Monday, January 21, 2008

Confirmation: Adults in the Church?

I recently attended a retreat with some kids preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, and I must say that overall it was a very positive experience. The kids were exposed to the Liturgy of the Hours (at least Morning and Evening Prayers), were all made to go to confession and all spent time before the Eucharist in prayer. Most of the talks were pertinent and uplifting, and all of the kids responded afterwards that they had experienced genuine spiritual growth and formation during the retreat.

If there was one defect in this retreat, it was that many of the talks on Confirmation seemed to refer to the sacrament primarily as a coming of age ritual in the Church, the Catholic equivalent of a bar mitzvah. At one point, I was given a small group and told to take them off and have a talk with them about the sacrament. I was given a lesson plan which said, "Make sure to stress 'Being an Adult in the Church.'" This view of Confirmation is found throughout the post-Conciliar Church, and millions of kids each year are being taught that Confirmation means becoming an adult in the Church. Is this in fact the case? First, let's look at what is being taught, and then look at what the Church herself teaches.

Kids are being taught that Confirmation is a coming of age sacrament in which they become adults in the Church. This 'adulthood' consists of two interconnected elements: one, a reaffirmation of baptismal vows, presented in the context of a voluntary validation of what was done at baptism. Second, an emphasis on practicing the Faith by one's own free choice now (as opposed to being compelled to by parents). Let's look at these two elements in depth.

The story is often presented this way: when you were young, you were baptized without your consent. Your parents did it for you. Now, by voluntarily receiving Confirmation, you are affirming and validating what your parents did in your name at Baptism. This is a very tricky position because of the subtleties involved, but there are two reasons why this is an incomplete view of the Sacrament.

First, it is true that Confirmation is a reaffirmation of Baptism, but it is much more than that: it is an unfolding and a flowering of baptismal grace. Since one is not fully incorporated into the Church until they receive Confirmation, you could call it the completion or fulfillment of Baptism, but it still has intrinsic value in itself apart from Baptism, though the two are interconnected. It is always associated with the giving of the Spirit and the day of Pentecost, when the Catholic is empowered with the Gifts of the Spirit to live the Christian life and win the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. To say it is simply a reaffirmation or validation of Baptism is to cut it short. Simply reaffirming what was done when you were an infant is placing the focus on something that was done once before while neglecting what is occuring ex opere operato in the sacrament now.

Secondly, it is defective in what it insinuates. If Confirmation is a reaffirmation or validation of the promises of Baptism (as opposed to another, special grace on top of Baptism that helps unfold baptismal grace and live the Christian life), then what does it imply if one then chooses not to receive Confirmation? If reception of Confirmation is acceptance of Baptism, then this implies that one could theoretically reject or renounce their Baptism by not receiving Confirmation. In other words, the indelible nature of Baptism is subtley denied. What does it say about Baptism if another sacrament is needed years later to either affirm and validate or else deny and reject it? According to this view, Baptism is like a legal document that is not binding until it is "notarized" by Confirmation. I have never heard anybody espouse this view outright, but can you see how it could be implied? Confirmation is about the giving of grace, not about the reaffirmation of promises. That is a merely earth-bound view of the sacrament.

What about this idea of choosing to be an adult in the Church freely, as opposed to by parental constraint? First of all, most kids receive Confirmation around age 14. Would you trust a 14 year old to be an adult with any other serious matter? How about driving? Paying bills? Dating? Doing your tax returns? Of course not! It is common knowledge that 14 year olds are among the most irresponsible and immature of all age groups, because they are caught in the middle of childhood and adulthood and are in the midst of the most intense turmoil of the teen years. We don't trust them in a variety of secular matters, but with their eternal salvation, we are suddenly going to say that they are mature enough to become adults in the Church and choose the Faith out of their own free will? That is a recipe for spiritual suicide; no wonder Confirmation day is the end of the road for so many Catholics. What 14 year old is responsible enough to take such a responsibility upon himself? Why would we entrust a 14 year old with the procurement of their own eternal salvation when we don't entrust them with a driver's license?

Secondly, again, by saying that Confirmation means freely choosing to be a Catholic, then this implies that they could also freely choose not to be a Catholic. Again, the indelible nature of Baptism, which seals the baptized forever, is implicitly denied. You do not choose to be a Catholic at Confirmation. You can recommit your life to God, or decide to take the faith more seriously, but it is not about becoming a Catholic by choice. You became a Catholic by Baptism. Your only "choice" now is to be a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. By focusing on the reaffirmation of baptismal vows and the coming of age aspect of it, we are confusing the nature of both Baptism and Confirmation and giving the sacrament of Confirmation a merely worldly end: reaffirming some promises and becoming an adult, neither of which are supernatural in and of themselves.

What is the Church's teaching on Confirmation? The Catechism says: Confirmation perfects Baptismal grace; it is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the divine filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds (1316). No mention of coming of age, but a lot about the perfection (not reaffirmation or validation) of baptism and the giving of grace.

The canons of Trent (session 7, can. 1) anathematizes the notion that Confirmation is just a simple ceremony that does not in and of itself confer grace.

The Catechism of St. Pius X says Confirmation is a sacrament which gives us the Holy Ghost, imprints on our souls the mark of a soldier of Jesus Christ, and makes us perfect Christians. The sacrament of Confirmation makes us perfect Christians by confirming us in the faith and perfecting the other virtues and gifts received in Baptism; hence it is called Confirmation. As to who can receive it, it says, To receive worthily the sacrament of Confirmation it is necessary to be in the grace of God; know the principal mysteries of our holy faith; and approach it with reverence and devotion. It says nothing about age here, by St. Pius X recommends around age 7, based purely on spiritual principles: The age at which it is advisable to receive the sacrament of Confirmation is about the seventh year, because it is then that temptations usually begin, and the grace of the sacrament can be sufficiently discerned and a recollection be had of having received it. Note that there is no comparison or reference to physical coming of age, and that the time frame Pius gives is based on spiritual reasons (that temptations begin around age 7).

St. Thomas Aquinas says that Confirmation is the maturing and coming of age of the spiritual life, but specifically points out that this is not the equivalent physical coming of age. He also points out that the graces of Confirmation are different than those of Baptism and thus the sacrament is not simply a renewal of baptismal promises: Just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith (STh, III, Q. 72, a 5). Confirmation can be likened to physical coming of age as an analogy, but they are not the same thing.

Can we draw valid comparisons by way of analogy between Confirmation and physical maturity? Certainly. We do the same thing with Baptism by likening it to physical birth, because the spiritual effects of Baptism are similar to the physical effects of natural birth. But they are not the same thing. Neither is Confirmation simply the celebration of coming of age in the Church, although we can draw certain similarities between the two events, as Aquinas does. But let's get back to focusing on the giving of the Spirit and the unfolding of baptismal grace and get away from this Catholic bar mitzvah idea. It is simply a recipe to turn Confirmation into a Catholic "graduation from religious education" ceremony after which the kids feel free to leave the Church. After all, they've been taught that they are adults in the Church and are free to make that choice if they want.


Anonymous said...

A former pastor once commented that kids need the graces from the sacrament as early as possible. It is those graces that provide the "armor" and the "shield".

Then we need to learn how to use them, which could be a lifelong project.

Confirmation thus only confers the grace or support to begin and sustain the growth toward spiritual adulthood - something that too many Catholics never attain.

Your "kids" hopefully will have the opportunity from you, parents, sponsors, and each other .. to not only have the license of confirmation, but now to want to travel and explore Catholic Truths.

If adulthood means I now "know it all" and I don't need to thirst for more truth...... then I don't want to grow up. Give me Peter....... but give me Peter Pan too. :)

liturgy said...


I have been working hard to provide a simple introduction for those starting out on praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This is what I have prepared:
I would be happy to receive any constructive suggestions to make this a better starting resource. I will incorporate suggestions if they appear helpful – and if other suggestions don’t say the opposite ☺

Please consider placing a link called “Liturgy of the Hours” or “Liturgy of the Hours (ecumenical)” to

Blessings on your venture