, and we should reflect upon his words in closing:
“Confirmation … makes us share fully in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by the risen Lord. The unbreakable bond between the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is expressed in the close connection between the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation …
“Indeed, through Confirmation Christians, consecrated by the anointing in Baptism, share in the fullness of the Spirit with whom Jesus is filled, so that their whole life will spread the ‘aroma of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2:15).”
Whether we are young or old, our father in heaven wants to bestow his grace upon us. When preparing our children and young adults for this great sacrament, let’s make sure our focus is not on becoming an adult, but on becoming the person God wants us to be in our current state of life. The more we rely on God’s grace to transform us and our loved ones, the closer we will be to that perfection our Lord Jesus calls us to attain.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.
Featured image, “The Seven Sacraments: Confirmation” (1645) by Nicolas Poussin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons