Through the years I’ve encountered many opinions from Catholic leaders and religious educators regarding the appropriate age for Confirmation. While we can agree to disagree as to what would be the best approach in a given pastoral setting, it’s important that we know and understand the parameters that the Church has provided us on this topic.
We begin by examining the Church’s guidelines regarding those to be confirmed (in the Latin Rite), taken from the Code of Canon Law, canons 889-91:
Can. 889 §1. Every baptized person not yet confirmed and only such a person is capable of receiving confirmation.
§2. To receive confirmation licitly outside the danger of death requires that a person who has the use of reason be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises.
Can. 890 The faithful are obliged to receive this sacrament at the proper time. Parents and pastors of souls, especially pastors of parishes, are to take care that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the appropriate time.
Can. 891 The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion unless the conference of bishops has determined another age, or there is danger of death, or in the judgment of the minister a grave cause suggests otherwise.
As one can readily see, the requirements are vague and not particularly onerous. In order to receive Confirmation, one needs to be baptized, obviously, and also “suitably instructed,” “properly disposed,” and “able to renew the baptismal promises.” These requirements are meant to be read in the context of canon 891, which foresees the “age of discretion” (about seven years of age) as a normative, “appropriate” age. So, the sacrament does not require a fully “mature” faith, but rather the faith of a “suitably instructed” seven-year-old.
Further, Confirmation is the second of the three sacraments of initiation, with the Eucharist being the third sacrament of initiation. Now that the age for First Communion has been moved up to the age of discretion (typically second grade), a compelling argument may be made that if the child is “properly disposed” to receive Holy Communion, then he or she is also properly disposed to receive Confirmation, which in some sense is subordinate to the Eucharist.
However, as canon 891 suggests, the conference of bishops may determine “another age” for Confirmation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (“USCCB”), with Vatican approval, approved this interpretation of canon 891 for dioceses in the United States:
“The National Conference of Catholic Bishops [now the USCCB], in accord with the prescriptions of canon 891, hereby decrees that the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Latin Rite 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.”
So, the diocesan bishop has the discretion to confer Confirmation anytime from the age of discretion (second grade) to the age of sixteen (high school), which explains the diverse practices nationwide. Here in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, for example, the typical age for Confirmation is 8th grade.
A later age does allow for further formation and deeper personal commitment prior to receiving the sacrament, which still must be balanced by the youth’s need for the grace of the sacrament.
The danger of unduly deferring Confirmation is that it can be widely seen as a mere “carrot” to keep the youth going to CCD, or perhaps as a “prize” or “rite of passage.” Sacramental preparation should be ordered to ensuring readiness for the sacrament, and not to ensuring passage through bureaucratic hoops.
May the next generation of confirmed Catholics be bold witnesses to Christ, and never be ashamed of the Cross! (Catechism, no. 1303).