Understanding the Sacrament of Confirmation

Confirmation: The Sacrament of the Church’s Mission

“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” (John 20:21). This is the scene of Pentecost in the Gospel of John. (The more familiar account of Pentecost is found in the Acts of the Apostles [cf. 2:1-13].) The same encounter with the Lord, and the same gift of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of Christian witness, takes place in the Rite of Confirmation: N., be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you. [1] Confirmation is the sacrament of the Church’s mission, which brings the saving presence of Jesus Christ to the world.

Thus, the Sacrament of Confirmation is a moment of initiation into the Church, for the purpose of the Church’s mission to the world.

By the Sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.[2]

Confirmation perfects Baptismal grace; it is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the divine filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds.[3]

History of the Sacrament of Confirmation

The Church’s understanding of Confirmation has been shaped by the history of how the sacrament was celebrated. Here, the driving force was the chronological separation of Confirmation from Baptism in the Latin or Western Church, and, consequently, the varying ages at which Confirmation was received.

This evolving practice engendered different views about the nature and purpose of the sacrament. The later Confirmation was received after Baptism, the greater the tendency to explain the sacrament outside of its original baptismal context. As a result, the initiatory aspect of Confirmation was understood more in terms of human maturity coming of age rather than the Church’s mission.[4]

Originally, a person received all three Sacraments of Christian Initiation Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist in a single rite, with a bishop as the celebrant. This was the practice in the Latin Church up until the fifth or sixth century. However, when the bishop could no longer be present for all baptismal celebrations, he administered Confirmation separately, at a later time. (The Latin Church has retained the original practice of receiving the Sacraments of Christian Initiation together in the case of unbaptized adults who enter the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults [RCIA].)

Through the centuries, the period of separation between Baptism and Confirmation grew longer. Still, the Church celebrated the Sacraments of Christian Initiation in the original order: Baptism in infancy, Confirmation at the age of discretion (seven), and First Holy Communion between the ages of 10 and 14.

The twentieth century brought about a change in the order of Christian initiation. Convinced that children could greatly benefit from receiving the Eucharist, Pope Saint Pius X lowered the age of First Holy Communion to seven.[5] Thus, after 1910, Confirmation came to be received after the Eucharist in many places.

Currently, both the Rite of Confirmation[6] and the Code of Canon Law[7] set the age of reason (seven) as the normal age for Confirmation. Significantly, the Church understands Confirmation to be delayed until this age (owing to the historical developments noted above). It is not that the age of reason is absolutely necessary for the reception of the sacrament.[8] Indeed, in the case of emergency, even an infant should be confirmed.[9]

Effective July 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decreed the age for Confirmation to be between 7 and 16. Within that range, each bishop may determine the age in his own diocese.[10]

Previously in the Diocese of Richmond, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan set the normative age for Confirmation at 16 years and eleventh grade. Effective July 2, 2012, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo set the appropriate age for preparation and reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation to be when an individual is both at least 15 years of age and enrolled in at least the tenth grade. As the ordinary minister of the sacrament, the bishop will continue to review the appropriate age for Confirmation. Refer to the Diocesan Guidelines for Preparation & Reception page for more information.

  1. Rite of Confirmationin The Rites, vol. 1 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990), no. 44.
  2. Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, no. 11, cited in Catechism, no. 1285.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1316.
  4. Cf. Catechism of the Church, no. 1308.
  5. Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments, Decree on First Communion, Quam Singulari(1910) available at the Papal Encyclicals website (http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10quam.htm).
  6. Cf. Rite of Confirmation, no. 11.
  7. Cf. Code of Canon Law,canon 891.
  8. With regard to children, in the Latin Church the administration of confirmation is delayeduntil about the seventh year (Rite of Confirmation, no. 11; emphasis added).
  9. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1314; Code of Canon Law, canon 891.
  10. Complementary Norm for the Bishops of the United States to Canon 891,(available at United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.