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Confirmation, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Father William J. Freburger

It started with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963. That document directed, “The rite of confirmation is to he revised in order that the intimate connection of this sacrament with the whole of Christian initiation may stand out more clearly” (no. 71).

When this revised rite appeared in 1971, it began with a statement of principle that seemed to contrast strongly with the young age of most confirmands up to that time: “This giving of the Holy Spirit conforms believers more fully to Christ and strengthens them so that they may bear witness to Christ for the building up of his Body in faith and love” (Rite of Confirmation, introduction, no. 2).

This clash of visions between the liturgical-theological perspective (confirmation as intimately connected to Christian initiation) and the pastoral sociological one (confirmation as a rite of passage into Christian adulthood) soon unleashed in the United States a period of experimentation with the age for confirmation.

By the time the National Catechetical Directory, Sharing the Light of Faith, was published in early 1979. that text could acknowledge, “Practice in this matter (of age for confirmation) now varies so much among the dioceses of the United States that it is impossible to prescribe a single catechesis for this sacrament.” Indeed, at that time and up till now, confirmation ages ranged from seven to the college years. Since confirmation was increasingly conferred at an age when adolescents began to drop out of Church involvement, it earned the cynical title, “the official Rite of Exit from the Church.”

At its spring meeting in May, 1979, in Chicago, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to forge a national strategy for confirmation but failed. The NCCB president at the time,
Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, admitted that the bishops had been discussing the problem already for a decade without finding a solution.

Matters pretty much stood at that pass on the official level. But down on the pastoral scene, the vision of the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults was having its effect. Its emphasis on the baptism-confirmation-Eucharist sequence for adults began to change the way people viewed the initiation of children baptized as infants. Several dioceses around the country have revised their confirmation policies, shifting from the pastoral sociological maturity approach to the liturgical-theological one. Here’s a rundown on some of this activity.

— Sparked by an increase in the Catholic population, the aging of the clergy and the decrease in the number of priests, the Archdiocese of Chicago commissioned a task force to review parish ministry in an attempt to bring some uniformity to the celebration of the various sacraments. After two years of studying procedures, the task force released a 50-page draft report that recommended, among other things, that children be confirmed (and make their first confession) before First Communion.

— The Diocese of Spokane, Washington, has revised its confirmation guidelines to allow children to be confirmed as young as the age of seven. The diocese’s previous policy had prohibited administering the sacrament to children prior to their entry into the eighth grade of elementary school.

— The Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, has published a set of confirmation guidelines to direct the transition from the diocese’s current practice of confirming older adolescents to a revised policy, fully effective in the spring of 1995, whereby confirmation will be conferred on students in the second grade (i.e., around the age of eight). In announcing the readjustment of practice, Greensburg Bishop Anthony G. Bosco explained: “My intention is to effect more than a change in the age of confirmation. My hope is for a renewed understanding of the meaning of Christian initiation and its ongoing call to conversion and formation in the faith for every member of the Church.”

— Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas, has been circulating for discussion in his diocese various drafts of a proposed pastoral statement on the catechesis and initiation of children. The fourth draft of the text, published in March, recommends: “The sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist are to be celebrated within the same Sunday Mass in the presence of the assembly, whether recipients celebrate these sacraments individually or in small groups. The celebration should take place at the end of second grade” (Learning to Live As Jesus Did: From Initiation to Commitment, March 1, 1992, no. 41). In a footnote, the bishop observes: “At the same time they are prepared for the celebration of confirmation and Holy Eucharist, children are also prepared for the celebration of first reconciliation. The appropriate time for this celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation is before confirmation and Communion; but for a serious reason, parents and their child may choose another time” (Ibid., no. 45).

These straws in the wind seem to indicate that a national policy on confirmation is falling into place on its own.


References:

Freburger,William. The Priest, June 1992, p.5.

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