On this Pentecost Sunday many children will complete their initiation into the Church through the sacraments of confirmation and eucharist.
Most adults were confirmed around the age of 12 or 13, well after their first communion. Some may believe that this is “how it was always done” and wonder why the familiar pattern has recently changed.
In the early Church, initiation was one continuous rite consisting of immersion in water, laying on of hands and anointing with chrism by the bishop, and finally joining the community for the first time at the Lord’s table.
When large numbers of people wanted to become Christians after the Peace of Constantine in 313, there simply weren’t enough bishops to be present at all initiation ceremonies. Presbyters were authorised to baptise, but the laying on of hands and final anointing with chrism – later known as confirmation – were reserved for the bishop.
So it became usual for baptism and confirmation to be separated, especially when infant baptism became the norm. Over the centuries this ‘gap’ became longer, but the order of the sacrament of initiation remained the same – baptism, confirmation, eucharist. Confirmation was the renewal of one’s baptismal promises before admission to the eucharistic table.
It was only in the first part of this century that this pattern of initiation altered in the Catholic Church. Pope Pius X’s efforts to encourage more frequent reception of communion included lowering the age for first communion. Confirmation got left where it was and in the process lost its purpose. Gradually new meanings were attributed to it, including the sacrament of adulthood, becoming a soldier of Christ, and even signing the pledge. So the baptism – first communion – confirmation pattern, so familiar to many, was actually an accident of history!
The Second Vatican Council called for the sacrament of confirmation to be revised so that its connection with the whole of the Christian initiation would be stronger. In the new Rite of Confirmation issued in 1971 confirmation is clearly seen as an integral part of initiation which “reaches its culmination in the communion of the body and blood of Christ” (RC13). As for the age for confirmation, it is “generally postponed until about the seventh year” (RC11). The belief that confirmation is connected with age or maturity is not supported by history, or by canon law.
In recent years many diocese in Australia and other parts of the world have responded to the Church’s call to restore confirmation to its proper place. Confirmation and first communion are usually celebrated together. To avoid overloading the liturgy, the focus must be on the key elements of the rites. For confirmation these are the renewal of baptismal promises, laying on of hands and anointing with chrism; for eucharist, eating the consecrated bread and drinking the consecrated wine.
The essential liturgical gestures and symbols speak to children and adults alike of the wonderful mystery of initiation into Christ.