A question for those of you who might know more than I do about these things.
In a recent conversation with a Catholic academic, I questioned why his course on sacraments dealt with the seven mysteries in this order: baptism, penance, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing. Shouldn’t confirmation follow baptism and precede the Eucharist in the proper theological order? He responded that his ordering of the subjects was the practical pastoral order for reception of these sacraments in our schools and parishes and cited Thomas Aquinas in support of this order as “the proper theological order” as well.
A conversation ensued, which led to some enlightenment on my part. I took a close look at the Decree “Quam Singulari” issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments with the approval of (and presumably at the request of) Pope Pius X in 1910. This is the document usually cited as the basis of our current pastoral practice, by which first confession and first communion usually precede confirmation.
Surprisingly, I discovered that this document – replete with citations of the history of liturgical practice in the West and Thomas Aquinas – says absolutely nothing about Confirmation. It doesn’t even mention it in relation to the whole discussion. What it does focus on is the appropriate age for the reception of the sacraments of penance and communion. This is variously referred to as “the age of reason” or “the age of discretion”. Thus:
Therefore, the age of discretion for Confession is the time when one can distinguish between right and wrong, that is, when one arrives at a certain use of reason, and so similarly, for Holy Communion is required the age when one can distinguish between the Bread of the Holy Eucharist and ordinary bread-again the age at which a child attains the use of reason.
Nothing is said about the age for Confirmation in “Quam Singlulari”.
Further although the document refers to the historical practice in the West regarding the age of first communion, it does so without discussing the question of whether confirmation (or as the Eastern rites would call it “chrismation” – we will get to the Eastern practice in a minute) was administered beforehand. Thus:
The Catholic Church, bearing this in mind, took care even from the beginning to bring the little ones to Christ through Eucharistic Communion, which was administered even to nursing infants. This, as was prescribed in almost all ancient Ritual books, was done at Baptism until the thirteenth century, and this custom prevailed in some places even later. It is still found in the Greek and Oriental Churches. But to remove the danger that infants might eject the Consecrated Host, the custom obtained from the beginning of administering the Eucharist to them under the species of wine only.
Infants, however, not only at the time of Baptism, but also frequently thereafter were admitted to the sacred repast. In some churches it was the custom to give the Eucharist to the children immediately after the clergy; in others, the small fragments which remained after the Communion of the adults were given to the children.
This practice later died out in the Latin Church, and children were not permitted to approach the Holy Table until they had come to the use of reason and had some knowledge of this august Sacrament.
How are we to interpret this? We know that in the West priests did not administer confirmation, but only bishops. But do the “ancient Ritual books” to which “Quam Singulari” refers envision baptism by a bishop, who then chrismated the child, and then gave first communion? OR did these ancient rituals envisage baptism and first communion by a priest and only later confirmation by a bishop? The lack of discussion of Confirmation in this regard is not really helpful.
Two major considerations here:
First the Eastern Churches, both our own Eastern Catholic rites and the Orthodox Churches, are quite critical of what they call an abandonment of the ancient order whereby baptism must be completed by chrismation/confirmation before communion.
Secondly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church seems quite certain that we are to regard Confirmation as the completion of baptism, and as the second of the three stages of Christian initiation, the conclusion of which is reception of first communion. It also gives “the age of discretion” as the age for confirmation (1307) and says that “although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth” (1308).
So now we come back to the question: What is the “age of discretion”. My academic interlocutor claims that in “English law” the “age of discretion” is 14 years, and that this is how the Australian bishops understand it. Does anyone have any references for this interpretation? Some years ago, Fr Flader had an article in the Catholic Weekly in which he wrote:
At the same time the Code of Canon Law establishes that Episcopal Conferences can decide on a different age than the age of discretion. (cf Can. 891) The age of discretion is the age at which a person acquires the use of reason, and this is presumed in the Code of Canon Law at the age of seven. (Can. 97 §2)
This is the same age at which children can also make their First Reconciliation and First Communion.
In recent years some dioceses have adopted the practice of children receiving the sacrament of Confirmation before they make their First Communion. The reason for this is that the children then receive the three Sacraments of Christian Initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist – in the proper order. This is a perfectly acceptable practice.
It is incorrect to say that children of this age cannot understand the full meaning of Confirmation.
And then we have the rather enigmatic comment of our own Holy Father in Sacramentum Caritatis:
17. If the Eucharist is truly the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, it follows that the process of Christian initiation must constantly be directed to the reception of this sacrament. As the Synod Fathers said, we need to ask ourselves whether in our Christian communities the close link between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is sufficiently recognized. (46) It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. Accordingly, our pastoral practice should reflect a more unitary understanding of the process of Christian initiation. …
18. In this regard, attention needs to be paid to the order of the sacraments of initiation. Different traditions exist within the Church. There is a clear variation between, on the one hand, the ecclesial customs of the East (50) and the practice of the West regarding the initiation of adults, (51) and, on the other hand, the procedure adopted for children. (52) Yet these variations are not properly of the dogmatic order, but are pastoral in character. Concretely, it needs to be seen which practice better enables the faithful to put the sacrament of the Eucharist at the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation. In close collaboration with the competent offices of the Roman Curia, Bishops’ Conferences should examine the effectiveness of current approaches to Christian initiation, so that the faithful can be helped both to mature through the formation received in our communities and to give their lives an authentically eucharistic direction, so that they can offer a reason for the hope within them in a way suited to our times (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).
All of which adds up to…what?
I must make it clear that I am not rebelling against local policy. I can understand (as Fr Flader points out in his article) the argument for the “more traditional age for Confirmation of around 12” on the basis of the fact that “children…benefit greatly from the grace of the sacrament in the years of adolescence.”
But my original question to my academic friend is whether there is “a proper theological order for teaching about the sacraments”, and is that order not “baptism, confirmation, Eucharist” rather than “baptism, Eucharist, confirmation”? Do arguments about “the age of discretion” enter into this discussion or not? What IS “the age of discretion”? Does it differ from “the age of reason”? And is this a pastoral or theological issue? (After all, the Church has no argument with the Eastern Rites’ practice of chrismating infants). And is confirmation or reception of the Eucharist the completion of Christian initiation?
Any help you can give me in this discussion would be most appreciated. (nb. I have in the past found Fr Paul Turner’s writings on this subject useful, but his website -www.paulturner.org – seems to be down at the moment).