Reading in this week’s issue of The Catholic Herald that the newspaper favours an earlier age for first Communion in suitable cases raises in my mind the question of the age of Confirmation. This sacrament, which completes full membership of the Church – makes us, as the Penny Catechism put it, “strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ”.
In the early Church Confirmation was administered at the same time as Baptism, and this is still the case with adult converts. But with the advent of infant baptism (a matter of controversy at the time) Confirmation was typically delayed until the age of reason.
Current Canon Law requires the candidate to be “suitably instructed, properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises.” The necessary maturity is indicated by having reached “the age of discretion”. This suggests a greater understanding of the demands of the Christian life, and a competence to uphold and witness to it as a “soldier”.
It can certainly be argued that Confirmation, which confers the strength of Christian adulthood through grace irrespective of age, should be administered as early as possible. Indeed Leo XIII in 1897 favoured the administration prior to first Communion as being more in line with the tradition of the early Church.
However I would argue that being “suitably instructed and properly disposed” requires at least a reasonable understanding of what it is to be an adult Catholic. That means some understanding of the pressures of the secular world, and also the internal pressures of puberty. Were one to postpone Confirmation until, say, 16 – and then very much at the choice of the candidates rather than coming with the rations – there would not only be an opportunity for a serious course of participative instruction but a real commitment. Confirmation would cease to be a final sacrament to be got out of the way and instead become a serious start to being a Christian outside the world of the family.
Of course the numbers of confirmed Catholics would plunge. But Confirmation at any later time would be available for any Catholic willing to accept their full commitment to the Christian vocation. Those who are not willing, or are too immature, to make such a commitment should not meaninglessly be confirmed for the sake of form.