(This is Neil) Please join me in keeping Michael Dubruiel, Amy Welborn, and their family in your prayers. Michael Dubruiel’s final column, a moving reflection on trust, can be read here. You should read it before continuing with this post. Dubruiel’s books can be ordered through the Our Sunday Visitor web store here.
This post is meant to ask a single question: Should we receive Confirmation before or after we receive First Communion? While the sequence of these sacraments is not a matter of dogma, the answer is not necessarily unimportant. The answer, I think, will partly reveal our theology of the sacrament of Confirmation, a sacrament that, as Todd wrote earlier this month, is often described as “in search of a theology” (a somewhat perilous situation to be sure). This post will be indebted to a very interesting short article by Fr Paul Turner that originally appeared in the March 2008 Worship and is available on his website.
It might seem rather odd that there isn’t a clear answer to the question of when the sacrament of Confirmation should be received. But such is the case. In his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), Pope Benedict noted that the “ecclesial customs of the East” differ from “the practice of the West.” As we shall see, there have also been variances in the “practice of the West.” The Pope says, “Concretely, it needs to be seen which practice better enables the faithful to put the sacrament of the Eucharist at the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation.”
Furthermore, it might seem rather odd that we are still “in search of a theology” of Confirmation. But, again, such is the case. In 1998, during a meeting of the US Bishops, the now-retired Bishop Emil Wcela said that he “asked Cardinal Ratzinger if there was any movement in Rome toward a theological or general, universal understanding of what the Sacrament of Confirmation meant. He said … the time was not yet ripe – not mature yet for a decision.” In his article, Fr Turner notes that Benedict, in Sacramentum Caritatis, is able to relate most of the sacraments to the “central” sacrament of the Eucharist – the Eucharist perfects the gifts received at Baptism, the Eucharist, the Pope says, links the marriage bond “to the eucharistic unity of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church,” and so on. But, while the Pope declares that our reception of Confirmation must be “ordered to the Eucharist,” it isn’t clear how this should be the case. It still seems that we are searching for a “theological or general, universal understanding.”
It seems as though the situation might be clarified in time. But how did we end up here? By the 19th century, the ancient practice of Latin Rite bishops confirming infants was very rarely seen. The minimum age for confirmation was generally considered to be seven years, although the age fluctuated, and many people simply went unconfirmed. By the middle of the century, Fr Turner tells us, regional church councils sought to clarify the relationship between Confirmation and First Communion. They generally thought that First Communion came first. Why? The Council of Tours in 1849 said:
In order that the faithful may obtain more abundant fruit from the confirmation they have received, we decree that no one may be admitted to the sacrament until he or she comes to first communion, unless of course a grave reason argues otherwise in the judgment of the bishop.
The Council of Prague in 1860 likewise appealed to practical reasons:
For confirmation has been ordained for this in the first place, that we may be found instructed in its power and prepared when we must fight for the faith of Christ. No one prudently judges children who lack the use of reason to be fit for this kind of battle. Children who have obtained the use of reason, for whom the riches of receiving this sacrament are rather frequently offered, should not easily be brought to the mysteries of holy chrism without reasonable cause before they have been admitted to first communion.
In the Diocese of Mende (1863), in southeast France, some practical reasons that will sound quite familiar to us were given to put off Confirmation:
It is often good and useful not to admit children to confirmation immediately after first communion, in order to keep them longer in catechism class and thus to complete their religious education.
The problem with these practical reasons is that they can lead to semi-Pelagianism. The sacrament of Confirmation turns into a mere ratification or recognition of human achievement – reaching a certain standard of rationality or natural age (see, perhaps, the justifiable concern of our present Catechism, n. 308). Furthermore, the reception of Confirmation after First Communion did challenge historical precedent. Rome generally wanted Confirmation to precede First Communion because of tradition. In an alternative history, the First Vatican Council would have taken up the matter (although one does hesitate before using “First Vatican Council” and “alternative history” in the same sentence). In any case, the Council did not and nothing was promulgated about the practice. But a schema for the Council reads:
Since in some places a custom contrary to the perpetual practice of the church has grown up, in which confirmation is administered by an absurd order only to those who have already been admitted to the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, we wish this to be corrected completely; especially since one who has already begun to fight against the enemy should not be kept from armor. It should be clear, as St Thomas Aquinas says, that many in the age of childhood have fought bravely for the sake of Christ because of the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received.
Likewise, Pope Leo XIII wrote to the Bishop of Marseilles, approving his decision to celebrate Confirmation before First Communion. The Pope noted – as had the schema – that the “faithful, even from the tender years, have a need ‘to be clothed with strength from on high.’” Leo also wrote, “Moreover, adolescents having thus been confirmed become more conformable to understanding precepts, and more fit for receiving the Eucharist afterwards, and they grasp more abundant benefits from what they receive.” Most directly, in 1932, the Sacred Congregation on Sacraments said, “It is truly opportune and more conformable to the nature and effects of the sacrament of confirmation, that children should only approach the sacred table for the first time after the reception of the sacrament of confirmation …”
As Fr Turner says, we see two tendencies. Regional councils postpone Confirmation for practical reasons. Rome argues the opposite for traditional reasons. What about Vatican II? There isn’t anything from the Second Vatican Council that would mandate receiving Confirmation after First Communion, save, perhaps, for a line about Christian initiation being “completed” in Confirmation (in the Rite of Confirmation). Turner writes, “Every other statement from the Council, and even the ordering of chapters in the Code of Canon Law, places confirmation between baptism and first communion.” And Presbyterorum Ordinis would seem to suggest that the Eucharist brings Christian initiation to completion. One can also say that, after the Second Vatican Council, Latin Rite Christians should also be more aware of the more continuous practice in the Eastern Church, where Confirmation is celebrated before First Communion.
We do have another consideration, as Pope Benedict reminded us in Sacramentum Caritatis: What practice is more likely to make us realize the centrality of the Eucharist?
What do you think? When should the faithful receive the sacrament of Confirmation? How should we sequence the sacraments of Christian initiation? (Presently, Confirmation is received before Holy Communion in all Eastern rites, and, in the Latin rite, when the three sacraments of initiation are received together).