Earlier the Rad Trad posted a quick reflection on the meaning of the Sacrament of Confirmation (or Chrismation in some rites). Beyond the meaning there is also a practical aspect of Confirmation to be considered, a very nugatory consideration at that.
Pius X, a canonized saint yet not wise in all his dealings, altered the age at which Roman Catholics may begin to receive Holy Communion from the time of Confirmation to age six or seven. In previous times one could only communicate from the time of Confirmation onward because Confirmation completes what Baptism begins: one is baptized into the new creation and anointed into the new priestly people at Confirmation. The two were once done together. In Apostolic times most people being received into the Church were adults, with infant Baptism usually only coming with an entire family's conversion. As Baptism became more regularly an infant's affair the Roman Church reserved Confirmation for the age of reason (usually the early teenage years) and the Eastern rite Churches kept the two together, even in the cases on infants. There is some wisdom to the Roman practice, as it ensures that every cradle Roman Catholic will receive a Sacrament from his bishop at some point in life. Despite the interim of several years without Confirmation, the order or the Sacraments was preserved. Enter Papa Sarto.
Papa Sarto had a strong devotion to the frequent reception of Communion and desired that even the youngest be able to participate in this practice. In the United States—I cannot speak for Europe and the other continents—this had no resonance in practice of the faith among Catholics. When the Catholic culture of the United States went into decline in the 1960s baptized Catholics, who had been receiving Communion for years, began to see Confirmation—given during the hormonal period when one begins high school—as the exit from the childish years of youth and an entrance into the world of drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. In all seriousness Confirmation has become a sort of "Congratulations, your childhood is over!" and that childhood includes religion. Another problem, aside from the social context, that engenders this lapsing after Confirmation is that Confirmation began one's reception of Communion, investing the Confirmed's future in the Church. The later date of Confirmation does the exact opposite. So what can be done about this?
I can see three potential solutions:
- Least likely: restore the pre-Pian practice and merge first Communion and Confirmation again. This would probably be very unpopular at the parish level, as a great multitude of people would go absolute bonkers at the thought of one less family party and gift giving opportunity.
- More likely, but improbable: make Confirmation part of the Baptismal rite again. This would be a restoration of the most ancient of practices, but it still unlikely given that most so many theologians equate Confirmation with the "age of reason."
- Most doable and socially acceptable: restore the old order of Baptism-Confirmation-Holy Communion, but leave the time of administration at the discretion of the pastor. I heard of one pastor so tired of the poor state of religious education he instituted a parish policy that "If you want a Sacrament, you need to meet with me and be able to explain to me what it is." Aside from keeping the order of the Sacraments proper, it would not upset families (even though their disturbance would be for material purposes) as much as the other two options and gives pastors some influence in investing their faithful in a personal knowledge of the Sacraments.
Do I expect Pope Francis to call me for a full paper on the matter? No, but I do think this is an important issue for the future of the Catholic Church in the Western world.