Myths about the Sacrament of Confirmation

Celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation has always been a joyous occasion that highlights the richness of the Catholic tradition through the various signs and symbols used that are present in the rite. Over the years, the Church in the United States has established wide latitude concerning the most appropriate age for Confirmation, since this sacrament is typically celebrated apart from Baptism. This has led to various and conflicting views of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

As ministers and leaders in the Catholic Church, we should address misleading ideas that circulate about Confirmation among our youth and their parents. It is our role to understand the Sacrament of Confirmation within the proper context of the Church and share it with those with whom we work. In the following sections, we will explore a few misperceptions.

Issue #1: Confirmation as a claim of adulthood in the Church

As Baptism and Confirmation grew further apart chronologically, a separate understanding of Confirmation developed to explain the shift. At times, this led to a misunderstanding of Confirmation as the sacrament of Christian maturity:

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.[1]

Increasingly, and in many areas, Confirmation became a kind of graduation sacrament something like a rite of passage in the Church for adolescents. Confirmation was seen as the moment when a young person made a definitive commitment to the faith that his or her parents had made at Baptism.

While the renewal of baptismal promises forms part of the Rite of Confirmation,[2] and while Confirmation does strengthen the grace of Baptism,[3] baptismal grace does not require any kind of affirmation in order to bear fruit.[4]

Since Confirmation may be conferred as early as age seven or, in the case of emergency, even in infancy it is inaccurate to suggest that the reception of the sacrament constitutes adulthood in the Church. Rather, as we have seen, Confirmation forms part of Christian initiation, binding a person more closely to the Church so that he or she can participate fully in the Church’s mission to the world. Furthermore, Confirmation does not provide the singular affirmation of ones Catholic identity; rather, it is one moment of affirmation among many others in the journey of faith, such as attending Mass and participating in the charitable work of the Church.

Since Confirmation has been misunderstood as the rite whereby a teenager would take ownership of his or her faith, many unnecessary expectations shaped the process of preparation. Numerous, even onerous, requirements were seen as measuring the level of the candidates commitment to the Church, especially to his or her own parish. While these goals were well intended, they tended to obscure the true meaning of the sacrament namely, that it is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that empowers a young person to share in the Church’s mission.

Issue #2: Confirmation as the Culmination of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation

Although Confirmation is normally the last Sacrament of Christian Initiation to be received in the United States, it nevertheless points to the Eucharist as the goal of the process. Participation in the Mass and the reception of Holy Communion complete Christian initiation and nourish us throughout our lives.[5]

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it.[6]

Thus, Confirmation is not the culmination of Christian Initiation. Instead, it, like all the other sacraments, points toward the Eucharist.

Issue #3: Confirmation as the only parish youth ministry program

For many parishes, Confirmation preparation became the only form of youth ministry for high school students. For those who were confirmed at a younger age, there was no alternative for religious education or youth ministry. While catechetical leaders and youth ministers often witnessed great fruit from the experiences of young people who participated in Confirmation preparation, the retention rate after receiving Confirmation was quite low.

Nevertheless, preparation for Confirmation apart from religious education raises the concern that teenagers will no longer attend religious education. The problem with this view is that it treats Confirmation as a carrot with which to lure teenagers into religious education, rather than as a free, unmerited gift of God to be received in faith.[7] A bedrock principle of the Church is this: sacramentum propter homines (the sacraments are for the people). Indeed, the Christian faithful have the right to receive the sacraments if they are properly prepared and disposed.[8]

The main problem with this view was that Confirmation seemed to exist not so much for the sake of the Church’s mission to the world, but rather for the sake of religious education and parish commitment. While all of this is understandable, the results were mixed.

To be sure, instruction in the Catholic faith (catechesis or religious education) and sacramental preparation are complimentary processes. Indeed, the Church requires that a candidate be adequately catechized in order to receive Confirmation and the other sacraments.[9] This is because the sacraments presume faith and also serve to strengthen faith.[10]

But while catechesis is a lifelong endeavor it should lead to a coherent, overall view of the Catholic faith sacramental preparation ought to focus on what is most pertinent to the sacrament being received.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1308.

[2] Rite of Confirmation, no. 23; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1298.

[3] Rite of Confirmation, no. 1; cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1285.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1308.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 1322.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 1324.

[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1301.

[8] Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 213.

[9] Code of Canon Law, canon843 § 2.

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1123.