Most children at Elmira’s St. Mary Southside Parish make both their first Communion and confirmation when they’re about 7 years old or in second grade. That’s been the case for the last four or five years, ever since the parish began following the restored order of the sacraments, according to their pastor, Father Richard Farrell.
“Historically, liturgically, it just seemed like this is where the church was and what we needed to get back to,” Father Farrell said.
During the early years of the church, the sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation and Eucharist — were celebrated in that order, explained Sister of St. Joseph Karen Dietz, coordinator of sacramental catechesis for the Diocese of Rochester. A baby would be anointed in baptism by the parish priest, then anointed again — as a “confirmation” of the first anointing — by the local bishop the next time he was in the area, Father Farrell said. Children usually made their first Communions when they reached their early teens.
Over time, the gap between the time of a child’s baptism and confirmation widened, and eventually children were often in their early teens before they were confirmed.
In 1910 Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Communion to 7, which is often referred to as the age of discretion or reason. He didn’t change the age for confirmation, however, effectively changing the order in which people received the sacraments of initiation. Diocesan confirmation guidelines and parent-information materials note that the Second Vatican Council called for a revised Rite of Confirmation that would emphasize the sacrament’s strong connection to baptism.
In part, the move toward the “restored order” derives from the church’s 1972 promulgation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a set of norms and rituals through which individuals who are unchurched or from other faith backgrounds may join the Catholic Church. Through this rite, unbaptized adults and children of catechetical age celebrate all three sacraments of initiation at the same time.
Further impetus was offered by the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law, which set the age of confirmation at “about the age of discretion” absent a modification by the bishops of a specific nation. In August 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established the confirmation age to be between “the age of discretion and sixteen years of age.”
During the mid-1990s the Diocese of Rochester had revised its sacramental guidelines to emphasize readiness as the deciding factor on when children should receive the sacraments, and also to allow for a combined celebration of confirmation and Eucharist, Sister Dietz said. Since that time nearly a dozen parishes have begun to follow the restored order, she said.
Moving toward the restored order involves a long discernment process, Sister Dietz noted. A large number of families in the parish coming forward to ask that their young children be confirmed can be a sign that a parish is ready for the change, Sister Dietz said.
Another sign might be provided by large numbers of children going through the RCIA as adapted for children, she said. In such situations, the baptized-but-unconfirmed peers of these RCIA children would begin to ask why they hadn’t been confirmed yet.
Parish leaders should also take a hard look at the strength and vitality of their youth-ministry and religious-education programs, Sister Dietz said. Many people still mistakenly think of confirmation as a graduation from faith formation, so parishes considering use of the restored order should make sure their programs are strong enough to keep children and teens involved after they are confirmed (see related story on B1-2).
The move toward the restored order has encountered some resistance from parishioners, some of whom simply miss the old way the sacraments were celebrated, Father Farrell said. They were used to first Communion celebrations taking place on Saturday mornings and planned their weekends around the celebrations. Confirmation and first Communion celebrations are now held together on weeknights, he said.
Father Farrell also said people have occasionally told him that a 7-year-old is too young to be confirmed, but he disagrees. The time to administer the sacraments of confirmation and first Communion is based upon readiness rather than age, Father Farrell said, noting that confirmation candidates are interviewed before preparation begins.
“We see if there’s a seedling of spirituality and faith that we can build upon,” Father Farrell said.