|Confirmation of a youth in the Usus Antiquior|
Currently, there is a movement in the United States and in Europe (and perhaps in other places) to move the age of confirmation lower. In recent times (that is, in the past three centuries or so), confirmation had been delayed until early adulthood. Moreover, first communion was often not received until this time of greater maturity (perhaps in the early teens). However, especially with the impulse of Pope St. Pius X, first communion was restored to the time of the age of reason (around the seventh year); however, until recently, confirmation was not moved up to this earlier age but remained to be received many years after first communion.
Certainly, the very recent lowering of the age of confirmation has caused some alarm among lay faithful and priests alike. In this article, we intend to look at some of the main concerns on both sides of the issue, and to discuss the nature of the relation between confirmation and first communion. This discussion will be concerned only with the practice of the Latin Church, as the issue is dealt with quite differently in the East.
Which is more traditional: Confirmation before or after first communion?
There are multiple traditions in this regard. While Peter Lombard listed confirmation before first communion, St. Dionysius lists communion first. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great synthesizer of the earlier traditions, at first sides with the Master, but then seems entirely open to the position of the Areopagite. It will be helpful to consider the relation between these two sacraments within the Thomistic synthesis.
The Common Doctor understands the sacraments (and especially the first three sacraments) by way of a certain analogy to natural life: Just as a man is not born fully mature, but grows into adulthood; so too, in the spiritual life, man comes to perfection in Christ through the three sacraments of initiation. Baptism corresponds to birth, for in this sacrament a man is made a new creation in Christ. Confirmation corresponds to growth, since this sacrament perfects and completes baptism. Finally, communion is that food which nourishes man unto final perfection.
Therefore, St. Thomas states: “It is clear that Baptism which is a spiritual regeneration, comes first; then Confirmation, which is ordained to the formal perfection of power; and after these the Eucharist which is ordained to final perfection.” (ST III, q.65, a.2) However, the Angelic Doctor follows with: “Nourishment both precedes growth, as its cause; and follows it, as maintaining the perfection of size and power in man. Consequently, the Eucharist can be placed before Confirmation, as Dionysius places it (Eccl. Hier. iii, iv), and can be placed after it, as the Master does (iv, 2,8).”
Therefore, at least in the mind of St. Thomas, neither order is necessarily to be preferred. Historically, we must admit that the practice of receiving confirmation with first communion seems to have a certain precedence. Even in the case of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, it is quite certain that he is not advocating the delaying of confirmation until years after first communion, but is only speaking of a certain ontological order of the sacraments – in the early Church all three sacraments of initiation seem to have been administered at the same time (at least, confirmation and communion were given together), and confirmation was almost certainly not delayed.
A practical argument in favor of an early confirmation
As we have recently argued, confirmation is necessary for salvation insofar as a man cannot come to salvation in so fitting a manner if he has not received this sacrament. Not, of course, that confirmation is simply and absolutely necessary for salvation (after the manner of baptism), but it is necessary after a manner of fittingness. Moreover, confirmation brings to perfection the graces which were bestowed in baptism.
The importance of the sacrament of confirmation must indeed be stressed – for this sacrament brings a man to adulthood in Christ, strengthens him with interior grace, and prepares him to face the obstacles of the world as a Christian soldier.
Considering the great value of confirmation and, even on a practical level, its usefulness to the Christian life, it is hard to understand why any would advocate delaying the sacrament until many years after coming to the age of reason. Indeed, especially in a world which is so treacherous for young people, the graces of this sacrament are much needed for perseverance in the vocation to holiness. Delaying this sacrament to the time of early adulthood will expose the youths to serious danger, since they will not have the sacramental strength which is required of one who comes into contact with a secular world often explicitly opposed to Christianity.
Refutation of a practical argument in favor of a delayed confirmation
Many will argue in favor of delaying confirmation to young adulthood, since only at this time is a young person able to truly understand the seriousness of the sacrament and of the obligations incumbent upon the confirmed. Moreover, they point to the fact that this sacrament is the “confirmation” of all that was begun in baptism – therefore, they will say, it is better for the sacrament to be delayed until the young person is able to make this commitment in full maturity.
This argument is deeply flawed. First, we must recognize that the “confirming” which occurs in the sacrament of confirmation is not primarily the subject resolution of the individual, but the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the baptized to perfection in Christ. The sacrament is not principally about the subjective commitment of the individual (though, of course, this is certainly important), but is rather the work of the Holy Spirit in moving the baptized to be confirmed in grace and in the Christian life.
When some argue that seven-year-olds are not mature enough to make the commitment of confirmation, we must respond that it is the Holy Spirit and the grace of God which moves an individual. It is not so much that a man comes to maturity and then receives the sacrament (not at all); rather, the sacrament effects this new spiritual maturity in the individual. As the child grows in natural maturity, the spiritual maturity (which is already present in his soul through confirmation) ought to be fostered and come to a fuller expression.
A pastoral approach
It is not our intent here to completely dismiss the more recent practice of delaying confirmation till the early teens; rather, we simply desire to present the more ancient tradition on this practice. We do not state that there was grave error or neglect in the more recent practice, certainly it was done with good intention. Indeed, we might even go so far as to admit that there are certain subjective, pastoral reasons in favor of delaying confirmation and that these reasons ought not to be completely ignored – for example, placing confirmation at the end of catechetical training helped to ensure that youths continued in CCD, at least through junior high.
Still, on the whole, the objective value of the sacrament, together with the theological tradition and historical practice of the Church, is more than enough to justify the return to the more ancient custom of administering confirmation together with first communion around the age of seven.