People are naturally creatures of habit. They sit in the same place each week at Mass. They eat the same food every Thanksgiving. Annually they look forward to Advent leading to Christmas and Lent culminating in Easter.
The current practice in the Diocese of Honolulu is to confirm adolescents who were baptized as infants several years after they receive first Holy Communion. It is easy to want to continue this practice, thinking, “This is how it’s always been done.” However, a review of church history reveals that this is not true.
On Jan. 29, 2014, Pope Francis spoke about the sacraments of initiation: “Confirmation or ‘Chrismation’ … must be understood in continuity with Baptism, to which it is inseparably linked. These two sacraments, together with the Eucharist, form a single saving event — called ‘Christian initiation’ — in which we are inserted into Jesus Christ, who died and rose, and become new creatures and members of the church. This is why these three sacraments were originally celebrated on one occasion, at the end of the catechumenal journey, normally at the Easter vigil.”
If Pope Francis’ description of the early Church practice sounds familiar, it is because it is the current practice of the Latin Church as set out in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. In the reforms after Vatican II, the ancient practice was restored for those seven years and older.
Yet in the early church, giving all three sacraments in one ceremony was the universal practice for those of all ages. No historical evidence seems to suggest that young children were initiated differently than adults. The Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, have continued this unified approach to this day by allowing priests to give Chrismation.
In the Latin Church, however, the emphasis was on the bishop being the one who confirms. Pope Saint Innocent I wrote in 416: “As for the signing of infants, it is clear that it may only be done by the bishop. For, though presbyters are priests of the second order, yet they do not have the fullness of the pontificate. That this pontifical authority of confirming or of conferring the Spirit, the Paraclete, is proper only to the bishops is clearly shown, not only by the church’s custom, but by that passage of the Acts of the Apostles [8:14-17] which affirms that Peter and John were directed to confer the Holy Spirit on those who were already baptized.”
In cathedrals, bishops continued to confirm after Baptism. With the growth of the church, it became impossible for a bishop to be present at every Baptism, especially in rural areas, so Confirmation was ordinarily delayed after Baptism until a bishop was available. The ideal was for the bishop to tour his entire diocese each year, and he would confirm all the newly baptized during his visit.
During medieval times, there was deterioration in church discipline. Repeated reminders from Rome about the importance of Confirmation reflected the fact that it was being neglected by bishops, priests and parents. The primary concern was to make sure that infants were baptized soon after birth to secure their salvation.
Also, the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful in general declined in frequency. Beginning in the 10th century, infants were no longer given the Body of Christ, perhaps out of the fear that they would spit it up. By around 1200, all people stopped receiving from the chalice due to concern over spilling the Precious Blood. As a result, infants were left with no Communion at all.
The 1566 Roman Catechism, mandated by the Council of Trent, acknowledged the ancient practice of giving the Eucharist to infants, but argued that this was not necessary and risked a danger to piety. Instead, decisions on the age of first Holy Communion were left to parents and priests and the desire of the children themselves to receive. As a result, first Holy Communion was ordinarily celebrated around the age of 12.
Regarding the age of Confirmation, the Roman Catechism gave a more specific answer: “After Baptism, the sacrament of Confirmation may indeed be administered to all; but its administration is inexpedient until children have attained the use of reason. While it does not seem well to defer Confirmation to the age of 12, it is most proper to postpone this sacrament at least to that of seven years.”
The Roman Catechism also reaffirmed that only a bishop confirms. Today we are getting used to priests confirming on occasion. The first evidence of priests confirming on a regular basis in the Latin Church dates to 1774, when the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith allowed priests in missionary territories to confirm. It instructed the missionaries to delay Confirmation after Baptism until about the age of 7.
Confirmation being celebrated after first Holy Communion dates only to mid-18th century France. Eventually the practice spread to other countries, although with consistent resistance by authorities in Rome. In 1897 Pope Leo XIII wrote to the bishop of Marseille, France, approving his practice of confirming before first Holy Communion, saying that young people are better prepared to receive the Eucharist if they have been confirmed. In spite of this, the practice of confirming after first Holy Communion prevailed in most places. When, in 1910, Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion to 7, this solidified — as an unintended consequence — the practice of confirming after first Holy Communion.
The Vatican tried to correct this. The 1917 Code of Canon Law stated that Confirmation should be postponed after Baptism until the age of seven. In 1932, the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments stated: “Children should only approach the sacred table for the first time after the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation.” And in 1952, the Commission for the Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law ruled that bishops did not have the authority to postpone Confirmation until the age of 10. Still in most places Confirmation has remained at a later age after first Holy Communion.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law still sees the age of discretion as the usual age for Confirmation, but it permits conferences of bishops to determine another age. The U.S. bishops decided that children may be confirmed between the ages of 7 and 16 as determined by the diocesan bishop. The current law also states that, in danger of death, any priest may confirm anyone baptized, even an infant.
Father Gantley is the judicial vicar of the Diocese of Honolulu.