Reflection on Sacramentum Caritatis
Roland Minnerath
Archbishop of Dijon, France

A renewed understanding of Confirmation

The Synod held in October 2005 closely examined among other things the relationship between the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Three paragraphs of the Exhortation (nn. 17-19) treat the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, of which the Eucharist itself is the source and summit.

Indeed, we are appropriately reminded that "our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist" (n. 17). If the rite provides for our adult catechumens to receive the three sacraments of initiation at the same time and in this order — Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist — this is not the case for the young.

Back to the original ordering

Today, the most widespread practice in the Latin Church has established that young people receive Confirmation between the ages of 14 and 18, some years after their First Holy Communion.

Synod members listened with great interest to the interventions of the Eastern Fathers, who have continued to adhere to the ancient Church's practice of conferring the three sacraments of initiation at the same time and in the same order, also upon children.

The postponement of Confirmation to a date subsequent to Baptism has led the Latin Church to examine many solutions.

The main reason for the separation of the two Sacraments in the West was the concern to re-establish contact between the person initiated and the Bishop. In ancient times, the Bishop would administer the three sacraments. He was assisted by priests and deacons, and where they existed, deaconesses for the Baptism of women. Post-Baptismal Confirmation in particular was reserved to the Bishop.

After the period in which the majority of catechumens had been adults and when the baptism of children had become generalized, Chrismation, later Confirmation, was postponed in the expectation of a meeting with the Bishop.

Until the end of the 12th century, the priest himself would frequently confer Confirmation upon the child whom he baptized before giving him Communion.

Following the Fourth Lateran Council, Communion was to be conferred when the child had reached the age of reason. Nonetheless, it remained understood that Confirmation must always precede First Holy Communion.

This regulation is found in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which recommends the administration of Confirmation to children who have reached the age of 7 (can. 788), prior to their admission to First Holy Communion.

By virtue of an Instruction issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments, dated 30 June 1932, this regulation was for the first time less rigidly applied. This Instruction authorized the conferral of Confirmation after First Holy Communion as an exceptional practice and when it was impossible to do otherwise.

The general trend to postpone Confirmation to an age of greater maturity became ever more widespread. As happened on many occasions, theory succeeded practice.

We have had a theology of Confirmation which put the accent on the young person's maturity and personal commitment.

The Sacrament was held to be the "confirmation" or ratification by the young person of his own Baptism, received shortly after birth, hence, without consent.

In many countries today, Confirmation is proposed between the ages of 14 and 18 and always after the reception of First Holy Communion.

In France, for example, so few young people commit themselves to preparing for this Sacrament that only a scant minority of Christians have received all three sacraments of initiation.

Most engaged couples preparing for marriage have not been confirmed. Confirmation is considered something that should be freely chosen.

Completion, not convalidation

Fortunately, we are witnessing a renewed understanding of the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is a completion of Baptism rather than a subjective convalidation of Baptism.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church appropriately recalls that "the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need 'ratification' to become effective" (n. 1308).

The Code of Canon Law in force explains that the required age for Confirmation is the same as that required for Reconciliation (can. 989) and First Holy Communion (cann. 913, 914), that is, when the child has completed his seventh year, the age of reason  (can. 97 § 2). If one considers a child capable of discerning the mystery of the Eucharist, one must also admit that he is able to discern the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Sacramentum Caritatis asks the Bishops' Conferences to ascertain which of the current practices of initiation "better enables the faithful to put the Sacrament of the Eucharist at the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation" (n. 18). Propositio n. 13 of the Synod clearly asked whether "in the Latin Church the order of Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy Communion should be observed solely for adults or also for children".

In order to bring the pastoral practices of the Latin Church into line with the traditional doctrine of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, the following points should be considered:

— the order of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist should be the norm to observe, both for the initiation of young people and of adults;

— the relationship of the confirmandi with the Bishop must be maintained. The Bishop is the original and ordinary minister of this Sacrament;

— the age for receiving Confirmation should be the same as the age for receiving First Holy Communion. Thus, the child could be confirmed just before being admitted to Communion, or Confirmation and Communion could be separated by two or three years. By the time they had reached the ages of 10 or 12 years, children would have received all three Sacraments of Christian Initiation. The age of admission to First Holy Communion would not be substantially different.

New way of doing things

Pastoral praxis almost everywhere has introduced a celebration which does not confer a new sacrament: the "profession of faith", still called "solemn communion". It marks the entry into adolescence and a new stage in life.

Any change in the Confirmation age would not alter this practice which is dear to families and, as a result, makes possible the organization of catechesis.

The following stage of the end of adolescence and the entry into adult life remains at about the age of 17 or 18, when a young person leaves school. It is proposed that Confirmation be conferred at about this age.

For young people who have persevered in catechesis until then, it would be fitting to substitute the offering of Confirmation by a non-sacramental celebration of enrolment in a movement, an ecciesial service or a charitable commitment.

This milestone in the life of young Christians would be celebrated with the Christian community to which they desire to belong. In this way they would commit themselves to remaining active as Christians during their studies and professional training.

Thus, the catechetical rhythm to which we are accustomed would not be upset. It would continue to involve the important milestones in life (the age of discretion, adolescence, beginning of adulthood), thereby enabling a large number of Christians to be initiated.

A return to the correct order of the three Sacraments of Christian Initiation would allow for a clearer doctrinal catechesis on the nature, importance and place of each of these sacraments in the course of Christian initiation. It would also permit a renewal of the pastoral approach to this Sacrament.

Those who insist on maturity for the step, more consistent with the age of 16 or 17 rather than 7 or 10, would take into account the landmark of entry into ecclesial service which would mark the end of the period of school catechesis. This milestone could have a special name such as "Missionary Mandate". The celebration, like the "profession of faith", would continue to follow one of the important stages of life.

This could have a significant ecumenical impact since in the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, admission to the Eucharist of anyone, youth or adult, who has not been confirmed would be incomprehensible.

The Exhortation rightly insists on the role of families in the preparation of children and young people for the sacraments of initiation. It is agreed that the parents' influence on the education of their children is strongest in the years prior to adolescence.

Parents, themselves already initiated, will naturally have at heart to introduce their children to Christian initiation. The fully initiated children will then face life in accordance with Christ.

The Eucharist will therefore accompany them as the Sacrament of the journey which will not cease to complete what Baptism and Confirmation have sown in the hearts of young believers.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 September 2007, page 9

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