Three men, an Evangelical pastor, a Lutheran minister, and a Catholic priest were conversing about various problems they had. The Evangelical pastor announced, "We're having a terrible time with bats in the church attic. I've prayed to the Lord to make them leave, and some men of the congregation put traps in the attic, but no luck."
"I have the same problem!" exclaimed the Lutheran minister. "I hired an exterminator, at great expense, but we still have bats. How about you?" he added, turning to the Catholic priest.
"Oh, we got rid of our bats," the priest replied.
"How did you do it?" the others asked eagerly.
"Simple," said the Catholic priest. "I had the bishop come out to the parish and administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to all the bats. We haven't seen them since."
For Catholics, this joke's "wince factor" comes from the unpleasant truth of it. So many young people seem to stop coming to Mass altogether once they've been Confirmed, as if they were only staying for that sacrament to please their parents. Thus far, many bishops seem to try to handle the problem by pushing the age of Confirmation back later and later--to eighth grade, ninth, tenth, or to the age of sixteen, and so on. In addition to that there are all sorts of strange "requirements" added to the pursuit of Confirmation, including "community service" projects of sometimes dubious value and mandatory overnight co-ed retreats, not exactly the sort of thing Catholic parents want their teens to be doing. But, after all, goes a common train of thought, if the Sacrament of Confirmation is all about one's child making his own choice to practice the faith, if it's about his maturity and commitment to the Church, then what's wrong with requiring these sorts of things?
The trouble is, the Sacrament of Confirmation isn't about any such things, as Msgr. Charles Pope so brilliantly writes here:
Some one once said that Confirmation is the Sacrament in search of a theology. While not true the statement does capture that there is a lot of incorrect and sometimes silly teaching about this sacrament to young people. It is the season for Confirmations and I want to explore the what the Catechism teaches about the sacrament but first exclude certain common but incorrect notions about Confirmation.
1. Confirmation is not a Sacrament of Maturity – Canon Law (891) states that Confirmation is generally to be administered at about the age of discretion, which age is understood to be seven (Canon 97.2). It may be administered earlier if there is “danger of death” or “grave cause,” The same Canon allows the conference of bishops to determine another age” for reception of the sacrament. While one may argue that a later date for the Sacrament is pastorally advisable, (e.g. to keep young people engaged in catechetical instruction) one simply cannot argue that it is a “Sacrament of maturity” when Church law generally presupposes its celebration at the age of seven. This is made clearer by the fact that most Eastern Churches, and the Orthodox confirm infants.
2. Confirmation is not “becoming an adult in the Church.” – This is just plain silly. I was taught this as a mere seventh grader and found it laughable even then. Seventh graders are not adults. They are children and remain so even after confirmation.
3. Confirmation is not a sacrament where one claims or affirms the faith for himself – Baptism confers faith. To claim that Confirmation “allows me to speak for myself” is to imply that this is how faith comes about. It is to imply that baptism somehow did not actually give real faith and now I am getting it by “speaking for myself.” Faith is a gift, it is not something I cause by speaking for myself, it is something I receive as unmerited and as free. I received faith at baptism. Confirmation strengthens faith that is already there but it does not cause it. Further it is a bit of a stretch to say that seventh or eighth graders really “speak for themselves.”
4. Confirmation does not “complete Christian initiation” and “make me a full Catholic.” – One of the problems with delaying confirmation is that the three sacraments of initiation are celebrated out of proper order. The proper order of celebration is: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion. Hence it is Holy Communion that completes initiation not confirmation. That we celebrate it out of order creates a lot of confusion and makes initiation a little murky. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults observes the proper order. Some diocese in this country have returned to this for children as well. In a couple of diocese of which I am aware the bishop comes to the parish and confirms the seven year old children and then, at the same Mass, gives them First Holy Communion.
Do read the whole post to see Msgr. Pope's equally brilliant explanation of what confirmation actually is.
The trouble with making confirmation a sort of (forgive me!) "Rite of Hanging On to Our Teenagers in Church As Long As We Possibly Can and Making Them Jump Through Dozens of Hoops in order to Receive Sacramental Grace They Could Have Used Starting About Ten Years Ago" is that the beautiful reality of what Confirmation is--or is not--is blurred, and the whole Sacrament of Confirmation starts to look more and more like a sort of Catholic Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, which, of course, it isn't.
Worse, the ancient order of the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, then Confirmation, then First Holy Communion, is completely disrupted. While this order is still in force in the case of converts received into the Church, as Msgr. Pope points out above, for cradle Catholics the "final" Sacrament of Initiation, First Holy Communion, can be and often is received nearly a whole decade before Confirmation!
The past two popes have spoken about restoring the order of the Sacraments of Initiation. Some Catholic bishops have started to move toward this restored order, and individual pastors have also done so. I think it would be wonderful if in the Roman Rite this order were formally required except in individual cases of pastoral necessity.
The idea that moving Confirmation to the "last place" position among the Sacraments of Initiation would somehow increase the maturity and responsibility of adult Catholics--even though that's not at all what the sacrament is about--can be shown to have been a bad idea without much effort at all. While catechesis is a life-long occupation of the serious Catholic, merely dangling Confirmation over the heads of young adults as some sort of "carrot" that will somehow lead them to follow the "stick" of Catholicism--at least until they are 16--is ultimately a notion that presupposes that Catholicism has nothing of value to offer to teens and young adults, who must be made to stay in the Church by external means.
But perhaps, if the strengthening of the faith which is one of the effects of Confirmation were to be received much earlier, we would not have to "trick" young adults into remaining active Catholics. It might be possible for them, without any dumbing-down or cheesy pandering at all, to appreciate, love, and treasure the gift of their Catholic faith--aided, of course, by the Holy Spirit Whom they have received, along with the outpourings of His generous gifts.