Tuesday, 17 August 2010


An informal suggestion has been made, on the grounds I think that children are gaining intellectual maturity at a younger age than in the past, that they should be able to receive Holy Communion for the first time before the currently typical age of seven years.

My own diocese has a "new policy" with regard to the Sacrament of Confirmation. I haven't been able to check this on the diocesan website, and nothing seems to have been done to communicate it to the ordinary faithful. The recent change of practice in two nearby parishes has been to move the age at which the Sacrament is conferred from 14+ to 16+ (ie second year in the 6th Form). I assume therefore that the new policy involves raising the age of Confirmation in this way. There is also a greater emphasis on the young people who wish to be confirmed expressing their own interest in receiving the Sacrament, rather than being encouraged to receive it by parents or receiving it just as a matter of course.

Is it in accordance with the nature of the Sacrament to lower the usual age for receiving Holy Communion for the first time?  The expected conditions are that the person receiving the Sacrament has reached the "age of reason" (ie that they are able to understand Who it is they receive in Holy Communion), that they have been suitably prepared and that they are not impeded from receiving the Sacrament due to grave sin (first reception of the Sacrament of Penance before first Holy Communion contributes to this last). As a Sacrament of Initiation, anyone who is suitably disposed (ie who shows a basic level of good will and understanding) should be able to receive the Sacrament; a sense of life commitment, though hoped for, is not a necessary condition for the Sacrament. It might well be the case that a lower age meets these conditions.

But would it make sense to raise the age of Confirmation at the same time? Again, as a Sacrament of Initiation, Confirmation should not have a sense of life commitment set as a condition for conferring the Sacrament. It might be hoped for, but should not be defined as a necessity; a basic level of good will and understanding should, in my view, suffice. Much of the justification of a raised age for the Sacrament of Confirmation is that young people often lapse after receiving the Sacrament, that asking of them a greater commitment and offering the Sacrament at a later time, will mean that those receiving the Sacrament are less likely to lapse since they will have a greater commitment to what they are doing.

I have three comments on this idea of raising the age of Confirmation. The first is that, to be consistent, the same logic could apply to first reception of Holy Communion, and perhaps should do so with a much greater seriousness given the nature of the Sacrament as the Body and Blood of the Lord. The second comment is that, in the theological understanding of the order of the Sacraments of Initiation, the reception of Holy Communion is the completion of the three Sacraments; and so Confirmation should come before first Holy Communion (cf the practice of Salford Diocese, introduced a good number of years ago now). Thirdly, the range of vocational commitments in the life of the Church (religious life, marriage, priesthood, consecrations and promises in lay movements) are all presented as the living out in a particular way of the consecration received in Baptism and Confirmation. In other words, while some seriousness in trying to live the Christian life may be appropriate as part of the goodwill towards the Sacrament, "commitment" per se is not an expectation ahead of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.

So, if the age for receiving first Holy Communion is going to be lowered, and one can see the case for that,  I would be in favour of lowering the age for Confirmation as well. The problem of young people leaving the practice of their faith is not one caused by the age of Confirmation; it is caused by weak catechesis and spiritual formation. If you want to keep young people practising, it is those weaknesses that need to be addressed. Tinkering with the age of Confirmation is not going to solve the problem of lapsation.


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Some of my children were prepared at 6 years old for First Holy Communion & all confirmed by age 11 I think that should remain..

Jack said...

You might find this link from the archdiocese of Liverpool of interest: Order of the Sacraments of Initiation

Joe said...


Thank you for the interesting, and informative, link. It is worth reading down the whole of the linked page to gain a full picture of the reasons being given for the changes in Liverpool Archdiocese.

I particularly liked the idea of Confirmation at Pentecost, followed by first Communion the immediately following celebration of Corpus Christi. The idea of giving greater emphasis to the Baptismal character of the celebration of Easter is also nice - but I wondered about the practicalities of having lots of Baptisms at the Easter Vigil/Easter Sunday.

I hope to look a bit more closely at the idea of "family catechesis" that is being suggested. In its October-December 2006 issue, The Sower magazine carried a series of articles discussing the "Whole Community Catechesis" that I think may be being referred to here. Some care might need to be taken in the catechetical approach being adopted.