To be a fully initiated member of the church means, in part, to have a complement of graces — supernatural helps from God — which correspond to various facets of the Christian life.
The grace of Baptism sanctifies us, cleanses us of original sin and makes us children of God. The grace of Holy Communion binds us to Christ and to his body, the church. The grace of confirmation, which is often and mistakenly called “the sacrament of maturity,” is a grace given to us, but not entirely for us.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his sevenfold gifts, received in confirmation, strengthens us to be courageous witnesses of the Gospel and ambassadors of Christ and his church. It is a grace entrusted to us, so that we may lead others to the faith. This is a task that can be accomplished at any age, as the witness of so many young saints throughout history attests.
Confirmation is not given as a reward for attaining a certain age or acquiring a certain degree of experience. Confirmation is still, in the Eastern churches, administered during infancy at the same time as the other sacraments of initiation, a practice which mirrors more accurately the ordering of the sacraments in the early church.
It seems that in the church in the United States, confirmation is a sacrament in crisis. In many cases, confirmation often marks the departure of young people from the life of the church and the active practice of their Catholic faith. Tied as it often is to a program of requirements, meetings, classes, service hours, assignments, etc., perhaps the average teenager cannot help but see this sacrament as the deserved reward for the successful completion of a catechetical program.
There is no simple solution to this problem. One welcome development would be a transformation of our catechetical programs, such that they are no longer understood merely as sacramental preparation programs. Evangelization must be the primary goal of catechesis in a post-Christian culture, where catechists propose the gospel message to young people who may not have heard it or seen it lived with vibrancy.
Catechists must propose to young people afresh the prospect of a lived relationship with Jesus of Nazareth and the Church which continues his mission in the world. It is only in this context that an intelligible and reasonable treatment of the nature and purpose of the sacraments can emerge.
The scriptural pattern is clear: the preaching of the gospel leads to conversion and then necessarily to participation in the sacramental life of the church, which effects and sustains a lived relationship with the Christ who has been proclaimed (see Acts 2:14-41). Could part of the problem be that we have many Catholics who are “sacramentalized” but not evangelized?
This is not to say that one must understand the gospel in its entirely before receiving a sacrament, as the practice of conferring the sacraments on infants makes clear. The experience of the early church highlighted the necessity for evangelical preaching to accompany the process of mystagogy—or post-initiation catechesis—during which the signs and rituals of the sacraments were explained after the fact to help articulate their abiding effects. There must be more room for this manner of catechizing in our own time.
The age of confirmation presents another particular pastoral problem. The practice of delaying confirmation until high-school has no doubt borne fruit in the lives of many, but it may be time to reexamine its effectiveness and our reasoning for doing so. Pastors and others entrusted with the formation of young people in the faith must see to it not only that the faithful are able to receive the sacraments, but that they are able to receive them fruitfully.
It is, after all, possible to be imprinted with the character of confirmation but not to receive its attendant graces. Might not children of a younger age be better disposed to receive the grace of this sacrament fruitfully? Would it not be more effective to confer the sacrament at an earlier age when children are still naturally open to the life of faith and still possess a certain wonder in the face of God’s works?
There is no perfect age, nor is there a perfect program. No doubt, as Saint Paul indicates, we may plant the seed and water it, but God causes the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). God can move hearts and minds of any age and in any set of circumstances. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t first fertilize the soil.
Father Joseph Upton is the assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and chaplain at The Prout School, both in Wakefield. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Upton and Father Ryan Connors.