This past Pentecost Sunday, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver announced that the age for the reception of Confirmation would be lowered to seven. In addition, the archbishop said that he would restore the sacrament’s former place in between Baptism and First Communion. In his pastoral letter “Saints Among Us,” he explains his reasons for making the change, especially from the standpoint of theology. The archbishop quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who in Sacramentum Caritatis writes that “It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist, then, brings Christian initiation to completion and represents the center and goal of all sacramental life.”
In addition to the theological backdrop that the archbishop presents, there are also a couple of practical considerations that he briefly mentions and which I would like here to highlight and explore a bit further.
The pastoral letter states that “new generations need grace to sustain them in a non-Christian environment.” In today’s secular age, children arguably need the graces of Confirmation much sooner than in times past. Educational institutions are presenting moral challenges to very young children that in another age would not be encountered until around the teenage years, at least not on such a massive scale. Ontario’s newly unveiled sex education program is just one part of the ongoing story of schools across the western world encouraging immoral sexual practices in young children. A look at the topics covered by each grade show that kids, tweens and teens will be exposed to serious moral challenges well before high school, the time when many in the Roman Rite receive the sacrament.
Peer pressure and the encouragement of damaging ideas and practices by schools require the special strength of the Holy Spirit provided by Confirmation. Parents rightfully object to a curriculum such as Ontario’s, but if they are going to place their children in such an environment then they have to arm them with the necessary weapons of spiritual warfare. Other dioceses and archdioceses likewise need to catch up to Denver and unleash the strength of the Holy Spirit to combat the ever-growing wave of hedonism submerging the West. As the archbishop perceptively notes in his letter “The most important changes that restoring the place of Confirmation will make are not logistical but spiritual. This is profoundly important, because we live in a different spiritual terrain than our parents or grandparents did. Indeed, the spiritual landscape of modern American society underscores the need for children to receive grace earlier.”
Another reason why Confirmation should be given at an earlier age, and before First Communion, is to help dispel the unfortunately common perception that Confirmation is the ultimate “completion” of one’s Christian education and formation, and therefore like a graduation. In Kevin O’Brien’s amusing video, the “Stanford Nutting Holiday Special,” liberal Catholic Stanford Nutting mentions that because his nephew, Tommy, is now confirmed, he no longer has to attend Mass. Tommy concurs, likening Confirmation to a graduation from church. The episode is witty and funny, but it does hit upon a serious problem that is rampant in the Church.
Placing Confirmation at an earlier age before First Communion shows that Confirmation is part of a process of Christian growth, and not a graduation. In this context, religious education would not end with or soon after Confirmation, but would continue (hopefully) to the reception of the Eucharist and beyond. Since the Eucharist is a sacrament to be received on a continuous basis, this leads religious education to an apex which, in turn, is an ongoing part of the Catholic’s life. Also, as the archbishop’s letter notes, “parents will have the chance to prepare their children for Reconciliation, Confirmation and Eucharist at a time when they are more naturally receptive to the formation and the graces being given.” Not that rebellion is entirely absent in children, but neither does it typically (at least as I’ve seen) reach the heights of the adolescent, whose career obsession changes from being a fireman or doctor to a professional apron string cutter.
Then there is the practice of having high school students perform acts of service before their reception of the sacrament, a laudable thing indeed, but one which puts Confirmation in the place of being a reward and end to the work, rather than a stimulus to perform regular acts of charity and service. “This means,” as the archbishop notes, “that the focus of middle school and high school youth groups must shift from sacramental preparation to building community, fostering deeper relationships with each person of the Holy Trinity, and preparing them to be witnesses to the poor, those in need, and those who do not know Jesus Christ.” The emphasis is on parish involvement being a fruit of the sacrament, rather than merely a grueling preparation for it—a lifelong endeavor rather than one subject to a countdown.
Ultimately, the merits of the new (or rather “old”) practice for the archdiocese will have to be judged in hindsight. It has worked for some of the other few dioceses that have tried it (the archbishop mentions in his letter the success the practice had in his former diocese of Fargo). It certainly seemed to cause no issue for the countless saints who received the sacrament at a young age when such was still the standard practice. Given the crises of our current time, crises that meet children head on at an ever earlier age, it seems wise to tap into the rich reserve of the sacrament’s graces as soon as possible.