The Catholic Thing
Urgent: The Power of Confirmation Print E-mail
By Kristina Johannes   
Sunday, 03 November 2013

The woman was on a secret mission, ultimate destination a city in Mexico.  The call came so quickly that she hadn’t had time to request a mailed copy of her birth certificate from the state in which she’d been born, far from the one where she was now living.  She had no passport either, and wasn’t sure how to get in and out of Mexico as a U. S. citizen without either of those. But she didn’t hesitate to plunk down the thousands of dollars to buy a plane ticket for herself and her child.

She arrived in a U.S. border state and met her hosts – who were going to slip her into Mexico and back out again.  She had her driver’s license, rosary, and faith that God had arranged it all and would see her through.

She climbed into the van with her new friends and others who were on the same mission.  The van approached the border checkpoint and passed through without problem.  She wondered how she was going to get back out.

A few hours later, her mission accomplished, the van headed back to the border.  She pulled out her rosary and began praying, the others joining in.  Approaching the border guards she held her breath.  One looked into the van and simply said, “Is everyone an American citizen in here?”  They all answered in the affirmative and he waved them on without further ado, the woman breathing a sigh of relief.  She promptly prayed a rosary of thanksgiving.

What you may ask, was her mission?  Would you believe obtaining the sacrament of Confirmation for her child, who had been denied it based on not having reached the stipulated age in her American diocese? 

The patchwork of policies on the age of Confirmation in the United States has given rise to a situation where those who want to take advantage of the universal canonical age of confirmation – the age of reason – must often be quite resourceful.  The granting of exceptions to the diocesan age of Confirmation is almost as rare as hen’s teeth, despite Rome’s admonition on this subject.

How did we arrive at such a situation? 

Some have pointed to the decision of St. Pius X to lower the age of reception of Confession and Communion without addressing the age of Confirmation. Before that, the traditional order of reception had been Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, and finally Holy Eucharist.  In that order, Holy Communion was seen as the completion of the process of initiation.

Canon Law says the following about those who are to receive the sacrament:

Can.  889 §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.  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.

The rub is canon 891, which allows a national conference of bishops to set an age higher than the age of reason.  In the United States, the bishops did this. Thus the USCCB’s complementary norm to Canon 891 states: 

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 891, hereby decrees that the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Latin Rite shall be conferred between the age of discretion and about sixteen years of age, within the limits determined by the diocesan bishop and with regard for the legitimate exceptions given in canon 891.

Why do some people consider this a problem?  Because, in too many places, it has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the sacrament of Confirmation, which has almost become a sacrament in search of a theology. 

In some areas it is presented as a Catholic “altar call,” where persons confirm their faith to the community.  In others, it’s seen as a rite of passage to Catholic adulthood.  In still others, it is simply a convenient way of keeping students in the CCD program through high school.  None of these is worthy of the great sacrament whereby we are confirmed in our faith, not by our own action, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit. 

When I taught CCD, I illustrated the power of this sacrament through the image of the apostles fearfully huddled in the upper room before Pentecost. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, those same men burst forth fearlessly and proclaimed the Gospel resulting in a mass conversion of 3000 people. The difference? Confirmation!

As the Catechism says, “Confirmation 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.” [1303]

When Benedict XVI was pope I had some hope that he would issue a decree for Confirmation similar to the one issued by St. Pius X for Holy Communion mentioned above.  He seemed to indicate an interest in this in his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, “attention needs to be paid to the order of the sacraments of initiation. . . .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.” [18]

Perhaps these parsimonious policies on Confirmation will receive the current pope’s attention. Who would not want this gift for children as soon as they become responsible for their actions and, thus, stand in need of this strengthening, especially in our day and age?

Kristina Johannes is a registered nurse and a certified teacher of natural family planning. She has served as a spokeswoman for the Alaska Family Coalition, which successfully worked for passage of the marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Adeodatus, November 03, 2013
I'm not too sure what the writer wants to communicate about Confirmation. Does she want to lower the age, or change the order of the sacraments, or renew people's understanding of confirmation? I agree that many Catholics seem to misunderstand the ultimate purpose and significance of Confirmation, as they do with pretty much every other sacrament. Regardless of order or age, this situation calls for better religious education in Catholic parishes. Young Catholics must be catechized properly so that they can embrace the sacraments they receive.

However, if we keep baptizing and confirming by numbers, ushering lines of ignorant kids to receive whichever sacrament like cattle, we shouldn't be surprised that many of them never return to the church once they leave for college or work. American bishops think that raising the age may change that situation since the kids will know what's happening around them. Unfortunately, even as young men and women, they still don't understand because they still haven't learned. Rather, they wonder whether the rest of Catholicism is as pointless as their religious education classes, which usually teach little about the faith and instead host a slew of social activities and retreats where the participants listen to rock music and talk about their feelings.
written by Theodore Seeber, November 03, 2013
We need to recognize that the "age of reason" is highly variable. For one child it may be as early as 5, and I know 28 year olds who would not fit a canonical definition of reason. My special needs child is more like a 6 year old in his understanding of sin; and while he got the Eucharist on time, we're having him take the classes for his sacrament of Confession twice. It helps that our parish is becoming more conservative in this- 4th and 2nd graders are getting Confession this year, and he's the only 5th grader still in the parish, so he can just "help" with the 4th grade class.
written by Billy Bean, November 03, 2013
The Eastern Catholic and Orthodox communions confer the sacrament of Confirmation (which they call "Chrismation") immediately after baptism. The infant or adult convert is then, at that same liturgy, fully initiated into the mystical life of the Church by receiving the Most Pure Body and Most Precious Blood of Christ. It is one event, in three stages (well, four in the case of adult converts: a preliminary General Confession is generally required before the administration of the other sacraments). I understand that there are historical reasons why things developed differently in the West, but I think the East has the right idea.
written by kristinajohannes, November 03, 2013
Adeodatus, I would like to see a lowering of the age but barring that, at least that bishops would be generous in granting exceptions to their higher aged policies, keeping in mind that a 6 or 7 year old can meet the universal requirements and can greatly benefit from the reception.
BTW, the order I mention in the article has Confirmation before Confession but I think it was actually Confession before Confirmation.
written by Fr. Kloster, November 03, 2013
Here in Ecuador, communion is at 9 and confirmation at 11. There are 4 years of mandatory catechism. The kids start at 8 years old and end at 11 years old. I tried to change the order here in my parish, but the chancery would not allow confirmation before communion.

In Mexico, many infants receive their confirmation directly after baptism. In the early Church, it was baptism, confirmation, and then they would place the precious blood or a piece of the Sacred Host in the mouth of the infant.

The Eastern Catholic Churches still confirm infants and their catechesis is much better than ours. You see, catechesis has a lot to do with the liturgy. In the East, they have not changed their liturgical practices since the time of the apostles. It's no wonder children growing up in Traditional Latin Mass families are miles ahead in catechesis. We didn't just move around the furniture in 1969, we went overboard on the simplicity and almost did away with the nobility!
written by jan, November 03, 2013
What is the history of canon 889 Section 2? If the apostolic practice is allegedly confirmation and baptism at birth, why should we keep this canon? Finally, what is the connection between reaching the age of reason and this sacrament so that the canon should require reaching the age of reason?

Someone please write an article answering these questions, thank you...
written by Tom, NC, November 03, 2013
Just on the human considerations, in our country and culture: postponing confirmation until 11th grade seems like the very best option to me. 12th grade would be better, but is too busy. As close to the age of "stepping off" into adulthood as possible, and I see 11th grade as the sweet spot.
The reasons are simply that this is/should be a lifetime decision, made upon reflection by someone at the threshold of what is, in our place and time, a very long adulthood. This decision is best made by those close enough to envision what that adulthood might entail.

(A minor point: in earlier ages, when you really might be dead next week at the age of 8, a good pastoral decision might be to move up confirmation to the age of reason. But when you might reasonable expect to live to 82, what is "urgent" changes.)
written by Tom, NC, November 03, 2013
I should have added that my two children are now beyond college, and were confirmed in mid-high school. And that, pre-children, I taught a 6th grade confirmation class for a few years. I've compared the experience at both ages in reaching my opinion.

I raise this point because I have to wonder if the posters here who want the earlier age for confirmation have raised children through adulthood yet.
written by Deacon james Stagg, November 03, 2013
In my experience teaching Confirmation and interviewing the confirmandi, there is little difference between the age of reason (6-7) and teen age (14-16). The Sacrament has lost its purpose almost completely in my recollection of my preparation in the 1950's (Seventh Grade). Teens are distracted by so many things these days that to concentrate on basic catechesis for Confirmation is almost ridiculous. Better they receive the grace as early as possible, to prepare them for the troubled times ahead.

I served for a good while in a parish populated by Lebanese immigrants and descendants, many of whom received all three Initiation Sacraments as infants. It appeared to me that their later catechesis suffered little from that "headstart". It seems like the historic manner may also be the most effective manner of raising children who stay in the Church. I can't say that about present USA policy.
written by Titus, November 04, 2013
"[A]lmost become a sacrament in search of a theology"?

It's EMPHATICALLY and unquestionably a sacrament in search of a theology. Nobody knows what it's for. Just look at the comments on this article. I am, sadly, by contemporary standards an astonishingly well-catechized Catholic. I couldn't write one good articulate paragraph about what Confirmation is. It's a scandal, and it goes way beyond the problems of when the sacrament is administered.
written by John Hinshaw, November 07, 2013
My understanding of Confirmation may be limited, but here it is: It is for a Baptized person to take ownership for the vows spoken for them when they were a baby. As such, it seems evident that we should be looking for older confirmations, given the amount of immaturity imposed on our children by our culture.
written by kristinajohannes, November 07, 2013
John, Titus, Jan, anyone else interested...I think the Catechism has a great section on Confirmation and if you have never read it or haven't read it lately I highly recommend it.

Jan, traditionally the bishop was seen as the ordinary minister of Confirmation and the Latin rite kept this emphasis...the Catechism has a discussion of this.

Re your specific point John Hinshaw, I give you this sentence from the letter I linked above: "Indeed, the longer the conferral of the Sacrament is delayed after the age of reason, the greater will be the number of candidates who are prepared for its reception but are deprived of its grace for a considerable period of time."

To me that is something that should be seriously pondered by every parent and every pastor of souls...

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