While serving with the National Evangelization Team most of the dioceses we visited held Confirmation in high school. I received the Sacrament of Confirmation in 8th grade. Most of my teammates received it as a High School Junior. The debate went on throughout the year about which was better, younger or older. The arguments I heard for a later Confirmation focus on the ability to understand, to commit oneself to live as a Catholic, and to uses Confirmation classes to maintain the presence of youth in the parish.
To the first argument: There is a belief that the older we are the better we understand. It seems to me that children are better able to understand than adults the teachings of the faith. They understand how to believe by trusting. They trust the messenger and so believe the message. The age of doubt and questioning comes later. That age is an important milestone for a person of faith to assimilate and work through the beliefs from childhood into his or her own mind. Because teenagers are developmentally in a place of separating from their parents and forming their own identity, beliefs, and ways of thinking, throwing a sacrament into the middle of this stage might not be the best timing. With a lack of religious education in the home, one is more likely to find a teenager great in doubt than great in faith.
To the second argument: one can commit their life better when one is older. This is true in some cases. If I know myself better, theoretically, I know better what I want to commit to. Although I do not know what life will throw at me during the course of my commitment. I cannot predict how I will respond or if I would do it over again given the chance. If the commitment requires a change on my part, it might actually be harder to commit when I am older than what I am younger because we are creatures of habit.
Confirmation does not seem to require such a change. I still think it is problematic asking for a lifelong commitment in the throes of adolescence when all commitments seem to be under evaluation. Either do it much later or much earlier and avoid placing something so important in this particularly difficult time period. I do not recommend entering into serious commitments in the throes of a midlife crisis either.
If the Sacrament of Confirmation were pushed much later, are we not then treating it like the adult baptism in some Protestant denominations where it is seen as a choice that must be made by the individual, fully aware, and should not be made on the part of the parents? Can anyone ever be fully aware? Baptism is not treated this way in the Catholic Church. And Confirmation is not “Baptism, Take II.” Your parents chose first, now you get to choose. It is a different sacrament though it does complete the first.
Those who hold the last argument likely shutter at the idea of pushing the Sacrament of Confirmation beyond adolescence. They want to use the Sacrament of Confirmation as a retainer for the parishioners and their teenage children. We need a way to keep them in church, keep them learning! Placing Confirmation earlier would create a larger gap when they simply do not attend or engage their faith.
Should we really hold the sacraments hostage or treat them as a means to an end? Are we not diminishing the glory of Christ coming to us in the sacraments by holding it out as the prize for so many religious education classes attended? It is any wonder no matter how many times the youth repeat, “Confirmation is not a graduation from the Church,” they still leave when it is all over. Confirmation is thought of that wa because it is used that way by the church itself.
I have a reason for defending a younger age for Confirmation. This one I did not hear spoken of in those debates. We were taught at Confirmation we received certain gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those gifts are prayed for thus:
“All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
If we really and truly believe these gifts are given to the Confirmand in a particular way through the sacrament, if we really and truly believe a change takes place, then does it not seem odd to say, “let them struggle through their questions of the faith first, without the gift of understanding, judgment, knowledge, and awe, beforehand.” Would it not be better to prepare those we love with these gifts before they enter the dangerous territory of American adolescence? I would rather have my child blessed with the gift of courage when she faces high school boys than not. I would rather my son possess a gift of wonder and awe when he faces, as a hormonal boy, God’s creation in woman than wait for it. If we truly believe these are gifts and not things earned, why withhold them?
These were the thoughts I came to that year in those discussions. They were not educated thoughts. Rather simply born from reflection on the things we taught and the arguments we heard. I was pleased to hear up until recently in church history, Confirmation was given much closer to Baptism and is still done so in some areas. It is pleasing to hear the Archbishop of Denver restoring it to its place with the Sacraments of Initiation. I think we need this. In this modern world with its modern temptations, I think we need it desperately. Third grade is none too soon.