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Confirmation at the Age
of Discretion

from the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, May 1992

There are differing opinions today about sacramental preparation required for confirmation. The Rite of Confirmation [RC] itself does not place extraordinary demands for such preparation. RC 12 states that in addition to the requirement of baptism “those possessing the use of reason must be in the state of grace, properly instructed, and capable of renewing the baptismal promises.” These requirements need to be kept in mind when assessing contemporary pastoral practices, some of which far exceed what is required by the rite.

Rogier Van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments, 15th century This issue of catechetical preparation for the reception of a sacrament of initiation had been problematic in the Church in the past. Pope Saint Pius X dealt with the issue when, in his encyclical Quam singulari, he condemned the extraordinary demands required for first Communion, citing them as examples of Jansenistic abuse.

The question of the appropriate age for confirmation was also taken up during the years devoted to the revision of the rite. Even while preparations were being made for the Second Vatican Council, bishops around the world were asking that answers be found to this question.

In response to these requests, a special group was established in October 1964 to study the problem. The group, headed by Father Pierre-Marie Gy, OP, and Professor Balthasar Fischer, consulted with experts on the question. Their conclusion was to oppose the substitution of another age for the age of discretion. This did not resolve the matter, however, since there were pastors in the Latin Church requesting that the sacrament be delayed until the age of adolescence.

Modern theology can’t change the sacraments
Dom Bernard Botte, the relator of the study group in charge of the revision of the rite, held fast to the principle that the sequence of baptism-confirmation-Eucharist must be respected and the tradition of the Roman Church specifying reception at the age of discretion be maintained. Botte’s position concerning the age for confirmation was based on his firm belief that the essence of a sacrament could not be changed by modern theology and that the theory of confirmation as a sacrament of adolescence did not rest on any theological basis, but rather on psychological theories.

Nevertheless, the issue of age continued to come up at each of the Consilium meetings. Since the problem could not be resolved, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith decided that the episcopal conferences should be given authority to decide, in light of the situation in each country, the age at which the sacrament should be conferred. This suggestion was ultimately incorporated into the Introduction of the new rite. RC 11 states that “with regard to children, in the Latin Church the administration of confirmation is generally delayed until about the seventh year. For pastoral reasons, however, especially to implant in the lives of the faithful complete obedience to Christ the Lord and a firm witnessing to him, the conferences of bishops may set an age that seems more suitable.”

Age is still a problem in the United States
The age of confirmation is still problematic in the United States. In November 1984, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to authorize diocesan bishops to determine the age at which the sacrament of confirmation is conferred in their dioceses. In June 1991, it was brought to the attention of the NCCB that, through an administrative oversight, they had failed to obtain the required recognitio of the Apostolic See for their action. On June 17, 1991, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to Cardinal Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and requested confirmation of the 1984 action. Cardinal Gantin responded that the congregation could not approve a norm that does not specify a particular age. Archbishop Pilarczyk subsequently appointed an ad hoc Committee on the Age for Confirmation to prepare a new proposal for action by the NCCB.

Whatever decision is made on the age of confirmation in the United States, the more important issue of maintaining the integrity and nature of the sacrament itself remains. The apostolic constitution Divinae consortium naturae and the Rite of Confirmation show that confirmation is a sacrament of initiation intimately connected with baptism and Eucharist. Through confirmation those who have been born anew receive the gift of the Holy Spirit himself which endows them with special strength. Having received the character of this sacrament they are bound more intimately to the Church and are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed as true witnesses of Christ. Nowhere in these documents is there to be found the suggestion that confirmation is a sacrament of adolescence, a sacrament of maturity, a rite of passage, or a time when the individual decides “for or against” the Church. The aim of the revision was to clarify the initiatory character of the sacrament and its intimate connection with the whole of Christian initiation. This was done for the most serious of theological and sacramental reasons: the signification of the unity of the Paschal Mystery.

 

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