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Age of Confirmation
Not a graduation rite, but a gift;
and the central event is the Eucharist

by Monsignor Joseph Champlin

As the pastor of a large suburban parish, I once interviewed most of the 75 candidates for that year’s Sacrament of Confirmation. They were generally high school sophomores and had completed the required standard two-year preparation program.

This included formation of the head (a series of small group classes or sharing sessions), hands (community service projects) and heart (two retreats). During those personal visits I asked, “What does Confirmation mean for you?” The most common answer: “I will become an adult member of the Church.” I subsequently sent a personalized letter to all confirmed persons inviting them as now “adult members of the Church” to receive our offering envelopes and to volunteer for at least one parish activity. Out of .the 75, only one responded.

Questionable Assumptions
That lack of response raises several questions about this approach to the Sacrament of Confirmation.
• Should we expect a teenager in the midst of adolescence to make an adult commitment to Christ?
• Is Confirmation meant to be a kind of “bar mitzvah,” a graduation rite indicating the successful completion of a two-year course?
• Has this procedure minimized the gift nature of that sacrament and made it a reward for being good instead of a means for making us better?
• What about the ancient order of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist?

Portland, Maine — Some Dioceses in the United States have arrived at negative answers to those questions and changed their procedures for Confirmation preparation and celebration. The diocese of Portland in Maine developed early on a totally different approach. Bishop Joseph Gerry’s September 1997 “Pastoral Letter on the Celebration of Confirmation and First Communion,” established this norm:

All parishes should move in the direction of the reception of confirmation before First Communion. Pastors should introduce preparation for confirmation into the faith formation of second graders as soon as it is pastorally appropriate and should include the celebration of confirmation in the same liturgy as their first reception of the Eucharist.

Recognizing that this changeover will take two to three years to implement properly, he also urged that faith formation programs, especially for junior high students, be interesting and challenging to attract young people.

Five years later, Resource Publications in San Jose, California published a text Celebrating Confirmation Before First Communion, prepared by leaders of the Portland diocese. I found of particular interest a section on “Youth Ministry Observations.” My impression then: We would expect a decline in teenage attendance at religious education sessions and a deterioration in the programs themselves following this move of confirmation to an earlier level. Quite the opposite happened.

Tyler, Texas — Bishop Alvaro Corrado del Rio on Oct. 7, 2005, introduced a similar shift in the procedure for confirmation in the diocese of Tyler in East Texas. In doing so, he also addressed some of those questions noted above:

Confirmation a Gift: “At no point are the sacraments about what we have done or promise to do for God. They are God’s free gift of grace to us. Sacraments are primarily about God choosing and embracing us, not the other way around.”

Confirmation not a graduation rite: “Thus it is not accurate to connect confirmation to maturity in the psychological sense so that it would be best given at an age of social maturity. The sacrament of confirmation strengthens the person to bear witness rather than expresses the person’s determination to bear witness to his faith.”

Eucharist, not Confirmation, is the central event: “For a Christian publicly to take his place in the eucharistic assembly is the greatest participation in the apostolic mission of the Church that is imaginable. It is through the grace of baptism and confirmation that the Holy Spirit and the Church prepares a person for full communion in the holy Eucharist. Reception of the Eucharist prior to receiving the sacrament of confirmation may create some confusion in the community or. the person.” I have no knowledge as to the number of other U.S. dioceses which have adopted the Portland and Tyler models.


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