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