Ultimately, the confirmation of teenagers is a lie. Promoters of the practice promise a utopia as cheesy as mouthwash ads. "All your troubles will flee. Young people who can't stand church will change their minds. Faith will grow stronger. The bothersome germs of history and liturgy will disappear." The promoter of adolescent confirmation is a pied piper who claims to be driving the rats to the river, but is really kidnapping our children to the mountain.
There's a lot at stake in confirmation. Expectations abound more universally than they do for the Notre Dame football team.
The Church. First, the church has expectations. We expect everyone to be confirmed. More than that, we expect everyone will want to be confirmed. The only reason people should go unconfirmed is if the sacrament were unavailable to them. After all, confirmation celebrates a gift of the Spirit. It's a gift, a giveaway sacrament that should be more popular than ashes and palms. Confirmation is the birthright of the baptized.
For this reason the canon law of the church requires little of us in order to be confirmed. For starters, we have to be baptized, but not already confirmed. Then we have to be able to renew our baptismal promises. That's it. Canonically, we don't require a whole lot of the candidate. The code of canon law remains content with age seven for confirmation, unless the bishops of a conference decide they'd like a different age. It even permits a younger age for emergencies.
However, we do expect Catholics to be confirmed if they wish to perform certain other functions. For example, to be a godparent for someone else's baptism, you have to have received baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. In order to enter a religious order or to be ordained a priest, you must be confirmed. Confirmation is strongly recommended before marriage. It's not required because in some parts of the Catholic world dioceses spread over so much territory that people's contact with bishops who confirm is limited. However, since confirmation is not absolutely necessary for matrimony, an unconfirmed Catholic in bishop-ready areas may not take advantage of the opportunity should it appear before marriage. So the most practical reason for being confirmed is the eligibility for godparenting. We actually place stricter requirements on godparents than on parents when it comes to confirmation.
The church is so anxious to share confirmation that we lighten up at time of death. If someone who's never been confirmed begins to die, he or she has become eligible for the sacrament, and any priest may administer it, without the prior approval of the bishop. The law provides in this case for those who may not have had access to the sacrament, so that they need not die without it.
In other instances too, the church has permitted a priest to confirm. For example, whenever he baptizes one who is not an infant or receives someone into the full communion of the Catholic Church he must confirm the person in question. When the bishop conducts confirmation, he may appoint other priests to assist him, or he may delegate one or more priests to take his place. By widening the occasions when a priest may administer confirmation, the church expresses the desire to make the sacrament more available.
Parents. Parents have expectations about confirmation too. When they had the kids baptized, parents accepted responsibility for bringing them up in the practice of the faith. Here's an opportunity, like first communion, to show the community that they did what they promised. The devout Catholic parent whose children have stopped attending Mass experiences a sorrow like none other. Parents have a lot invested in their children. Many brazenly hold themselves responsible for providing eternal life for the kids, and fear they may lose salvation themselves if their children fail to practice the faith as they have done.
Besides, parents want to enjoy life with their kids. As with any other interest--backpacking, baseball, ballet, or banking--parents hope they'll enjoy their own favorite activities with their kids. When it doesn't work, they lose the bonding that offers parenthood so much joy.
Society. Society has its expectations too. We expect kids to grow up. Take some responsibility. Pass from childhood to adulthood. Of course, it's scary. We give them responsibility before they're ready for it. It's risky, but how else will they grow?
Our societal consciousness of the importance of adolescence is so strong that we favor the idea of some ritual passage. We care for the future of society and for the welfare of our kids. Providing a ritual for adolescents would express our love for them and the world. We'd feel more secure if we could hear back from the children that they commit to the same values held by those in authority.
The Minister of Baptism
There are two main problems with the age of confirmation. One is the minister. The other is the adolescent.
Ever since the early days of the church, we have never had a bishop present for every baptism, yet that was the ideal. When the bishop baptized, he personally presided over the birth of new members into his community. He is the primary minister of initiation. It became clear early on that he had to share this ministry, however, if he wanted most people to be baptized. Formally, he shared the ministry with presbyters--the other priests who assisted him in the diocese. Informally, he shared the ministry with everyone, since anyone could baptize in case of an emergency.
Bishops decided, however, to keep part of the initiation rites for themselves, the anointing with chrism. So when someone was baptized in emergency by another minister, or on Easter in a church other than his cathedral, the bishop "confirmed" the initiation with another ritual. It was a bishop thing. He was able to keep a hand in initiation, while permitting the more important work, baptism, to continue apace.
Nowadays we still have a similar situation. In priest-rich areas the bishop shares his ministry of baptism with those who serve in parishes. Where priests and bishops are scarce, lay catechists baptize. However, when the minister of baptism is not a bishop, (and when the one to be baptized is a healthy infant), the "confirmation" does not take place. By its nature, it remains displaced to another time in the person's life. All well and good, but we have tied certain canonical requirements to Catholics because, due to no fault of their own, they were not confirmed at baptism. Consequently, later in life, they are expected to make up for a situation not of their own doing, seek out a bishop, and get confirmed.
On the one hand, the impetus to arrange an encounter between the bishop and the baptized is praiseworthy. But to that sacramental encounter we tie the ecclesial requirement for godparenting, a preference for eligibility for marriage, a self-test of parental responsibility, and the establishment of one's place in society. All these connections face the sacrament long before the discussion of age for confirmation begins. But if someone is not confirmed because of the unavailability of bishops, it seems punitive to withhold these privileges of life.
The problem with confirming teens is that we've made it a rite of commitment. We have lied. We tell them that this will be their opportunity to decide if they wish to commit themselves to the church. We tell them this even though, because of baptism, we the church have already decided to commit ourselves to the teen. It's like having a teacher tell your high schoolers they're free to decide whether or not they wish to commit themselves to your family. If a child wishes to separate from a family, he or she will, but we don't create obligatory programs to help them decide or rituals to avoid if they want out.
At best, this approach to confirmation is disingenuous. We keep children tethered when we offer them this freedom. "You can decide if you want to commit to the church," parents say, but they imply, "We expect that this is what you want." Calling confirmation a ceremony of commitment lacks sincerity. Let's be honest. We expect the baptized to accept their commitment to charity, service, community, and prayer. If not, why are we having them baptized? And why are we permitting them to receive communion? We say we want children to make a free choice, but we hope their choice is ours. If this is what we intend, we're not sincere when we offer them an option for commitment.
We possess a goodhearted desire for the pastoral care of youth, but schooling them in an opportunity to say yes or no to religion reveals a charming naiveté. Are we really prepared for what to do if kids say no? Are we making confirmation a rite of commitment for them so we can wash our hands of responsibility? "We tried. We brought them to classes. But when we offered them the chance to commit, they said no. Not my fault. I did my job as a parent." Or are we masochists creating an opportunity to berate ourselves when kids say no? Our responsibility is to enhance commitment, not to back away from it. Adolescence does not require a conversion from no faith to faith, but a growth from childhood faith to adolescent faith, and then to adult faith. We grow in faith. We don't have to create it anew.
Many people interpret confirmation as a kind of personal ratification without which baptism has little effect. It's as if baptism helped us through childhood, but then gets the pause button while we decide if we want to continue. This view makes Christian childhood like a movie preview; after experiencing a little bit of it, we decide if we want to experience the feature-length version. Baptism is not transitional. Baptism is permanent. The grace of God extended in this sacrament never reverts. It is always ours.
Baptism is a mystery of God's choice, not our choice. God has chosen us for a place within the body of Christ. The catechism restates this point. "Although confirmation is sometimes called the `sacrament of Christian maturity,' we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need `ratification' to become effective" (1308). The liturgy speaks of strength given in confirmation, but it nowhere suggests that the confirmed suddenly now accept the Catholic faith. The responsibilities of living the faith follow baptism., not confirmation. To expect ratification from youth is to challenge our belief in God's free choice to love and enter into relationship with humans.
The emphasis on commitment in confirmation rips responsibility away from baptism. Baptism introduces us into the Christian apostolate, not confirmation. The many children who attend Mass and receive communion share in the joys of the eucharistic banquet and then receive the same commission as the rest of the assembly, "Go to love and serve." Eucharist is not a devotional exercise for the pious. It is a celebration of the body of Christ and a commissioning for service. That stems from our baptism.
The arguments over the age of confirmation are really arguments over the definition of confirmation. Most of those promoting confirmation for teenagers simply beg the question, "Since confirmation is a sacrament of commitment, therefore it should be celebrated in late teenage years." But is it a sacrament of commitment?
It depends on what you mean. Canon law does ask the candidates to renew their baptismal promises. But it also proposes that the age for the sacrament be around seven. The age for the sacrament has long been a juridical matter, dating back to the thirteenth century. Prior to that time the occasion for confirmation was simple: You celebrated it when the bishop was available. You could be one week old or a hundred one years. If you were unconfirmed when the bishop came to town, it was your turn. However, the Synod of Cologne in the year 1280 first required seven as the age for confirmation. In a time when church leaders called children to catechetical preparation and the confession of sins before communion, it made sense to them to defer confirmation to about the same age. In the ensuing centuries, even though the age of first communion fluctuated considerably, there never was much interest in moving confirmation around. The prevailing wisdom was that since it had been deferred from baptism, and since it provided some value to all the baptized, and since it did not require the same moral behaviors and intellectual acuity and devotional piety as the eucharist would, confirmation should be celebrated as soon as possible, both when the bishop was available and when the child was old enough to prepare for and remember the event. It had virtually nothing to do with commitment.
Today "commitment" is a word frequently invoked to describe what confirmation celebrates. But the concept is quite new. Confirmation has always celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit and ecclesial unity, signified by the ministry of the bishop. It has always celebrated the consecration of the baptized. In the last millennium, it has increasingly provided an opportunity for catechesis. But now the catechetical component has overshadowed all the rest. The commitment we're receiving from teens is a commitment to confirmation preparation. And the gift of the Spirit looks more and more like a gift you have to earn. Some gift.
Depending on which sources you examine, the meaning of confirmation shifts slightly. Canon law measures confirmation with a sobriety of minimalism. The liturgical texts exalt it to a celebration of the Holy Spirit. Catechetical texts labor to integrate it into a meaningful spiritual life. But all these disciplines interrelate. If confirmation is to accept the catechetical burden of becoming a rite of commitment, the canons of the church and our liturgical prayer will need to adjust accordingly. But let the adjuster beware. The history and development of those laws and rubrics draw from an extensive body of literature. To change their direction would require a therapeutic intervention in the history of the sacrament. We're not talking aspirin here. We're talking quadruple bypass.
Other problems remain if adolescent confirmation were to become the norm. Most significant is our union with the Eastern Rites. There, confirmation is offered with baptism; every priest is a minister of confirmation. Yet we fully accept the validity of all Eastern Rite sacraments. They equate ours. How would we conclude that a confirmation requiring commitment could be valid as a common celebration for Eastern Rite infants? Would we not rather have two different sacraments, East and West, having two different occasions, purposes, and meanings? Or if we preferred to unify the traditions, how would the West explain to the East that their custom, so successful for two thousand years, no longer fit modern needs?
We would also experience difficulty reconciling adolescent confirmation with the needs of the developmentally disabled. The ability to commit to their faith extends beyond their reach. They would be ineligible for the preparation and celebration of confirmation. How would we explain to their families that the modern era regards them too immature for this sacrament?
We would also need to explain something to bereaved parents whose children die before they could celebrate confirmation. By stressing the importance of making a personal commitment to faith, younger children hang in some sort of tenuous balance with the church. Would a child who dies before confirmation be perceived as a soul outside the mainstream of Catholic life? Would this present another burden for Catholic parents to bear in a stressful period of loss?
The decisions we make regarding confirmation need to take into consideration all the implications. Otherwise we play the pied piper, leading our youth away to a land of inconsistencies where we'll never hear from them again, while our bewildered community will find itself contending with the hurts of parents, godparents, Eastern Rite Catholics, the mentally impaired, and the entire tradition of the gospel which promises life and community to the baptized. We lie about the meaning of confirmation if we carelessly leave so much in the dust, especially while calling our youth to rally round the proud standard of Christian responsibility.
So, we need another solution. A popular one stands right in our face. Skip confirmation. Many of our youth have opted for this solution. It saves them the time of confirmation preparation and fits the distance they feel between their own beliefs and those of an institution like the Catholic Church. When we call confirmation a commitment to the Catholic Church, it gives youth a perfect opportunity to exercise the option we give them.
Sometimes they wonder if they're leaving the Catholic Church by abstaining from confirmation. It's a logical question. If confirmation equals commitment, doesn't non-confirmation mean I'm outta here?
Well, honestly, no. You have to do something much more dramatic to be separated from the Catholic Church, like make a public confession of faith in another religious body, while publicly repudiating Catholic belief and practice. More often, a kid who decides not to be confirmed still wants the option of receiving communion in church, or being married in the church, or having progeny baptized in the church. Those desires hardly represent a repudiation of the Catholic Church. They more likely mask a repudiation of confirmation preparation programs.
Non-confirmed Catholics still maintain most of the privileges of a confirmed Catholic. They can be married in the church if confirmation has been difficult to obtain; they can receive communion; they can have their children baptized; they can serve on parish councils; they can register in parishes; they can contribute to the collection.
Nonetheless, going without confirmation is not advisable. Apart from the doors to godparenting and service to the church opened by the sacrament, confirmation does something much more. It celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. It really is a gift. It is a special celebration of God's presence in a sacrament of the church. It's a doorprize. You just have to be present to win. Seen through this lens, and apart from the trappings of commitment, confirmation is something everyone should desire. It's incomprehensible that one who was baptized would find it distasteful. Our church believes in the power of sacraments, that they bring us in touch with the presence and power of Christ as no other celebration can. Confirmation offers that freely and willingly, if only we'd accept it.
Perhaps a better solution is for the Western Church to move confirmation in conformity with the Eastern Church, back where it originated, as a part of baptism. Then the canonical demands would be more easily met, the liturgical celebration could retain its meaning, and the catechesis could be subsumed into the preparation given to parents on the occasion of infant baptism, to adults in the catechumenate, and to baptized children undergoing formation in religious education. The value of connecting every baptized person with the bishop could be preserved in the same way as in the Eastern Rites, through the administration of the oil of chrism in the sacrament. After all, chrism is the one oil that only a bishop may consecrate. Its use brings the presence of the bishop into the picture.
One problem remains. As in the early days a bishop was not present for every baptism, so today a priest is not present for every baptism. In some areas of the church priests cannot travel the distance through their parishes to tend to the sacramental needs of the people. Under emergency situations other ministers or even parents may administer baptism to a dying newborn child. In those instances, confirmation would not be included in baptism. The East has a long tradition of delegating priests to confirm, but no one in the Catholic Church has a tradition of offering that delegation to deacons or laity. So even if we moved confirmation to baptism, the question surfaces, what to do with those who were baptized but could not be confirmed?
Two solutions present themselves. One is to follow the long tradition in the West. When the opportunity presents itself, the baptized should seek out confirmation. But there's another solution, which has been pioneered not just by today's teens, but by Catholics throughout the history of the West since the fifth century: Skip confirmation. In the end, what's the big deal? Granted, such Catholics would not have the opportunity for the full celebration of the initiatory rites, but could we at least drop the canonical requirements surrounding confirmation, so it would not be necessary for other service to the church?
Such a solution would free adolescents from the faux-burden of deciding do they want to be committed to the church. It would free parents from the frustration of convincing their kids they should go to confirmation classes. And it would free confirmation from the illogical burden placed on it by society, that it should fix our kids, make them more responsible, more loving, and more committed. The solution would permit youth ministry to flourish on its own. It could stand more directly on the shoulders of successful catechetis, so that Catholics would begin to realize that religious education is not the same as preparing for a sacrament, but a lifetime experience like Sunday worship. We'd be focusing on lifetime habits, not immediate short-term concerns.
In the meantime, what can parents do? They can focus more on the whole picture of parenting and less on the crisis of being unconfirmed. They can encourage habits of service, prayer, religious formation, charitable giving, and community activity in their kids, so that youth will value a lifelong relationship with the church. If kids don't want to be confirmed, let them skip it. It doesn't make sense if you believe confirmation is a gift. But sometimes people are pig-headed. Skipping confirmation isn't the worst thing, but skipping community responsibilities demonstrates what we have come to call "adolescent behavior"--an immature response to life. If the church won't lower the age of confirmation or eliminate the requirements surrounding it, we can at least start treating confirmation as a gift, and treating kids with encouragement, vision, and the joy of a community of faith.This article first appeared online in Catholic Practice in 1997.