ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
71. The rite of confirmation is to be revised and the intimate connection which this sacrament has with the whole of Christian initiation is to be more clearly set forth; for this reason, it is fitting for candidates to renew their baptismal promises just before they are confirmed.
Confirmation may be given within the Mass when convenient; when it is given outside the Mass, the rite that is used should be introduced by a formula to be drawn up for this purpose.
Predicting the future is a fool’s errand; even if you are successful, you probably won’t live long enough for a victory lap. By the same token, you will probably not be around to hear your friends laugh at your folly, either. Looking at national blog sites of Catechist ministers and administers, checking websites of dioceses changing the order of initiation sacraments, and observing the recent Easter Vigil in my own parish, I got to wondering how the sacraments of initiation will be celebrated twenty-five years from now in the United States, or around the world, for that matter. Twenty-five years from now I will be 96, and focused on another sacrament, the Last Rites, [officially the “Sacrament of the Sick,” but I want my indulgenced crucifix!]
If you read para. 71 of Sacrosanctum Concilium closely, the emphasis is on “the intimate connection which this sacrament [Confirmation] has with the whole of Christian initiation [Baptism].” At the time of para. 71’s composition, pastoral practice addressed Confirmation as a free-standing sacrament with its own raison d’etre, the empowerment of the Holy Ghost. Typical for its time, my Confirmation occurred in sixth grade, 1960, before Vatican II. What I remember of my preparation was its explanation that the Spirit would make me spiritually stronger, a soldier for Christ, ready to endure any sacrifice for the Faith. The only traces of the ritual I recall today are the bishop patting me on the cheek after the anointing, a dying ember of a gesture that once symbolized taking a blow to the face for professing Christ; and second, that the bishop did not speak English, ritually or otherwise. My sponsor told us later that the confirming bishop was a missionary from the Philippines raising money for a jeep; his stipend from the pastor was $5 per candidate.
Sacrosanctum Concilium was a directive document for bishops and theologians in their reform of all the sacramental rites, which involved among other things a return to the root meanings of the sacraments as determined from the Scripture, history, tradition, and contemporary theological insight. One of the most glaring divergences between early Church practice and the Church of the early 1960’s involved initiation, and it came as quite a surprise to many Catholics after Vatican II that both Confirmation and first Eucharist were as essential as Baptism in the passage of initiation into the Christian Community, and would be celebrated as one unified rite at the Easter Vigil. The reasons for the disengagement of these three sacraments are historically complex and better left to a work such as Joseph Martos’ 2014 Doors to the Sacred, but I will itemize a few factors:  the explosion of Christian converts for political purposes in the Roman Empire under Constantine in the fourth century, leading to a decline in the lengthy practice of preparation of adults, the catechumenate;  St. Augustine’s fifth century theology of original sin and the urgency of infant baptism;  geography—the distances between bishops and their peoples during the balance of the first millennium, stretching the period between Baptism and Confirmation to years.
By the high middle ages and the Council of Trent [1545-1563] each of the three initiation sacraments had developed its own freestanding theology and time of practice. It is notable, though not always appreciated, that the post-Trent Church celebrated initiation sacraments in the post-Apostolic order, i.e., Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist. As recently as 1910, parishes baptized at infancy, confirmed around the age of reason [generally 7], and celebrated first communion at about 15 or thereabouts.
The practice of my youth, and most of the Church prior to the Council, was shaped by Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] who, as his biography indicates, was distrustful of modern ideas and influences. For Pius, living in the world constituted dangers of error and conduct that even young children would be susceptible to. He believed that withholding the Eucharist from young children made them more vulnerable to evil influences in the world. The decree Quam singulari of 1910 lays out the legal and devotional thinking on dropping the age of First Communion to the age of reason; this outline is worth a look to get a sense of official pastoral thinking at that time just before World War I. The pope’s emphasis upon earlier Eucharist had the impact of moving both Penance and Confirmation further down the road of youthful development.
Pius X’s sacramental priorities led to the highly affective first communion of children aged seven or thereabouts, often dressed in white, in the post-Easter season. It is likely that your parish celebrated First Communion very recently. When Pius X flipped the order of First Communion and Confirmation in 1910, the latter sacrament became something of an adolescent orphan seeking its own identity and purpose. In practice, the sequence of Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist—prompted by para. 71--was easy to adapt to adult conversion, and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was formulated as we know it today. But the issue of children’s initiation defied easy reconciliation. The Roman Catholic Church continues to baptize during infancy, perhaps not quite for the same reasons that St. Augustine put forth; the reformed rite of infant baptism and its attendant catechesis or parental preparation lays out the appropriateness of welcoming newborns into their domestic families of faith in the full Mystical Body of Christ. I am not an advocate of changing this practice.
That said, we are confronted with the reality of an elongated initiation rite. The question that has plagued liturgists and theologians for the last century involves the two poles of initiation: is it better to celebrate all three sacraments at once in infancy or early childhood, or to celebrate them in stages, as is most common. In the staging mode, Confirmation suffers the most because, biblically speaking, Baptism brings the Spirit to the candidate. It is worth remembering that even as Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Spirit came to him “as like a dove.” The evangelists, writing for churches decades later, affirm the unity of Baptism and Anointing of the Spirit.
When there is a time chasm between the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, Catholic education and catechetics is forced to create a pastoral theology for each when in truth each sacrament compliments the other in an act of unified divine intervention. The theology of baptism is at least partly understood throughout parish life. Confirmation, on the other hand, has multiple competing understandings. I find considerable humor in the fact that a popular 1993 work, Confirmation: The Baby in Solomon's Court, was edited and rereleased in 2006 as the debate continues. I read the original some years ago, in which the author was able to identify seven distinct theologies or constructs for understanding Confirmation across the Christian world.
There has been something of a vacuum in Church leadership in the United States over the appropriate age for Confirmation. The USCCB, the American bishops’ governing board, has provided guidelines for appropriate ages of candidates: between 7 and 18! Like many segments of society, the bishops themselves are divided. This may be a blessing in disguise, because much scholarship and experimentation remains to be done. How one understands the sacrament will obviously impact the age and the catechetical preparation for the rite. For most of my pastoral life I supported Confirmation at the high school senior age on the grounds that Confirmation offered adolescent/adults an opportunity to make a mature personal decision, to affirm what had been done in their name by others. My bishop wasn’t thrilled but there was no national policy to supersede what I was doing.
Most of my pastoring took place in the 1980’s when the phrase “born again” was in vogue and the idea of reaffirming one’s life in Jesus Christ was the religious coinage of the realm in all Christian churches, perhaps getting a boost from President Jimmy Carter, who was famously open about his religious experience. Thus the 17-18-year-old range held a certain appeal for many of us in leadership at the time. Today, however, I would probably exercise more caution. A few years ago, I attended a seminar with Dr. Gregory Lester, a psychologist-author who does consulting work for the Archdiocese of Denver. Lester observed that neurological maturity has been found to be much later than previously thought—the age 26 generally agreed upon. Lester attributes this to the complexity of life situations that did not exist in, say, 1900.
Moreover, contemporary data from the social sciences supports Pius X’s contention that there is a lot more going on in the minds of young children than present-day Church catechetics is ready to admit. In an exhaustive 2018 study CARA, funded by St. Mary’s Press, determined that the median age of someone leaving the Church is 13, and children begin the process of disaffiliation from Catholicism around the age of 10. When I read blogsites of catechists, I see a lot of fuss and feathers about proper instruction, catechism content, service projects, etc., but very little about listening to third and fourth graders and their experiences of Church life. Many children, of course, are never brought to Mass by parents. Others may attend Mass, but they cannot see the altar or fathom the rituals…or resonate with the parish music program. While the CARA study surprised me, upon reflection it makes eminently good sense and should cause us to reassess the ways we address the sacramental needs of the young. If your parish has Confirmation in the seventh grade, ages 12 or 13, there is a good chance that your candidates have already decided about long-term membership in the Catholic communion.
I am happy to say, though, that a new breed of Catholic theologians is emerging with provocative material on the Church’s sacramental life. I returned last Saturday from a three-week cruise to England, and the calm sea air gave me the opportunity to read and reflect upon what to do about “Solomon’s baby.” I will break this down for the next entry from Sacrosanctum Concilium, which will continue reflection on para. 71.