Rethinking the Age for Confirmation

“Let us think, each one of us: do we truly care that our children and our young ones receive Confirmation? This is important, it is important!”   ~ Pope Francis

It’s a new year, and that means a new MASTER CALENDAR in the kitchen—a familiar sight in most homes with children. There’s always plenty of room for reminders and appointments, and it’s the authoritative source for birthdays, anniversaries (especially ours—mustn’t forget!), and baptismal days.

Do you mark baptismal days in your family? We’ve been doing if from the beginning of our marriage—it just makes sense. If birthdays are how we annually celebrate the life of those we love, then baptismal days are opportunities to celebrate the beginning of their eternal life—that spiritual rebirth into the family of God that Christ won for us through the cross.

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My own baptismal day is highlighted in red like everyone else’s, but I also get to spotlight my confirmation—and not just because I’m in charge of preparing the calendar. I was raised Presbyterian and baptized accordingly, but my spiritual rebirth wasn’t fully accomplished until I made a profession of faith and was confirmed as a Catholic a quarter century later.

And what a monumental occasion that was—truly a moment of conversion, including a new Church, a new way of life, even a new name! While it was also the occasion of my first Holy Communion, I especially associate my conversion with confirmation because it constituted a permanent change of character and a once-in-a-lifetime event—just like my Protestant infant baptism.

And there’s an additional connection between these two sacraments because confirmation is fundamentally a “strengthening” (con-firmare) for the baptized who are henceforth commissioned to live out their baptism with gusto. The Catechism puts it thus:

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.

I might’ve been in a suit and tie at that Easter Vigil so long ago, but I remember well envisioning myself on my knees before my liege lord, imploring him to send me on a quest or into battle. In short, my confirmation was a launch—the beginning of an adventure!

Is that how you remember your confirmation? Unless you’re an adult convert, probably not.

For so many cradle Catholics, confirmation is merely a bump-in-the-road on the way to adult independence—a teenage rite of passage more than anything else, and, for those not enrolled in Catholic schools, the end of any kind of structured religious formation. Instead of commencing an adventure, confirmation is too often experienced as a graduation commencement—a capstone and a conclusion, and the last time the recipients will be compelled to do anything overtly “religious” outside of showing up for Mass … maybe.

Too harsh? Consider these words from evangelist Matthew Kelly: “We discovered … that 85 percent of young people stop practicing their faith within seven years of being confirmed.” That’s almost nine out of every ten Catholics bolting for the door within a decade of being fully initiated. That’s an incredible statistic, and it’s borne out in our rapidly aging Church—no wonder we’re consolidating parishes and shuttering church buildings!

Obviously, something is seriously amiss, and it seems like confirmation is an important key for correcting Catholic youth flight. We can be grateful that people like Matthew Kelly and other publishers have made an effort to spruce up confirmation preparation, but, so far, those efforts haven’t really paid off.

Why not?

I’m convinced the problem isn’t the way we prepare our children for confirmation, but rather when we do it. I’ll even go as far as to say that, despite the practice of a majority of U.S. dioceses, we couldn’t pick a worse time than the teen years for confirmation.

I make that assertion based on my limited track record as a religious educator, but also as a parent of confirmation candidates—four confirmed, three to go. Cecilia, our seventh-grader, is next up. Preparation begins at our parish school this term, and then our bishop will come next December to administer the sacrament to Cece and her friends.

But what if she doesn’t want to be confirmed—what then? Would she be brave enough to tell us? What’s more, would we be brave enough to give her the freedom to hold off? And if we push her to receive the sacrament with her class—whether out of pious concern or social conformity—what would upshot be? Resentment most likely, and maybe even a reinforced cynicism with an added layer of complicit hypocrisy. In any case, certainly not the enthusiasm for living the faith that the sacrament signifies.

Not to worry, though: Our Cecilia is actually excited about getting confirmed. For many families, however, the challenges I described above are not theoretical—we actually hear about them pretty regularly in our own parish catechetical ministry. Yet, it really shouldn’t be a surprise, especially if we remember that we ourselves starting wrestling with big ideas (including our faith) around the same age. The teen years are often a rocky, rebellious period, and there’s no doubt that strong parental guidance will be required throughout. Nonetheless, it’s vitally important for teenagers to start thinking for themselves and making their own decisions. “If at every stage of his life man desires to be his own person,” St. John Paul II observed, “during his youth he desires it even more strongly.”

Yes, it’s a tricky business, raising teenagers—a balancing act of oversight and latitude—but then confirmation rolls around, and what do we do? We compel teens to undergo intense religious instruction—even if they’ve been away from CCD since second grade—and in effect force them to receive a sacrament they themselves might otherwise forego. Plus, many parents of confirmation candidates aren’t exactly living a sacramental life themselves, and so their teens might assimilate the message that faith primarily involves going through the motions. Besides, as the Catechism teaches, “one must be in a state of grace” to receive Confirmation—which includes conscientiously honoring the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays. If confirmation candidates and their families haven’t been getting to Mass on a regular basis, and they have no intention of doing so once the sacrament is administered, then what’s the point?

I’m hoping that some of this rings true for you, and that it accords with observations you yourself have made. If so, then what I’d like to propose won’t sound so crazy.

It’s actually a bifurcated proposal that involves a radical shift of the sacrament either backwards or forwards. The preferable direction, at least according to tradition, is to move confirmation back to the age of reason, and to administer it prior to first communion. This would restore the ancient and proper order of the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, then communion), and would accentuate the Eucharist as the most important of the three. As Pope Benedict pointed out, there are sound historical reasons for how the order (at least in the West) got mixed up, but “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.”

Current practice puts the accent on confirmation as a sacramental goal line, and so it is incorrectly perceived as the “source and summit of the Christian life” instead of the Eucharist. And not only does confirmation come last in line, but it also generally involves a great deal of preparation—a full year or more of instruction and formation, for example, along with any number of obligatory service projects. All those mandates can give the misleading impression that confirmation is not only the most important sacrament, but also one that must be earned.

First Holy Communion prep was, by comparison, so simple: A few crafts and some worksheets, maybe a banner, and that was it. There was never any question that the Eucharist could or should be earned, and the only real requirement was that the communicant be able to recognize the difference between ordinary elements on the one hand, and the Eucharist on the other. It was all so elementary because, well, the recipients were in elementary school.

According to the Church, kids reach the age of reason around their seventh year, and at that point they have adequate intellectual and, presumably, spiritual resources to prepare for not only confirmation, but penance and Eucharist as well. Our actions, however, indicate that confirmation is so serious that it requires greater spiritual maturity and intelligence, and so we push it off until the teen years.

But the truth is that confirmation around the age of seven is actually the universal normsurprise! Bishops do have the discretion to confirm at other times, but if we adopted an early confirmation age as the standard, we could finally put to rest the idea that it’s a Catholic bar mitzvah. “Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’” the Catechism insists, “we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth.”

Along those lines, we also have to reject the neo-gnostic idea that confirmation candidates have to fully comprehend what the sacrament is about before they can receive it. Instead, what’s really required? And is it beyond the ken of grade-schoolers? Again, here’s the Catechism:

Preparation for Confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit—in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life.

All that seems well within the grasp of children who are already expected to form a rudimentary understanding of transubstantiation. And to underscore the point that age shouldn’t be a barrier to receiving confirmation’s special graces and responsibilities, the Catechism quotes Thomas Aquinas: “Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity…. Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.”

While there are undoubtedly logistical problems with switching to a younger confirmation age, several dioceses have adopted it to great success—most notably Fargo. It’s my hope that more dioceses will at least consider the idea—maybe experiment with it in a couple parishes to see how it goes.

However, anticipated pushback from parents, catechists, and schools—entrenched in the tried and true—makes it highly unlikely that a younger confirmation would be adopted on a large scale, so that leads me to my second suggestion: Discontinue compulsory preparation and administration of confirmation altogether. This alternative doesn’t restore the proper order of the initiation sacraments, but it has a couple other benefits to commend it.

To begin with, the language and culture of confirmation as a rite of passage isn’t going away any time soon, and so we might as well use it to our catechetical advantage. By dispensing with required confirmation preparation and reception, the sacrament can truly become a moment of conversion for Catholics, regardless of when it occurs. In this way, confirmation will take on particular importance for Catholics returning to the Church after being away for a time, especially when such a return coincides with significant life changes—like marriage for instance, or having that first baby. And young people who never drift away from the Church? They’ll likely seek confirmation in their teen years anyway. Thus, for all recipients, the sacrament will cohere with their actual lived experience of faith.

There’s an additional catechetical value to this approach: Confirmation classes will start to mix together maturing teens, young adults, and the retired—and everyone in between! Younger candidates will get to hear older Catholics share about their struggles and joys; in turn, those older Catholics will get to hear the younger candidates express their aspirations and enthusiasms.

I can’t think of a better way to foster the idea that confirmation (and Christianity) is really for grown-ups—grown-ups, that is, that humble themselves and come to Jesus.

You know, like children.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from an altarpiece depicting three of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation and penance) painted by Rogier van der Weyden between 1445 and 1450.


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