e-mail us

Catholic Education

Sealed with the gift of the Spirit


Most of us who grew into Catholic adulthood before 1980 have few recollections of our confirmation. The sacrament was usually celebrated in the grade school years, sometime between 4th and 8th grade, depending on when the bishop would be coming to the parish. Preparation for confirmation meant memorizing catechism questions, selecting a sponsor and a name, worrying about being questioned by the bishop, and anticipating the ceremonial slap, a sign that we would now be “soldiers of Christ.”

By the middle and late teens, adolescents who have been raised in the faith need, and are searching for, answers to the age-old questions of faith: Who is my God? How should I live in the human family? What do I ask of the church? What is worth spending my life on?

A good confirmation program can help adolescents discover the church’s answers to these questions and to claim them as their own.

The sacrament of confirmation holds much greater significance in the lives of today’s young Catholics. In the early 1980s, many dioceses changed the age for confirmation to the high school years, often the junior or senior year. The preparation for the sacrament has since taken on central importance in parish catechetical programs, frequently being the only religion program offered for high school youth.

A good parish confirmation program includes a series of classes with discussion of current social and moral issues, involvement in some kind of service or ministry, active presence in the parish community, special quasi-liturgical ceremonies of acceptance and commitment, pairing of the candidates with “prayer-partners” from the parish, and an overnight or weekend retreat.

Deepening relationship with God

Young people preparing for confirmation are encouraged to “confirm” the faith of their baptism. They do this by deepening their relationship with God through prayer and reflection, by developing a sense of belonging in a community that lives by Christian values, and by coming to a more mature understanding of and commitment to the Catholic church, including the Mass, the sacraments, the scriptures, the commandments and its structures.

The current approach focuses on confirmation as a sacrament of initiation and is based on a renewed theology of initiation that has developed in the church since Vatican II. In this theology, Christian initiation is understood to be a lengthy process rather than simply a one-time event.

The process of initiation includes learning the Christian story, joining a parish community and taking part in the prayer, service and ministry. The stages of this process are celebrated in a series of sacramental and non-sacramental rituals that focus and deepen the process.

In keeping with the Vatican II principle that liturgical celebrations should fit the faith lives of those who celebrate them, the council fathers developed two parallel processes of Christian initiation: the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, for those who come into the church as adults, and the Rite of Baptism for Children, for those who “cannot [yet] have or profess personal faith.”

Even though these two rituals were developed by the same conciliar committee, they often seem to be based on very different, even contradictory, theological concepts.

Faith journey

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults describes an adult faith journey of at least several months, called the catechumenate, that culminates in the celebration of the three sacraments of initiation, baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, in one formal ceremony at the Easter vigil.

The Rite of Baptism for Children, on the other hand, delineates a faith journey that begins with baptism and is followed by a lengthy period of faith formation. The focus of this rite is on the parents, and on their commitment to raise their children in the faith. This rite requires that the parents, and the entire parish community, provide the children with ongoing faith formation, the purpose of which is to “gradually” lead the children to “accept for themselves the faith in which they have been baptized.”

While this sense of confirmation as an affirmation of infant baptism has become standard for the average U.S. Catholic, it is strongly questioned by some members of the theological community.

Many theologians who concern themselves with initiation object that such an understanding distorts the original meaning of the sacrament as the completion of baptism, and disturbs the intrinsic order of the three initiation sacraments which, to be true to theological principles, should be received in their proper sequence: baptism, confirmation, eucharist.

Those who follow this “restored sequence” school of thought would like to see the church enact one of three scenarios: Delay all three sacraments until adulthood, receive all three sacraments in infancy, or, at the very least, place confirmation back in its “proper” order before first eucharist. A few dioceses in the United States (about 10) have, in recent years, chosen to follow the restored sequence principle and have moved the celebration of confirmation to second grade, before first communion.

Most dioceses, however, continue to confirm junior high or senior high teens. The last official decree on the age for confirmation, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in August 2001, states that “the sacrament of confirmation in the Latin Rite shall be conferred between the age of discretion [seven years] and about 16 years of age.”

A further point of confusion concerns confirmation for children who are not baptized in infancy. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults contains specific modifications that apply to unbaptized children older than 7. Following these prescriptions, many dioceses have initiated a program called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Children, and have established policies that recommend or require that school-age children who are initiated into the faith receive all three initiation sacraments at baptism.

Conflict of principles

This sets up a strange set of contradictory policies within a parish: Children who were baptized as infants and have been part of the parish catechetical program all along are not admitted to confirmation until they are teens, whereas children just coming into the faith are confirmed after just a few months of preparation in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Children program.

My personal stance in the confirmation debate is based on my understanding of the principles of initiation theology found in the initiation rites and the other Vatican II documents concerned with liturgical reform as well as on more than 25 years of working with teenage confirmation candidates from throughout our diocese. The ideal time for young Catholics to prepare for and celebrate the sacrament of confirmation is when they are in their late teens, I am convinced.

I see the conflict between the “restored sequence” and the “delayed confirmation” approaches to confirmation to be a conflict of theological principles. The restored sequence position is based primarily on the principle of theological unity, which states “the conjunction of the two celebrations [baptism and confirmation] signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close link between the mission of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit.”

The delayed confirmation position, on the other hand, is based on the more pastoral principle articulated in the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” which states that “full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations ... is demanded by the very nature of liturgy.”

I believe it is this latter principle that has guided the movement of the church toward delaying the celebration of confirmation to late adolescents.

The participation principle calls for an intrinsic coherence between the sacraments and the faith lives of the individuals and communities that celebrate them. It requires that the initiation rituals correlate with the initiation process, the journey by which an individual arrives at mature faith and comes into full membership in the community of Christians.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults provides a series of ritual celebrations suited to the spiritual journey of the adult convert -- a journey from conversion to full Christian living.

In this context, the unified, sequential celebration of baptism, confirmation, eucharist is both theologically and pastorally appropriate.

However, the faith journey of the person baptized in infancy or childhood is decidedly different from that of the adult convert. The child’s faith develops from baptism and the parental commitment it requires, through the formal and informal faith formation that occurs throughout childhood, through a more or less stormy transition period of adolescent questioning and searching, to a personal appropriation of the baptismal commitment, and finally to a sense of responsibility for the apostolic task of transmitting the faith tradition to others.

It is my conviction that over the centuries the church has adapted the original sequence of the initiation rituals to suit this extended initiation process.

Delayed confirmation, I contend, is a necessary concomitant of infant baptism, because it highlights essential aspects of initiation that infant baptism can only anticipate. I believe that a mature, committed faith response is beyond the spiritual and psychological capacity of a child.

A strong confirmation program can be an indispensable help in guiding young Catholics through the process of coming to accept for themselves the faith of their baptism. The celebration of confirmation becomes an opportunity for young Catholics to confirm and to be confirmed -- to publicly confirm their commitment to God, to the faith community and to the church, and to be confirmed in that faith by the unfailing power of the church and its sacramental rituals.

Sr. Kieran Sawyer is director of the Tyme Out Center, Stone Bank, Wis., where she directs confirmation retreats and other programs for teens and preteens. She is a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002