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During this season of Easter, many children will complete their initiation into the Church through the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.
Celebrating confirmation together with, or just prior to, first communion has been the practice in the Brisbane Archdiocese for nearly 10 years now and is the pattern in most parts of Australia and in many places around the world. Despite this, some people still do not understand why the baptism-first communion-confirmation pattern of their own childhood has changed.
In the early Church, initiation was one continuous rite consisting of immersion in water, laying on of hands and anointing with chrism by the bishop, and finally joining the community for the first time at the Lord’s table.
When large numbers of people wanted to become Christians after the Peace of Constantine in 313, there simply weren’t enough bishops to be present at all initiation ceremonies. In the western Church, presbyters (priests) were given permission to baptise, but the laying on of hands and final anointing with chrism – later known as confirmation – were reserved for the bishop.
So it became usual for baptism and confirmation to be separated, especially when infant baptism became the norm. Over the centuries this ‘gap’ became longer, but the order of the sacrament of initiation remained the same – baptism, confirmation, Eucharist. Confirmation was the renewal of one’s baptismal promises before admission to the eucharistic table.
It was only in the first part of the 20th century that this pattern of initiation altered in the Catholic Church. Pope Pius X’s efforts to encourage more frequent reception of communion included lowering the age for first communion. However confirmation got left where it was and the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation was disrupted. The baptism - first communion – confirmation pattern, so familiar to many, was actually an accident of history!
Confirmation had now lost its purpose as the sacrament linking baptism and Eucharist, so new meanings were assigned to it, such as becoming a soldier of Christ and even signing the pledge.
The Second Vatican Council called for the sacrament of confirmation to be revised so that its connection with the whole of the Christian initiation would be stronger. In the new Rite of Confirmation issued in 1971, confirmation is clearly seen as an integral part of initiation which ‘reaches its culmination in the communion of the body and blood of Christ’ (RC13). The rite says that confirmation is ‘generally postponed until about the seventh year’ (RC11). The belief that confirmation is connected with age or maturity is not supported by history, or by canon law.
In recent years many diocese in Australia and other parts of the world have responded to the Church’s call to restore confirmation to its proper place. Confirmation and first communion are usually celebrated together.
Some liturgy planners have wondered how the big occasions of confirmation and first communion Masses can possibly be combined into one celebration without overloading the liturgy. The solution is to focus on the key elements of each of the rites and not to add unnecessary ‘extras’. For confirmation the key elements are the renewal of baptismal promises, laying on of hands and anointing with chrism; for Eucharist, eating the consecrated bread and drinking the consecrated wine.