Catechesis for the Confirmation of Adolescents
Some Theological and Pastoral Considerations
By John Rapisarda
On May 9, 2001, the Congregation for Bishops granted recognitio to the action of the United States bishops regarding the Sacrament of Confirmation. This action was that the sacrament ‘shall be conferred between the age of discretion and about sixteen years of age, within the limits determined by the diocesan bishop and with regard for the legitimate exceptions given in canon 891.’1 As a result, there is a diverse practice for the Sacrament of Confirmation in the United States, differing from diocese to diocese and, in some cases, parish to parish.2 Because of this diversity, the guidelines for catechesis for confirmation in the National Directory for Catechesis are not as thorough as that for the other sacraments. Many dioceses confer Confirmation during middle school, some have mandated Confirmation at the age of discretion for the whole diocese, and many leave the decision up to the pastor of the specific parish.3
In this article, I would like to address sacramental preparation/catechesis for Confirmation when conferred on adolescents. I will first look at the basic relevant Scriptural and theological principles of Confirmation. Then I would like to discuss some catechetical difficulties and abuses that are present in contemporary Confirmation preparation/catechesis and offer some possible solutions. Finally, I will offer several pastoral considerations in preparing adolescents for Confirmation.
The Theology of Confirmation
The following is far from exhaustive. It does, however, include some key Scriptural passages and theological principles of the sacrament. First, there is both an intrinsic connection and a real distinction between the graces received at Baptism and Confirmation. While the Sacrament of Confirmation completes the grace of baptism4, it also confers the Holy Spirit in a unique way.5
Second, Confirmation is a necessary part of Christian Initiation, thus the initiation of a non-confirmed Christian is incomplete.6 Third, when a Christian is confirmed, the action of the Holy Spirit is primary. As at the other six sacraments, God acts through the minister to confer a grace on the person. The effect of Confirmation is the ‘special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.’7
Fourth, the Sacrament of Confirmation imprints an indelible mark on the soul of the Christian, a new character that previously was not there. The Christian is sealed with the Holy Spirit. God perfects the mark of the common priesthood given in Baptism, ‘re-presenting’ Pentecost and empowering the Christian to give witness to the Gospel.8 Coming from this, Confirmation ‘renders our bond with the Church more perfect’.9 Fifth, there are additional graces given to the confirmed Christian. Among these are a more firm union with Christ, an increase of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and a more perfect bond with the Church. The Confirmed is also ‘[rooted] more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, ‘Abba! Father!’10 Because of the new character given to the Christian, and because of the ‘increase and deepening of baptismal grace’11 as shown in the above-named effects, Confirmation is called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity’.12 That is, the grace needed to be a disciple of Christ is now more fully given.
Catechetical Difficulties, Possible Solutions
There is a great richness to the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of Confirmation, the effect of the sacrament on the Christian and the gift it is to the Church. This understanding has its roots in Scripture and Tradition, the liturgy throughout the ages and the writings of the great saints and doctors of the Church. All this is articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, there are still difficulties in preparing Christians for Confirmation. There have also crept into confirmation catechesis certain abuses that undermine the Church’s understanding of the sacrament and confuse those receiving it.
Relationship to other sacraments
A major difficulty found in preparing teenagers for Confirmation is its presentation as a sacrament of initiation. The order of initiation found in the Catechism is Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist13, and the Second Vatican Council declares the Eucharistic sacrifice to be the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’.14 To offer Confirmation after a Christian has been receiving the Eucharist for many years has the potential to confuse or obscure the place of honor held by the Eucharist.
A possible solution to this could be in the catechesis in the Confirmation preparation. One might dedicate a special section of Confirmation preparation specifically on the theology and effects of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Here the candidates for Confirmation would enter into a deeper understanding of the Mass: the sacrificial nature,15 the heavenly reality present at Mass,16 the Eucharist as the source of Christian unity,17 the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as distinct from the other ways He is present,18 and so on.19 The candidates would also learn the myriad of effects that the Eucharist has in the Christian’s life: expanding our union with Christ (i.e. greater love of God and neighbor), nourishing the Christian life, separating us from sin, making the Church, and committing us more deeply to the poor.20 In giving this deeper understanding of the Eucharist, it can be stressed that Confirmation deepens our faith and ability to receive its great effects.
Along these same lines, there is in Confirmation preparation an opportunity to proclaim the joy of the Christian life and the peace that comes with a clear conscience. Confirmation preparation is, then, an excellent time to catechize on and offer opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With more substantial catechesis and practice of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, Confirmation can then be presented as necessary to fully understand and live the Christian life.
Understanding of Maturity and Grace
Another difficulty here is the candidates’ temptation to view Confirmation as a sort of ‘graduation’ from religious education or, even worse, a graduation from going to Mass and living the Catholic faith. One possible solution here is to again, emphasize the nature of Confirmation, that there is a new grace being given, and that the Christian is entering into the fullness of the Christian life. This is connected with the following examination of the phrase, ‘Christian maturity.’
Along with the difficulties that come with preparing teenagers for Confirmation, there exist some abuses that undermine the Church’s teaching on the sacrament. Chief among these abuses is a misunderstanding of the phrase, ‘the sacrament of Christian maturity’ and the idea of the confirmed being an ‘adult in the Church’. It is useful here to quote the entire passage from the Catechism:
‘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. St. Thomas reminds of us this:
‘ “Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: ‘For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.’ Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.” ’ 21
The notion of Christian maturity has been misinterpreted as follows: now the adolescent ‘confirms’ or ‘ratifies’ what his or her parents did at Baptism. This erroneous notion goes against several of the principles found in the Catechism as stated above. The distinct nature of Confirmation is either downplayed or denied: if Confirmation is a mere ratification of Baptism, it seems that there is no substantial difference in the sacraments themselves. The primacy of the action of the Holy Spirit is either downplayed or denied: Confirmation becomes primarily an action of the candidate. The order/understanding of the sacraments of initiation is called into question: Confirmation is the real sacrament of initiation and the intrinsic effect of Baptism is implicitly questioned.
As noted above in several places, Christian maturity means that, in Confirmation, all the graces are given to fruitfully receive the Eucharist and to live a strong and vibrant Christian life. With Confirmation, the Christian receives graces that were previously unavailable. Just as Baptism brings a person into a new and previously absent relationship with the Trinity, Confirmation completes the grace of Baptism and brings a deeper relationship with the Trinity. It seems to me that clarity on this is necessary for a fruitful Confirmation program and in correcting the abuse. As stated above, this is linked with the above-mentioned difficulties/ proposed solutions of misunderstanding the sacraments of initiation and the idea of ‘graduation’ from Christian life.
In the following, I would like to offer several pastoral considerations of the Confirmation of adolescents. These are based on the National Directory for Catechesis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and several confirmation preparatory and retreat programs.
Motivation of Candidates
Anyone working with teenagers for Confirmation will often hear this or a similar statement: ‘I am only here because my parents want me to be here.’ Many times catechists, Confirmation program directors and retreat leaders will chastise young people for having this inadequate motivation. I suggest several reasons why this is poor pastoral practice (in no order of importance). First, if it is true that the only reason they are there is their parents, then it does not seem helpful to point out to them how inadequate this is. Second, even this motivation seems inadequate, it is not wrong in and of itself.22 Granted, there are motivations that seem more pure. However, motivations can be purified and even added to by better ones. Third, I suggest that the motivation to ‘because of my parents’ actually has merit that can be nurtured. Obedience is often scoffed at because it is claimed by some that it implies weakness, insincerity or naiveté. However, the Christian life is one of imitation of Christ, who was obedient to His parents23 and to His Heavenly Father.24 Indeed, Christ’s obedience is our salvation and the source of His glory.25 Jesus Himself recalled that the commandment to honor one’s parents is the first with a promise.26 Fourth, even though there is greater independence in the life of an adolescent than in that of pre-adolescent candidates, their holiness (and therefore, their true happiness) consists in part of obedience and respect to their parents.27 In this is another connection with the above-mentioned catechetical abuse of the notion of Confirmation as an ‘adult ratification’ of Baptism.
Bishop’s Role in Confirmation
The National Directory asks that it be taught that the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation. It seems that this teaching presents an excellent catechetical opportunity to connect church history (the historical line of the bishops to the Apostles), the liturgy (the successor to the Apostles will confirm them), the universal church (that they are not confirmed just as parishioners of St. James’ parish, but as members of the entire Body of Christ), the founding of the Church by Jesus, and the Church’s subsequent trustworthiness.
Catechesis Proper to the Age Group
Many adolescents are taking classes in mathematics, science, history, and so on, that provide excellent and difficult training. While college or graduate level theology may not be appropriate, it does seem that catechesis of adolescents, especially in preparation for Confirmation, should include the deeper reasons underlying the truths of the faith.28 The Church has a wealth of knowledge in the area of anthropology and morality that most adolescents could certainly grasp.
Catechesis in Sexuality
It is especially necessary that there be proper catechesis in the Christian understanding of sexuality. Far from being a list of ‘thou shalt nots’, Catholic sexual teaching offers a positive and dignifying view of sexuality that is radically different from secular culture. Adolescents can be taught the positive ideas behind the Church’s teaching on sex within marriage, natural family planning, abortion, and so on, and should be able to ask questions in an open atmosphere of learning.29 They have the right to be taught by those who will present the Church’s teaching in these matters as revealed by God,30 and by those who can articulate the teachings and competently answer questions.
Catechesis in Liturgy and Prayer
Just as adolescents can benefit from a substantial catechesis, they also have a capacity for deep spirituality.31 Confirmation preparation for adolescents is an excellent time for an invitation to a deeper experience of the liturgy and a development of the interior life through prayer. Lectio divina, in its private and communal forms, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, and so on, are certainly within the spiritual capacity of adolescents. A deeper spiritual life will also enable them to more deeply receive the effects of Confirmation at the time of its conferral.
Unfortunately, due to problematic idea of ‘graduating’ from Christian formation which we have discussed, the newly confirmed person is never really given adequate and deliberate training in living with the new character received. Mystagogy is especially important here, and is necessarily part of catechesis.32 To address this, some sort of mystagogy involving prayer and study might be made an integral part of the Confirmation program, so that mystagogy is presented to candidates as necessary when they sign up for the program. One can do this with the hope that at least some of the newly confirmed participate. With this, those recently confirmed can begin to see the great joy that comes from living a life fully initiated into Christ and His Church.
It has become custom in many places to have the candidates involved in some sort of service project as part of their preparation for Confirmation. One way that this is beneficial is that service for the sake of others opens our hearts to receive the grace God wishes to give us. More importantly, Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew that when we serve those in need we are, in truth, serving Him and that this service will bear on our eternal life.
While serving others is certainly helpful to the candidates in these and other ways, it can also become just another thing to do. We need to teach an explicitly Christian service explaining that the Christian encounters Christ in the Sacraments, in prayer and in the Scriptures, and is also called to recognize His face in those who are served. One way to more deeply illustrate this is a substantial introduction to the life and teaching of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Blessed Teresa’s selfless service to the poorest of the poor was explicitly the result of her encounter with Christ in prayer and the Sacraments. Learning more about her will enable adolescents to see the connection between prayer, the Sacraments, and service.
We have been given a great gift in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Jesus has called us the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16). It is through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is given in abundance at Confirmation, that to be what Jesus has called us to be. Through His Church, Jesus has given us the understanding of what is being offered in Confirmation. Because this is so great a Gift, it is necessary that we teach those preparing for the Sacrament what they are about to receive. Otherwise, this great gift given can go unnoticed, and the Confirmed will not know the joy of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
1. Fiorenza, Most Reverend Joseph A., Decree of August 21, 2001, Canon 891 – Age of Confirmation. ‘legitimate exceptions’ here are the danger of death or grave cause determined by the minister suggest otherwise.
2. National Directory for Catechesis (NDC), 122.
3. The Dioceses of Fargo, ND and Tyler, TX have diocesan policies to confirm at age 7 and many dioceses confirm between 7th and 9th grade. Others leave the age up to the discretion of the pastor of the parish.
4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1285, citing Paul VI, Divinae consortium naturae.
5. Cf. Acts 8:14-17: ‘…they had only been baptized…Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit’.
6. CCC 1306
7. CCC 1302
8. CCC 1304, 1305, cf. Council of Trent, DS 1609, Lk. 24:48-49. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 72, 5, ad 2. See also CCC 1302.
9. CCC 1303, cf. Lumen Gentium 11.
12. CCC 1308
13. CCC 1212
14. Lumen Gentium 11
15. CCC 1367
16. CCC 1370
17. CCC 1398
18. CCC 1373
19. CCC Part II, Section II, Article 3, ‘The Sacrament of the Eucharist’. For the citation
20. CCC 1391-1398, 1416. See also
21. CCC 1308, cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 72, ad 2; cf. Wisdom 4:8
22. An example of an intrinsically wrong motivation would be seeking to know others for sinful purposes such as drugs, and so on.
23. cf. Lk. 2:51
24. cf. Phil. 2:8
25. cf. Hebrews 10:1-10, Phil. 2:9
26. cf. Mk. 7:8-13
27. cf. CCC 2214-2220. Note especially no. 2217, which states that obedience is necessary ‘as long as a child lives at home with his parents’, and that respect for the parents’ wishes, advice and acceptance of just admonition should be continued throughout the person’s life.
28. NDC, 199-201
29. Cf. NDC, 177-178 on catechesis on the sixth and ninth commandment.
30. Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 213.
31. NDC, 201
32. NDC, 115-117
Rev John Rapisarda
Rev John Rapisarda is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.