Reflections on the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict
understanding of Confirmation
by Archbishop Roland Minnerath
Archbishop of Dijon, France
The Synod held in October 2005 closely examined among
other things the relationship between the Eucharist and the
other sacraments. Three paragraphs of the Exhortation (nn.
17-19) treat the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, of which
the Eucharist itself is the source and summit.
Indeed, we are appropriately reminded that "our reception of
Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist" (n. 17).
If the rite provides for our adult catechumens to receive the
three sacraments of initiation at the same time and in this
order — Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist — this is not the case
for the young.
Back to the original ordering
Today, the most widespread practice in the Latin Church has
established that young people receive Confirmation between the
ages of 14 and 18, some years after their First Holy Communion.
Synod members listened with great interest to the interventions
of the Eastern Fathers, who have continued to adhere to the
ancient Church's practice of conferring the three sacraments of
initiation at the same time and in the same order, also upon
The postponement of Confirmation to a date subsequent to Baptism
has led the Latin Church to examine many solutions.
The main reason for the separation of the two Sacraments in the
West was the concern to re-establish contact between the person
initiated and the Bishop. In ancient times, the Bishop would
administer the three sacraments. He was assisted by priests and
deacons, and where they existed, deaconesses for the Baptism of
women. Post-Baptismal Confirmation in particular was reserved to
After the period in which the majority of catechumens had been
adults and when the baptism of children had become generalized,
Chrismation, later Confirmation, was postponed in the
expectation of a meeting with the Bishop.
Until the end of the 12th century, the priest himself would
frequently confer Confirmation upon the child whom he baptized
before giving him Communion.
Following the Fourth Lateran Council, Communion was to be
conferred when the child had reached the age of reason.
Nonetheless, it remained understood that Confirmation must
always precede First Holy Communion.
This regulation is found in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which
recommends the administration of Confirmation to children who
have reached the age of 7 (can. 788), prior to their admission
to First Holy Communion.
By virtue of an Instruction issued by the Sacred Congregation
for the Sacraments, dated 30 June 1932, this regulation was for
the first time less rigidly applied. This Instruction authorized
the conferral of Confirmation after First Holy Communion as an
exceptional practice and when it was impossible to do otherwise.
The general trend to postpone Confirmation to an age of greater
maturity became ever more widespread. As happened on many
occasions, theory succeeded practice.
We have had a theology of Confirmation which put the accent on
the young person's maturity and personal commitment.
The Sacrament was held to be the "confirmation" or ratification
by the young person of his own Baptism, received shortly after
birth, hence, without consent.
In many countries today, Confirmation is proposed between the
ages of 14 and 18 and always after the reception of First Holy
In France, for example, so few young people commit themselves to
preparing for this Sacrament that only a scant minority of
Christians have received all three sacraments of initiation.
Most engaged couples preparing for marriage have not been
confirmed. Confirmation is considered something that should be
Completion, not convalidation
Fortunately, we are witnessing a renewed understanding of the
Sacrament of Confirmation. It is a completion of Baptism rather
than a subjective convalidation of Baptism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church appropriately recalls that
"the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and
does not need 'ratification' to become effective" (n. 1308).
The Code of Canon Law in force explains that the required age
for Confirmation is the same as that required for Reconciliation
(can. 989) and First Holy Communion (cann. 913, 914), that is,
when the child has completed his seventh year, the age of reason
(can. 97 § 2). If one considers a child capable of discerning
the mystery of the Eucharist, one must also admit that he is
able to discern the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Sacramentum Caritatis asks the Bishops' Conferences to
ascertain which of the current practices of initiation "better
enables the faithful to put the Sacrament of the Eucharist at
the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation" (n.
18). Propositio n. 13 of the Synod clearly asked whether "in the
Latin Church the order of Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy
Communion should be observed solely for adults or also for
In order to bring the pastoral practices of the Latin Church
into line with the traditional doctrine of the Sacraments of
Christian Initiation, the following points should be considered:
— the order of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist should be the
norm to observe, both for the initiation of young people and of
— the relationship of the confirmandi with the Bishop must be
maintained. The Bishop is the original and ordinary minister of
— the age for receiving Confirmation should be the same as the
age for receiving First Holy Communion. Thus, the child could be
confirmed just before being admitted to Communion, or
Confirmation and Communion could be separated by two or three
years. By the time they had reached the ages of 10 or 12 years,
children would have received all three Sacraments of Christian
Initiation. The age of admission to First Holy Communion would
not be substantially different.
New way of doing things
Pastoral praxis almost everywhere has introduced a celebration
which does not confer a new sacrament: the "profession of
faith", still called "solemn communion". It marks the entry into
adolescence and a new stage in life.
Any change in the Confirmation age would not alter this practice
which is dear to families and, as a result, makes possible the
organization of catechesis.
The following stage of the end of adolescence and the entry into
adult life remains at about the age of 17 or 18, when a young
person leaves school. It is proposed that Confirmation be
conferred at about this age.
For young people who have persevered in catechesis until then,
it would be fitting to substitute the offering of Confirmation
by a non-sacramental celebration of enrolment in a movement, an
ecclesial service or a charitable commitment.
This milestone in the life of young Christians would be
celebrated with the Christian community to which they desire to
belong. In this way they would commit themselves to remaining
active as Christians during their studies and professional
Thus, the catechetical rhythm to which we are accustomed would
not be upset. It would continue to involve the important
milestones in life (the age of discretion, adolescence,
beginning of adulthood), thereby enabling a large number of
Christians to be initiated.
A return to the correct order of the three Sacraments of
Christian Initiation would allow for a clearer doctrinal
catechesis on the nature, importance and place of each of these
sacraments in the course of Christian initiation. It would also
permit a renewal of the pastoral approach to this Sacrament.
Those who insist on maturity for the step, more consistent with
the age of 16 or 17 rather than 7 or 10, would take into account
the landmark of entry into ecclesial service which would mark
the end of the period of school catechesis. This milestone could
have a special name such as "Missionary Mandate". The
celebration, like the "profession of faith", would continue to
follow one of the important stages of life.
This could have a significant ecumenical impact since in the
Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, admission to the
Eucharist of anyone, youth or adult, who has not been confirmed
would be incomprehensible.
The Exhortation rightly insists on the role of families in the
preparation of children and young people for the sacraments of
initiation. It is agreed that the parents' influence on the
education of their children is strongest in the years prior to
Parents, themselves already initiated, will naturally have at
heart to introduce their children to Christian initiation. The
fully initiated children will then face life in accordance with
The Eucharist will therefore accompany them as the Sacrament of
the journey which will not cease to complete what Baptism and
Confirmation have sown in the hearts of young believers.
© Copyright L'Osservatore Romano
September 26, 2007