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Graham Osborne

Should confirmation be later –  or earlier?

Voices Oct. 9, 2018

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller administers the sacrament of confirmation. Graham Osborne asks whether earlier confirmation might help children prepare for first Communion, as practised by the early Church. (BCC file photo)

The Catholic Church teaches that confirmation administered through the laying on of hands and anointing with Chrism oil, normally by a bishop, “perfects baptismal grace through a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (CCC 1288-1316).

“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 1303).

Many Protestants object to the Catholic sacrament of confirmation on various grounds, often claiming that the word “confirmation” is not even found in Scripture. But just because a word is not found in the Bible does not mean the teaching it represents is not there. The words Bible and Trinity are not found in Scripture, but no Christian would deny either.

Turning to Scripture, we see this sacrament clearly in places like Acts 8:14-17: “when the apostles … heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent … Peter and John, who … prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

Similarly in Acts 19:2-6 St. Paul asks several believers: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

In both cases, we unequivocally see a separation between baptism and the laying on of hands, the latter accompanied by a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.

The testimony from the early Church is equally clear. In 253 AD St. Cyprian wrote, “It is necessary for him that has been baptized also to be anointed, so that by his having received chrism, that is, the anointing, he can be the anointed of God and have in him the grace of Christ” (Letters 7:2 [A.D. 253]).

In St. Hippolytus’ The Apostolic Tradition (215 AD), he details confirmation with equal clarity: “Then, pouring the consecrated oil into his hand and imposing it on the head of the baptized, he shall say, ‘I anoint you with holy oil in the Lord, the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.’

An interesting side note: for roughly the first 500 years of the Church, confirmation and first Communion both immediately followed baptism, and in that order, whether the sacraments were being administered to an infant or an adult. (We still maintain this order with adults going through the RCIA process today.) The minister of all three sacraments was typically the bishop.

As the Church grew, it was not possible for the bishop to be at every baptism, so two traditions developed. The western Church preserved the bishop as the minister of confirmation, but the timing of confirmation and first Communion eventually went from immediately after baptism to a later date. In contrast, the eastern Church has preserved the timing and order of confirmation (reception as infants and immediately before reception of the Eucharist), but the minister is typically the baptizing priest.

The other change, and perhaps the most significant, is that in many places, the order of confirmation has changed. Many dioceses, including Vancouver, confirm after receipt of the Eucharist, around Grade 7 or in high school in many places.

How did this change come about? The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops relates that “in 1910 Pope Pius X recognized that children were not being allowed first Communion until the age of 12 to 14. He felt that such a denial was contrary to the vision of Jesus who always drew children to himself. Pius X ordered that children be allowed to come to the table of the Eucharist as soon as they could distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary bread. The age (of receiving the Eucharist) was then lowered to around seven.”

From what I can tell, St. Pius X did not institute a change in the age of confirmation, or in the order of the reception of the sacraments of initiation, a change made in many North American dioceses and which might be problematic in two ways.

As I mentioned earlier, in the first centuries of the Church infants usually received these three sacraments together. Today, the Catechism calls for the age of confirmation to be the age of reason (roughly age 7, unless grave reason requires earlier), though canon law allows a conference of bishops to change this. Based on that, perhaps children should be confirmed earlier than we see today.

Yet many people are actually advocating for confirmation to be moved even later, their reasoning often being that confirmation seems to not be “working.” Many teens leave our parishes shortly after receiving confirmation, so a later confirmation age might mean we could “keep” and teach young people longer – not a bad thing in itself.

Statistics for young Catholics leaving (or losing) the faith are disturbing to say the least, and the age of their departure is shocking – many as early as age 9, but averaging around 13 according to a recent Georgetown University study.  Would they have benefitted and been strengthened spiritually from receiving the sacrament of confirmation at an earlier age, maybe 7 or even earlier?

There may be wisdom in the ancient discipline of the Church confirming at an earlier age. Recall that in Luke 18:15-16 when “people were bringing even infants to him,” Jesus said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

The Greek word used for infants here was “brephos,” which literally means newborn or small baby. Jesus then “blessed them, placing his hands on them,” maybe even foreshadowing the laying on of hands used in the administering of confirmation.

Second, confirmation is supposed to precede the reception of the Eucharist according to Vatican II, the Catechism, and the revised rite of confirmation. As mentioned, this was the traditional order of these sacraments for the first 500 years of the Church.

For example, Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium specifies the complementary order in which the sacraments are to be received: “Incorporated into the Church through baptism … bound more intimately to the Church by the sacrament of confirmation … (then) taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice … the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.”

The CCCB document The Order of the Sacraments of Initiation reiterates this theology. It notes that “the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent teaching of the magisterium lead to several conclusions about the nature of confirmation and its relation to the other initiation sacraments: namely, that confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, and that it is to be celebrated after baptism and in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist … confirmation is always spoken of as completing baptism and preparing for the Eucharist … the Eucharist is always spoken of as the climax, the completion of initiation into the Christian community.”

We also see this sacramental order prefigured in the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:16, where the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus immediately after he came up from the waters of baptism.

This document then goes on to stress “confirmation is never spoken of as a sacrament of ‘adult’ commitment to faith, but always as a sacrament of initiation.” This is a very different focus from most current confirmation preparation programs, in North America at least.

With statistics saying a large percentage of Catholics doubt the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I can’t help but wonder whether the graces and the gifts received in confirmation might help children prepare for the reception of the Eucharist, particularly in helping seal a faith in the Real Presence.

Some might rightfully ask whether children confirmed at younger ages (even infants) can make an adult commitment of faith. Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmstead answers this well: “All sacraments are a gift from our Heavenly Father … (they) are not earned or merited … An authentic mature commitment to Christ and the Church is expressed in full participation in the Eucharist and apostolic life of the Church. It is not achieved at a single moment but throughout the life-long deepening of our relationship with Christ. This begins in childhood and continues until death.”

Confirmation, whether conferred as an infant or older, is simply one of the great gifts of preparation given to us by God that will aid a commitment to Jesus that will grow and last a lifetime. We can never underestimate the power of grace freely given in the sacraments, whether that sacrament is administered as a young babe or adult. “Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them …”

Graham Osborne presents his YB Catholic Conference Saturday, Oct. 20, at St Mary’s Parish, Vancouver. Visit rcav.org/calendar for details.