Perhaps Billy Joel's was the most prophetic voice. Fourteen years ago, he sang a pop lament to a legendary Catholic girl who was starting intimacy much too late for his tastes. "You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation. You got a brand new soul and a cross of gold. But, Virginia, they didn't give you quite enough information."
Virginia is not alone. Confirmation candidates, catechists, theologians, historians, Scripture scholars none of us got quite enough information. Not about starting much too late, but about confirmation.
The problem with confirmation is there's too much we don't know. We don't know what the early church intended. We don't know what the apostles intended. We're not even sure what the Holy Spirit intended. So we've been winging it. For 2,000 years.
The result is widespread confusion and speculation on many issues, including the following: the purpose of confirmation, the age of its candidates, its ritual expression, and its catechesis.
The purpose of confirmation
Teens are capable
Several difficulties have emerged. Teenage confirmation creates a fifth purpose for the sacrament not formally envisioned by the church: a sacrament of commitment. This is different from Confirmation #3 which simply acknowledges a catechetical advance. Teenage confirmation typically asks for commitment.
Asking for commitment raises its own problems: Is it too early to ask a teen for commitment? Or too late? Do we resume that baptized children have no commitment to the church prior to teenage confirmation? If so, why are they coming to communion? And hasn't the experience over the last 20 years shown us that teens fed up with the church frequently give a different spin on confirmation? It's not a commitment sacrament, it's a goodbye sacrament. (Purpose #6?) And what happens if later in life they wish to return to the practice of the faith? Do they commit again With what rite?
The popularity of teenage confirmation will eventually raise other questions. For example, it will shake the value of infant baptism. If commitment to the church is best made when one has reached a certain of maturity, the wisdom of baptizing infants comes quickly into question.
Teenage confirmation will also raise a theological question about the sacramental character. Traditionally, confirmation is one of the sacraments we receive once only in life. But evaluating and committing to a cause is a human phenomenon that occurs over and over within one person's life. If confirmations fits with commitment, it will need to be repeatable. Otherwise we are raising a generation of soon-to-be-disillusioned adolescents who though the commitment they once made would stick for a lifetime.
Where there is baptism,
Another question concerns the integrity of the paschal mystery. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults states that the celebration of confirmation immediately after baptism signifies "the unity of the paschal mystery, the close connection between the mission of the Son and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit." To separate the two sacraments is to endanger the ritual expression of a core Christian belief.
Of course the pastoral need lingers, too: Teens are capable of expressing faith, and they would benefit from a ritual for it.
Confirmation retains only a vestige of the imposition of hands, which marked its emergence as a ritual. According to the ritual, the presider extends his hands over the group he anoints their foreheads with chrism and offers a sign of peace.
In its origins, confirmation accompanied an imposition of hands by the bishop. Frequent references to the Acts of Apostles emulated this gesture by which the apostles bestowed the Holy Spirit.
As rich as the gesture is, its simplification in the rite remains a mystery.
The other ritual question concerns the minister. Confirmation originated under the provenance of bishops. When presbyters began initiating in the fourth century, bishops in the West kept the responsibility for confirming the baptized. Now presbyters are expected to confirm catechumens whom they baptize or candidates whose professions of faith they receive. In cases where the bishop remains the ordinary minister, presbyters may assist him at the ritual, or even take his place altogether by delegation. Confirmation is becoming increasingly the responsibility of presbyters.
Without the assistance of presbyters, confirmation threatens to become a too-consuming ministry for bishops. Bishops are encouraged to make pastoral visitations to their parishes. Many simply visit while they confirm. Or just confirm and never really visit. Confirmation in pastoral practice develops yet another purpose an excuse for the bishop to drop by. One still hears of dioceses who need auxiliary bishops just to help with the confirmation ministry, as if that is the purpose of the episcopacy. We've come embarrassingly close to Martin Luther's famous description of confirmation - "a not too burdensome rite to adorn the office of bishops so that they many not be entirely without work in the church."
In the initiation versions of confirmation, no additional catechesis is required beyond what is necessary for baptism or profession of faith. That contrasts with confirmation at time of death, when no catechesis is required at all. One simply has to be dying.
The muddle is in the middle. Confirming even at first-communion age assumes that some catechesis is required. But how much is enough? For teenage confirmation, the catechesis frequently extends into years. This is much more than we ask of the typical engaged couple before marriage.
The danger of a lengthy catechetical prerequisite is that it makes confirmation look like the carrot on the end of the stick. That's an odd place for a sacrament to be, especially one that promises "gifts" of the Spirit. The more we have to earn it, the less gift-like confirmation becomes.
Besides, the whole nature of catechesis is under examination. Thanks to the spiritual process which accompanies the Rites of Christian Initiation and to the rebirth of evangelization in the church, faith-sharing and the lectionary have nudged their way to the top of catechesis. The more we see the lectionary as the basis of growth in faith - and the more communities form around the idea of sharing faith - the more will catechesis in general be reshaped. A confirmation program that ignores this form of catechesis will quickly be out of step, and we are woefully short on such materials.
If hose proposals are outside the realm of current pastoral practice, here's a next-best step: Confirm as early as possible, and with as few requirements as possible. Confirmation is a gift of the Spirit, open to the baptized, and already too-long delayed if communion is being received. Let's focus our energies less on stop-gap sacramental preparation programs, and more on long-range spiritual formation.
So what if we don't have "quite enough information"? All we really need is the Holy Spirit.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City, Mo. This article was first printed in Modern Liturgy, Volume 18, Number 7.