Urgent: The Power of Confirmation

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.