Most RCIA team members know that, for the purposes of the rite, an “adult” is anyone who has reached catechetical age.* That means that if an unbaptized child who has reached catechetical age wishes to be baptized, he or she is also confirmed and receives first communion at the moment of baptism.
It also means that children who were baptized into a Christian tradition other than Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) are confirmed at the time of their reception into full communion (see Canon 885.2).
When we say this to Catholics who are not involved with RCIA, they look at us like we have been sneaking the communion wine again.
If we say it again, this time like we mean it, that we really are going to confirm seven-year-old Suzie, and maybe her six-year-old brother, too — they get angry.
How could we…
- confirm children who are too young to understand the full meaning of the sacrament?
- deny them the opportunity to make an adult choice for faith?
- take away their motivation to stay in church until they are teens?
- make them stand out as different than their peers?
- be so unfair to the Catholic children who have to wait for confirmation?
What is adult faith?
These reactions are understandable because we have miscatechized several generations of Catholics about the meaning of the sacrament of confirmation. Most Catholics who were born in the United States after about 1930 were taught that confirmation is a “sacrament of maturity” that required extensive preparation and knowledge in order to be received fruitfully. However, this is not correct. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,“ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need “ratification“ to become effective. St. Thomas reminds us of this:
“Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: ‘For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.’ Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.” (1308)
The full meaning of confirmation
I can’t tell you the full meaning of confirmation. Confirmation is a sacrament. “Sacrament” is a Latin-based word that replaced an earlier Greek-based word: mystery. Confirmation is a participation in the mystery of Christ, and as such, cannot be fully explained. We can attempt partial explanations, which you can find in the Rite of Confirmation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Canon Law, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But, in this life, we can never fully understand the meaning of confirmation. It is hubris to think that a seventh-grader will “understand” confirmation.
An adult choice for faith
Claiming that we make an adult choice for faith is a bit of heresy. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The initiative for “choosing faith” comes from God. God first chooses us and then calls us to faith. We can accept or reject God’s gift, but our “choice” makes no difference as far as God’s acceptance of us is concerned. As the Catechism says, “unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective.”
Delaying confirmation keeps kids in church
Forcing children to wait until seventh grade or high school to celebrate confirmation may keep their bodies in the pews, but it will not necessarily keep their hearts focused on Christ. In fact, what keeps children in church is parental involvement in the faith-lives of their children and active involvement in the parish — regardless of what age their children are confirmed. If parish leaders want children to stay in church, they will have way more success with developing spiritual parenting skills than they will by delaying confirmation.
Children confirmed at catechetical age will stand out from their peers
These days, it is getting harder and harder to define peers as “just like me.” Peer groups are made up of children from different countries or ethnic backgrounds, different musical or athletic interests, different family structures, and different social or economic backgrounds. Why do we draw the line at confirmation when it comes to “being the same”? St. Paul says “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them” (1 Cor 1:12).
Confirming children at catechetical age is unfair to the children who have to wait
This reminds me of the story Jesus told about the landowner who hired workers for his vineyard. Some of the workers started at dawn, others at 9 a.m., and others at noon. Some started as late as 5 p.m. And at the end of the day, everyone got paid the same. The workers who showed up early cried “unfair!” (see Mt 20:-1-16). Of course it is not unfair for God to give the gifts of the Holy Spirit to whomever God wants, whenever God wants! If the parents of Catholic children are truly miffed that other children are being gifted by God in the sacrament of confirmation, they can request the celebration of the sacrament for their own children at any time.
Canon Law says: “Confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful about the age of discretion.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said that in the U.S., the age for celebrating the sacrament of confirmation between “the age of discretion (about age 7) and about 16 years of age.” Your diocese has set a preferred age within that range. However, a bishop may not refuse to confer the sacrament on younger children who request it, provided they are baptized, have the use of reason, are suitably instructed and are properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises (letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published in its 1999 bulletin, pages 537–540).
The bottom line for Catholic parishes is that unbaptized children of catechetical age must be confirmed when they are baptized. The same is true for baptized, non-Catholic children who are being received into full communion. They must be confirmed at their reception. This is not only the teaching of the church, it is a huge pastoral benefit to these children and their families. We are not allowed to deny or delay the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to them by God. Nor should we want to.
*The age of reason is often presumed to be seven-years-old, but not everyone attains the use of reason at that age. And some children attain the use of reason earlier than seven.