Eighth Grade Confirmation at Saint ElizabethThe Code of Canon Law, which governs the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world, states that all Catholics must be confirmed: “The faithful are obliged to receive the sacrament of Confirmation at the proper time.” This begs the question: what is the “proper time” for Confirmation?
Throughout the early history of our church, infants were confirmed immediately after baptism. The practice of confirming children before their first communion found support in Rome as recently as 1897, when Pope Leo XIII wrote to the Bishop of Marseilles, commending the practice as being more in accord with the ancient practice of the Church. Since then, the understanding of the “proper time” for Confirmation has varied greatly. Ask Catholics when they were confirmed, and chances are you will wind up with a myriad of answers. Since the time of the Second Vatican Council, the trend has been for Catholics to receive Confirmation later and later. Forty years ago, most Catholics were confirmed in the fifth or sixth grade. Thirty years ago, most were confirmed in seventh or eighth grade. In the last twenty years, Confirmation has moved to ninth and tenth grade. Your pastor was confirmed in the eleventh grade.
Why is there so much confusion?
Today’s Code of Canon Law states: “The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion, unless the conference of bishops has determined another age, or there is danger of death, or in the judgment of the minister a grave cause suggests otherwise.” The age of discretion, also known as the age of reason, is defined by the Church as: “The name given to that period of human life at which persons are deemed to begin to be morally responsible. This, as a rule, happens at the age of seven, or thereabouts...” Children have always been admitted to the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion around age seven. But, when it comes to Confirmation, the law gives great latitude to bishops, who are free to determine that a later age is more suitable for the reception of the sacrament.
The sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist – are not about age alone. They are about growing in faith and sharing in God's grace:
Those who receive Confirmation are able to enjoy its benefits from the moment they receive it. The graces of this sacrament conferred at a young age could be of great assistance to young people as they grow toward adolescence and young adulthood. If we believe the Holy Spirit seals us with His gifts of wisdom, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, understanding, piety, and reverence, then why do we delay that moment in the life of young people? Young people need these gifts before they face the many moral challenges that face them as teenagers.
The practice of high school reception of Confirmation, now on its way out in many dioceses across the country, has given the impression that somehow the sacrament is earned by virtue of age, training, or maturity. But sacraments are gifts of grace from our Heavenly Father -- they are not earned or merited. For this reason, Confirmation should not be perceived as the sacrament of adult commitment to the Church. In fact, the Church even requires priests to confirm infants and children younger than the age of reason when they are in danger of death. An authentic mature commitment to Christ and the Church is expressed in full participation in the Eucharist and in the apostolic life of the Church. It is not achieved at a single moment but throughout the life-long deepening of our relationship with Christ. This begins in childhood and continues until death. Confirmation is an initiation, not a graduation!
The danger of thinking that Confirmation is a “sacrament of maturity” is that we make the grace of the sacrament dependent on the one who receives, rather than on the One who gives. God doesn’t shower us with His gifts because we have done anything to earn them. He does so because He is our all-loving and generous Father. The sooner children discover this reality, the sooner they will be inspired to live more faithfully in response to it -- not out of fear, but in gratitude.
Some religious educators believe that by withholding Confirmation until tenth grade, we keep young people involved in the life of the church for a longer period of time (translation: “Let’s hold young people captive in order for them to receive grace from God.”) How do we justify this? This attitude surely has a negative impact on young people and their experience of God and His church. Is this the God we want them to know? One who withholds His grace until we’ve jumped through all the hoops that our church tells us we have to jump through? If we keep dangling the sacrament over children’s heads like a carrot, we can’t expect them to have a positive memory or experience of the church or God later in life.
Another commonly held misconception is the notion that by having a strong Confirmation program for ninth and tenth graders, we can get back those kids who haven’t been in CCD since First Communion. Instead of working to get young people back into the life of the church in ninth and tenth grade, why aren't we trying harder at working to keep them (and their families) in the life of the church after First Communion? Why do we think it’s more important to invest time and resources in a great high school catechetical program, but neglect our elementary and middle school programs? We wait until it’s too late, then wonder why we don’t see young people at Mass or active in the life of the parish after they have been confirmed. The reality is that the same young people who are at Mass on Sunday with their family before they receive Confirmation are the same ones who are at Mass on Sunday with their family after they receive Confirmation. Therefore, our focus must be on keeping children (and their families) active and involved in the life of the church while they are young, rather than on “getting them back” when they enter high school.
Some people may ask: "Can eighth graders fully understand what Confirmation means?" Well, does an infant understand what Baptism is? Does a 7-year-old fully understand the mystery of the Eucharist? Do any of us? The goal of our life as Catholics is to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s love for us each day throughout our lives. The sacraments are not the pinnacle of Christian life, they are its foundation – the foundation upon which we build our understanding and appreciation of how much God loves us. If we teach that Confirmation comes to tenth graders as a result of their mature understanding of faith, then it becomes a graduation – an ending. But the process of maturing in faith never ends; it is perfected only in heaven.
Last year, in his column in the Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Tobin expressed his pastoral concern that too many Catholics were not receiving Confirmation. Many of those who were not confirmed missed the opportunity because of the increasing demands and distractions that begin in high school years: driver's ed classes, sports, more responsibilities at home, and work. Those in eighth grade are not only more available to commit time to catechesis and preparation for Confirmation, they are also more receptive to religious and spiritual formation.
With the enthusiastic support of parents and children, Saint Elizabeth Parish will begin to prepare 8th graders for Confirmation. Our parish catechetical team works hard to make sure that our religious education program is the best that any parish can offer. There is no greater compliment that we receive than to hear parents tell us that their son or daughter "actually enjoys CCD and wants to go," or that they no longer have to beg and plead with their child to come to class. There is no reason why learning about God should not be a joy-filled experience!
Be sure that we will continue to create lessons that engage young people in ways that make faith and values easy to understand and, more importantly, relevant to them. As we do, please bless us with your support. Remember that it is always the parents' responsibility to see that their children stay close to the Eucharist and to the Church, no matter how old they are. We are here to assist parents in this process, but we can't do it without them. The only children who are at Mass on Sunday are the ones whose parents take them.
Despite the fact that Saint Elizabeth is one of only four parishes in the diocese beginning this program, many dioceses and parishes have begun to think about what Rome so strongly encourages: restoring the order of celebrating the Sacraments of Christian Initiation to its original sequence -- Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist. Don't be surprised if you see the pendulum continue its swing in the coming years.
In the meantime, we hold to the truth that the Sacrament of Confirmation is an effective vehicle of grace at any age. And since those who receive the sacrament are able to reap its benefits from the moment of reception, we at Saint Elizabeth's joyfully move that moment earlier in the life of young people.
Sooner rather than later!
And bless our young people with God's holy gifts!