confirmation, Sacraments, youth

Frank Answers About the Age of Confirmation

Would you please make some comments/observations on the restored order described in the attached article, particularly with regard to the early age for Confirmation. Attached article: Denver Archdiocese Moves to Restore the Order of Sacraments.

The news article sent to me is about the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver restoring the sacrament of Confirmation to its traditional sequence between Baptism and First Communion and administered at about age seven. Since First Communion in Roman Catholic practice usually occurs at age seven, Confirmation would also occur at age seven. This is a question not only about the age for Confirmation but also the sacramental economy—the interrelatedness of the various sacraments, especially the sacraments of Christian initiation.

Why is First Communion given at age seven? Because medieval theologians defines this as the “age of discretion.” Then the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 required all Christians to make a confession to a priest before receiving Communion and laid this on all who had reached “an age of discretion.” Before this requirement linking Penance and Communion for all Christians, children could receive Holy Communion at their baptism—even as infants. With this conciliar decree First Communion would have to be delayed until after First Penance. As for Confirmation, it was administered whenever the bishop got to the child at whatever age. The sacramental economy was clearly coming unraveled during the Middle Ages.

If we step back to the ancient church we see in the church orders of late antiquity that there were three significant moments in Christian initiation: baptism, the seal of the Holy Spirit, and first Communion—usually in that sequence. In the Eastern Churches this ancient sequence has remained intact up to today, even when administered to infants and young children. It is usually administered in the parish church by the parish priest. The Eastern Churches speak of chrismation (the anointing with oil) rather than of confirmation (which is more associated with the laying on of hands).

In the Western Church the bishop retained his prerogative to be the minister of Christian initiation. The bishop’s role was related to the seal of the Spirit—the laying on of hands and anointing after Baptism with the prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because the bishop could not be present at every baptism, the rites for the seal of the Spirit (which came to be called “confirmation” or “strengthening”) were delayed until the child could be brought to the bishop or the bishop visited the parish. The Council of Trent tried to reform this practice so that the sequence would be: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, First Communion.

In recent years, however, Confirmation has come to be seen as a rite of passage that is better administered in adolescence, like Protestants do, after opportunities for a pastoral and educational ministry aimed at helping young Catholics make a mature profession of the Christian faith. Some Catholics have even taken to calling Confirmation a renewal of Baptism, like Protestants do. So the sequence has been broken again. Some have urged that Confirmation be delayed until the late teenage years.

What we see among traditional Catholics is the desire to restore the sequence for reasons of both theology and identity. Theologically, one should be “born again of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) before receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. In terms of identity, Confirmation at age seven is an outward mark of traditional Catholicism.

None of this relates to the rite of Confirmation as practiced by Reformation Protestants, which has its own complicated history and, in any event, is not regarded as a sacrament but as an ordinance of the Church which is better styled Affirmation of Baptism. Nevertheless, the term “confirmation” has stuck. But because the question was asked by a Lutheran, let me end with a brief review of our own issues with the rite of Confirmation.

Martin Luther called Confirmation as practiced “monkey business” (Appenspiel) and abandoned it. Just something for bishops to do, he said.  But he gave considerable attention to ongoing catechesis in Christian life. The Reformed under Martin Bucer of Strassburg introduced a rite of Confirmation as a renewal of baptism of those who were baptized as infants after being catechized, as a response to Anabaptist accusations against the magisterial Reformation. Bucer saw it as a matter of church discipline. A rite of Confirmation came back into Lutheranism in the age of Rationalism. A lot of cultural baggage accrued to it because it coincided with school graduation—a fateful combination. The problem is that a rite which intended to strengthen the Holy Spirit given in Baptism overshadowed Baptism. Also, if we need a strengthening of the Holy Spirit as additional grace to live the Christian life, why should that be tied to a catechetical program?  Shouldn’t the rite just be performed because it’s needed?  Well, of course, it isn’t needed. For Protestants as well as for Catholic renewalists after Vatican II, Confirmation has been a practice in search of a theory. It’s one of those things we’re stuck with, so the struggle to make it meaningful goes on. Perhaps there’s something to be said for Luther’s proposal that the entire Christian life is a living out of Baptism. Catechesis should be a lifelong practice and renewal of Baptism occurs every time we go to Confession to receive Absolution and receive Holy Communion.

Pastor Frank Senn

anointing with chrism


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    Jerry Kliner

    Indeed, I recently had an interesting conversation with a close colleague about the nature and role of Confirmation. I serve a University setting (a classic “town-gown” congregation) and my colleague is the Chaplain for the University campus. We were discussing the wide latitude of both catechetical levels and quality in the people who show up at both the Campus Chapel and in my Parish. I was dismayed at the fact that the traditional questions for (transfer) of membership involved the “Are you confirmed [in the Lutheran Church]?” but that question gives little meaning. One could be Confirmed and have a substantial level of formal Catechetical work (we do have good and faithful colleagues out there who do some really good catechesis) but it is also possible that one might be Confirmed and have little-to-no formal exposure to the Catechism(s) or the Confessions. (In charity, I have colleagues who seem to have a logic and conviction that says the Catechism(s) and Confessions are “limiting” and strive to have Spiritual Formation that eschews “rote, catechetical, doctrinaire theology”) My Chaplain friend reminded me that Confirmation is not interchangeable with “Catechesis,” that Confirmation is about the enlivening of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and involves catechesis but is not congruent with Catechesis.

    I don’t have any good or quick answers to the dilemma. Perhaps we (as Protestants) need to look at reclaiming the office of Catechesis and make the distinction between Catechesis and Confirmation; part of that could be for us to move/locate Confirmation at a different point (the start?) of Catechesis. Presumably then, there would be some rite at the completion of the formal period of catechesis. Would that be any better? I don’t know, but it would seem to raise as many issues at it would address. You would still have the tension that, while formal catechetical work is completed, it is not “graduation” and the need for on-going catechetical work remains. My colleagues would still have their varying views of the Catechism and the Confessions; there would still be those who teach the catechism(s) and those that don’t (and all manner in between). And it would create yet another ritual that would be open for liturgical meddling.

    Anyway, thanks for the article.

    Pax Christi;
    Pr. Jerry Kliner, STS

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    Karl Johnsen

    Frank, is it possible that the Medieval Catholic “age of discretion” might be the seed of the “age of accountability” teaching of the Baptists?

    • Frank Senn

      I don’t think there’s a historical continuity between the medieval “age of discretion” and the later “age of accountability.” But there is a similar concern. When can a child understand sin and be able to make a confession? When can a child make a knowledgeable statement of belief? As I understand it, “age of accountability” is used more as a comfort to parents. It throws a protection of grace over unbaptized children. Up to a certain age they are not accountable. Unlike medieval theologians, however, Baptists don’t define a precise age when accountability kicks in. I have noticed a tendency for Baptists to baptize at ever-younger ages.

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