A brief History of the Sacrament of Confirmation
(For Parents of Confirmation Candidates)
The history of Confirmation is complicated. But the main aspect that affects the current decision to celebrate Confirmation before First Eucharist is easy enough to summarize.
Originally, Confirmation was part of a single ritual of initiation that marked a person’s entrance into full membership in the Church. That initiation ritual included the celebration of three Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Whether the person entering the Church was an infant or an adult, immediately after being baptized, the individual received a laying on of hands and an anointing to affirm his or her passage from death to new life and confer the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This paralleled the New Testament description of the Spirit’s affirmation of Jesus after He was baptized in the Jordan River. Then, having been baptized and confirmed, the new Christian was invited to share in the Eucharist which completed the initiation process.
Down the centuries these three initiation Sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist – were separated for many reasons. The main reason that Confirmation got separated was because the bishop was the ordinary minister of that special anointing and he could not be available for every celebration of Baptism. Sometimes many years intervened, until it became common for Confirmation to be received around the age of reason. The traditional sequence of the initiation sacraments was generally observed, but without much consciousness of their connection to each other.
Up until 1910 most people received Baptism as infants, Confirmation around the age of seven, and Eucharist in early teens. In 1910, Pope Pius X reacted against the exaggerated sense of unworthiness that had led to the late age for First Eucharist. He changed the recommended time for First Eucharist to the age of reason (about seven). An unintended byproduct of this decision was the subsequent decision in some countries like the United States to postpone the age of Confirmation, moving it from the age of reason to approximately the early teens.
That postponement of Confirmation in our country in this century was the pragmatic decision rather than a theological one. The focus was on providing time for extensive sacramental preparation rather than on the initiation aspect of the sacrament or the traditional initiation sequence. Later, religious educators tried to emphasize aspects of the sacrament that seemed appropriate to the age of the recipients – like religious maturity. At the same time there was a tendency to use the sacrament of Confirmation as leverage to maximize participation in religious education classes. So reception of this Sacrament gradually became the climax of a long regimen of education and service. The emphasis on service was valuable and continues to be necessary – no as a Sacramental requirement, but as a requirement of Christian life.
This summary of the history of Confirmation may help you understand the reasons for this change.