For today's exercise, I want you to take this 500 piece jigsaw puzzle and make a picture. The 500 interlocking pieces I've given you come from seven different incomplete puzzles. They don't interlock very well, and they won't form a coherent picture. But do your best.

You can do that, or try to come up with a solution to unify the praxis of confirmation in the United States. The results will be the same.

The puzzle of confirmation brokers no solution. The sacrament serves too many purposes in the church. Need a commitment rite for adolescents? Need to strengthen the baptismal rites of adults? Want to maintain a long Eastern Christian tradition of anointing babies? Want to receive another Christian into Catholic communion? Step right up. Confirmation is the panacea for you.

In an effort to clarify the meaning of confirmation, and to keep it from deteriorating into so much snake oil, various solutions have been proposed to unify the praxis of confirmation in the United States. None has won widespread acceptance. So varied is our experience, that when the American bishops tried to narrow the age of confirmation for those baptized in infancy, they got it down to somewhere between seven and eighteen. Not bad if you're marketing video games, but imprecise in the world of initiation rites. Still, even that spread of ages cannot unify the theology of a sacrament which recurs in more manifestations than a Christmas fruitcake.

An increasingly popular liturgical solution to the confirmation dilemma is to "restore the sequence" of the sacraments of initiation. In this case, those baptized in infancy celebrate confirmation prior to, or at, first Eucharist. Such a solution retains the same sequence which orders the initiation rites of the Easter Vigil.

However, such a solution meets immediate opposition from the widespread praxis of the sacrament in adolescent years for those baptized in infancy. Those who favor teenage confirmation find little value in the academics of sequence.

Further, although the sequence may be rescued, the concept of a single initiation rite remains lost, and the sequence is interrupted by the intrusion of the sacrament of reconciliation. The Easter Vigil never follows that sequence.

So, if you sit on a diocesan liturgical commission, and you want the sequence of baptism-confirmation-Eucharist for all those baptized in your diocese, how do you prepare yourself to dialogue with those who think it's a bad idea?

It won't be easy. Here's a map of the pitfalls:

1. Meeting the need. Adolescent confirmation seems to be meeting a need. Parents want their kids committed to the faith they inherited; parishes want to offer quality youth ministry; kids want answers to the meaning of life. Confirmation seems a perfect fit. It gives kids a reason to stay in religious formation, it gives parents the assurance that the parish cares, and it gives the parish an exclusive premium to offer kids. It's working. Why rock the boat?

For those who see confirmation as a sacrament of youth ministry, you might as well give a seven year old the keys to the car as the gift of the Holy Spirit. It just won't make sense. You can argue till you're blue in the face that confirmation is not a sacrament of Christian maturity. And you'd be right. You can even quote paragraph 1308 of the catechism. But you can't take away this gut-verified feeling: Adolescent confirmation meets a need.

One solution is to discern more carefully together what that need is, and ask how it can best be met. The need relates to teens coming of age, the power of the church's sacramental life, and the innocent egoism that traditions survive to serve the preferences of the present. Is confirming teens the only solution? Why?

2. Trivializing maturity. You say we should not confirm adolescents because confirmation is not a sacrament of Christian maturity, but then you still wait seven years after baptism to administer it. Sounds like a maturity ritual to me.

Touché. The typical delay from infant baptism indeed happens because we're waiting for the child to reach the age of discretion. Confirmation for seven year olds is still a matter of maturity.

Now you must defend that kids barely old enough for first Eucharist have enough maturity for confirmation. You'll argue that seven year olds have reached the age of discretion. You'll have canonical support, but you've walked into a linguistic quagmire. Try to define "age of discretion" outside its canonical context, and you'll find yourself in a scruffy debate worthy of vice-presidential candidates. The most ardent defenders of adolescent confirmation would blush to call youth discrete, even ten years past first Eucharist.

To defend confirmation with first communion, you will have to define terms. Point out the minimalism endemic to the canonical requirements for this sacrament (CIC 889-891). Even then, beware saying that the confirmation of young children has nothing to do with maturity. It does, just as first Eucharist does. The law envisions a low level of maturity, albeit much more than we expect from an infant.

3. Dissing baptism. Anytime confirmation splits off from baptism it tends to render the earlier sacrament less important. Confirmation, the brash younger sibling, threatens to steal the glory from the real rite of initiation. Infant baptism demands nothing more of the candidate than birth from believing parents. Frequently it is celebrated as a quiet family ritual in the absence of other candidates or members of the community. By contrast, confirmation expects individual preparation, invites group celebration, and assumes the presence of a bishop. It can easily take on larger celebratory dimensions than a typical infant baptism. Yet baptism initiates into Christianity. Its effects never wane.

A danger of adolescent confirmation is that it makes baptism look provisional. You've heard this line from teenage confirmation candidates: "At my baptism my parents spoke on my behalf; now it's up to me to accept my faith for myself." Sweet, but inaccurate. Faith is a gift, the Holy Spirit is a gift, and sacraments celebrate the unmerited grace of God. Confirmation celebrates what God does, not what teens have shouldered.

Or you've heard this from those who minister to youth: "Confirmation is your choice. It represents your acceptance of the Catholic Church." Right, as if we really want to offer a choice. As if parents drive their kids to church for months of preparation and ministers give up their time night after night to create a dispassionate atmosphere in which kids can freely choose whether or not they want to accept the faith their parents and catechists hold dear enough to organize this program to begin with. The confirmation choice we offer adolescents is more hard sell than soft sell. But fighting the battle of choice jabs a quixotic thrust at windmills. Baptism sticks, even for the teen who decides to hell with the church.

However, even at age seven, confirmation still threatens to thumb its nose at baptism. It expects more of the candidate, occasion, and minister. The trick is to admit that confirmation demands a minimal level of personal faith where infant baptism does not, but that the mystery of baptism outshines the experience of confirmation.

The potential for dissing baptism lies evenly with delayed confirmation, no matter at what age it is celebrated.

4. Misrepresenting history. The "original sequence" school of confirmation likes to wield history like pistols from holsters. Beware. You may shoot yourself in the foot.

You know that the patristic era sported initiation rites which included, among others, immersion in water, anointing with oil, and Eucharist. Original sequence, right? Well. . . .

That's the Western tradition, represented by Rome, Milan, North Africa, and Gaul. However, Syria, let's not forget, from the same centuries, anointed before baptism. That's right, they slapped on the oil of consecration before the water bath, like greasing up swimmers before they plunge into the English Channel. Then, after anointing, they went from water directly to table. Anybody want to argue for that "original sequence"?

Further, nobody in the first four centuries, the so-called "golden age of the catechumenate," nobody East or West called the anointing "confirmation". Ambrose says that the anointing "confirms", but he doesn't seem to intend to coin a phrase.

No, the term "confirmation" doesn't show up in the literature until the fifth century in the West, after the ritual has drifted from its paschal moorings, along with the flotsam and jetsam of the Episcopal initiatory ministry. Bishops who could not poly-locate to every Easter Vigil in the diocese appointed presbyters or deacons to baptize, with the understanding that they would themselves visit to perform that part of the ritual which pertained to their ministry--anointing with oil, imposing hands, and/or praying for the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit. "Confirmation" referred to what the bishop did when he "confirmed" the baptism performed by a minister of some other rank. The original purpose for delaying confirmation served not to wait for maturity, but to wait for the bishop.

But here's the kicker: When a presbyter baptized in place of the bishop, he generally continued with the other initiatory rites--including first Eucharist, even for infants. Yes, in the West.

So, when you roll the precise term "confirmation" into the equation, a term which did not surface till the fifth century, what is the original sequence for these initiation rites? Baptism-Eucharist-confirmation. The church fathers anointed before Eucharist, but they never called it confirmation. Now, which original sequence is original?

However you decide, both sequences have an enormous history behind them. One can be documented through 1700 years; the other for 1500 years. The historical argument just isn't as strong as it first seems.

5. Using the bishop. When confirmation is celebrated before or with first Eucharist, a parish might be inclined to seek delegation from the bishop for the pastor to confirm. This would allow a parish to celebrate first Eucharist on several occasions each year, as parents discern that children are ready, and at regularly scheduled parish Sunday Masses, when the community may participate, even though the bishop may not be available. Such a plan has the advantage of keeping the initiation rites at the parish and open to the assembling of the community. It has the disadvantage of removing the bishop farther and farther from his ministry of initiation. Typically, adolescent confirmation provides an opportunity for the bishop to make his visit to the parish a special occasion, perhaps not even annually, much less several times a year.

Of course, bishops should be visiting parishes for other reasons besides this sacrament. They could visit the parish staff, the parish council, the catechumens, the school, the parish social, or the soup kitchen. But traditionally bishops have used confirmation as the excuse to knock on the door. If bishops delegated this ministry more frequently to pastors, they might actually find other occasions to visit parishes, which wouldn't be all bad.

Surely the relationship of confirmation to the bishop's central purpose and ministry needs careful articulation. Martin Luther once sneered, "Confirmation is a not too burdensome rite, so that bishops will not be entirely without work to do in the church." Some auxiliary bishops were ordained specifically to help with the confirmation ministry. Such appointments abused the office of bishop by narrowing its meaning, and reduced confirmation to juridical status. The bishop's ministry at confirmation evolved because of the centrality of his ministry at baptism. If auxiliary bishops are to be ordained for sacramental purposes, let them baptize. That would begin to recover the bishop's role as catechist and initiator for the community.

If adolescent confirmation provides a more viable opportunity for a bishop to take some part in initiation, it fulfills the original dream of delaying the ritual. Arguments for confirming before first Eucharist will still need to include ways for the bishop to get involved with each member of his diocese.

6. Catechizing youth. If we celebrate confirmation earlier, how will we keep young people in religious education?

This same question emerged in 1910 in reference to a different sacrament, when Pope Pius X authorized lowering the age for first Eucharist from adolescence to about age seven. Pastors, catechists, and parents the world over thought it was a terrible idea. If young kids could take first Eucharist, who would convince them to continue their religious education? Now people love having first Eucharist at a young age, but they gape in horror at the void that Pius unwittingly left behind for adolescents. How do we ritualize adolescent faith? How do we best catechize our young people?

If you wish to lower the age for confirmation, you can justify it. However, in justice you will need to support a framework for the catechesis of adolescents, which confirmation at an older age has supplied.

Of course, we have plenty of topics to explore with youth in religious education. Morality, reconciliation, prayer, charity--we could keep them busy a long time. Why, they might even continue religious reformation after they adulthood. Will they come if they've already been confirmed? Our church has more to offer youth than this sacrament. If we offer the authentic direction which youth genuinely seek, they will come.

7. Swimming upstream. Let's face it. Everybody's doing it. Why lower the age of confirmation in one diocese when so many others are raising it? Even if it makes theological sense, what good would it do?

It's true, the movement to confirm adolescents continues to pick up steam. More and more dioceses and countries are choosing an age later than seven, well after first Eucharist, for this sacrament. Celebrating confirmation at a young age may sound good, but so does recycling styrofoam. Will it really do any good if nobody else does it?

This argument comes down to moral tenacity. "Majority rules" fills a democracy with pride, but the principle crumbles beneath the power of one who takes a stand. Our church is not known for endorsing moral principles on the judgment of the majority. If you believe you're right, eccentricity becomes the air you breathe.

8. Confusing the faithful. Look, the folks want a clear answer: What is confirmation? The more we change our policy, the more we confuse them, and the more it looks like we don't know what confirmation is either. The church has had enough changes as it is, let's not add to the pain in the pew.

We can't give a clear answer to the faithful because too many models and ages for this sacrament co-exist out there. Within your own diocese, people will easily remember two, three, or four different ages and occasions when confirmation was celebrated in their lifetime. They also know that if they go to a neighboring diocese the age will be different. If they have relatives in Latin America who know a priest who'll do it the "traditional" way, they may take their babies there for the sacrament. If they'd like their kids to choose their faith, they may even hold off baptism until their children are old enough to request it on their own.

What's going on? Can't anybody give us a clear answer to the question about what confirmation means? Not really. All those different ages and occasions belie a fundamental flaw: The theology of confirmation in the Catholic Church is inconsistent. We say it's initiation, but we remove it from baptism. We say it's not necessary, but we require it of those being received into full communion. We strongly suggest it for those approaching marriage, but we demand it for baptismal sponsorship. We permit Eastern rites to celebrate it at baptism, but we don't allow it before age seven in the West. We permit adolescents to be confirmed at an age when they are maturing, but we do not forbid the sacrament to the developmentally disabled. Go figure.

9. Isolating the meaning. So if you decide that confirmation means one thing, have you solved the riddle? If you've restored the sequence of initiation for everyone who's baptized in the diocese, have you unified the theology of confirmation?

Probably not. Confirmation derives its initiatory meaning from the order of Christian initiation of adults, paragraph 215, which states that the meaning of this sacrament lies in its conjunction with baptism. The close union of the two sacraments shows the relationship between the mission of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Adults and children of catechetical age who celebrate confirmation at their baptism express a theological statement--they symbolize for us the close work of Son and Spirit. Those confirmed later--even at age seven--have lost this interplay. Celebrated later, confirmation necessarily takes on the aura of a sacrament of maturity. So, even though you may unify the sequence, the occasions will remain disparate, and so will the meanings of confirmation.

Celebrating confirmation between baptism and first Eucharist will win some approval from Eastern Christians, who have always maintained the same sequence. In fact, the Eastern church believes that confirmation consecrates the newly baptized so that they may worthily partake in the Eucharist. Eucharist before confirmation is inconceivable in the East. Most of them continue to offer communion to infants. Still, in some situations many of these churches also spread out the initiation sacraments over a period of years--by delaying first Eucharist. Confirmation (chrismation) remains with baptism, but some Eastern communities, in imitation of the Western practice, have abandoned the age-old custom of giving Eastern infants communion, and turned first Eucharist into the same kind of maturity ritual which exists in the West. So, although the sequence still matches that of adult initiation East and West, the occasions differ. In the West confirmation may be delayed to first Eucharist; in the East, first Eucharist may be delayed from confirmation.

Another group which lends support for minimizing the requirements of confirmation is the developmentally disabled. The code of canon law suggests that they be considered "infants" as far as the laws about baptism are concerned (CIC 852/2). That simply means they follow the initiation rites according to the order of infant baptism, rather than the order of adult initiation. However, to delay confirmation generally into adolescence, to ask for more maturity before the candidate is deemed ready, is to place it beyond the reach of the developmentally disabled. This group would then stand outside the community of those eligible for complete initiation in the church.

So, if you'd like to argue for confirmation with first Eucharist, watch out for the pitfalls! And beware the greatest of them all--the smug self-assurance that you've solved the puzzle. Sorry. In the end, you'll still have an inconsistent meaning of the sacrament in your diocese. Uniting the purpose of this sacrament depends on authority beyond what we can grasp.

Meanwhile, we come up with solutions that try to improve the problems at hand. Can we communicate the meaning of confirmation more consistently than we currently do? Can we effectively minister to our youth? Can we respect our tradition and history? Can we remain open to the Spirit's promptings in our own day? Can Rome help us by clarifying the meaning of the sacrament?

Could someone please just bring us a new jigsaw puzzle?

This article first appeared in FDLC Newsletter 22/6 (December 1995):45-48.

horizontal rule

Top of page