There has been some discussion recently on the question of Confirmation, first Holy Communion, and the recently announced decision by the Archbishop of Liverpool to have all he children of the Archdiocese confirmed by the parish priest before their first Holy Communion. Fr Hunwicke's Liturgical Notes, raised the question and has been followed up by Valle Adurni, and Fr Ray Blake's Blog.
Something of a consensus has been forged on some of the main points under discussion so let me try to summarise.
- The original order of the sacraments of initiation was Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, the Chrismation being carried out by the Bishop.
- In the East, the link between Baptism and Confirmation has been retained, both being administered at the same time by the priest (unless there is a Bishop at hand.)
- In the West, with the development of the vast agrarian areas of Christendom, the link with the Bishop was retained and people brought children to him to be anointed whenever he happened to be near their locality.
The main problem in my view with the experiment of having priests confirm just before Holy Communion is that both the link with Baptism and the link with the Bishop are lost. Better, surely, to have the priest do the Confirmations at the time of the Baptism in line with the Eastern custom?
What I would like to throw into the pot is the question of Quam Singulari. This is often presented as though Pope St Pius X made an innovation by reducing the age of first Holy Communion, thus disrupting the order of the sacraments of initiation. That certainly is not what he thought he was doing.
In fact, Quam Singulari was a Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments on First Communion but I think we can be justified in assuming that it was very much part of the pastoral intention of the saintly Pope himself. He refers to the ancient custom, still prevailing in the Eastern Churches, of giving Holy Communion to babies and young children but notes that this practice died out in the West and the Fathers of Lateran IV felt it necessary to stipulate that Confession and Holy Communion were obligatory for those who had reached the age of reason. Quam Singulari notes that the Council of Trent confirmed this obligation but in no way condemned "the ancient practice of administering the Eucharist to children before they had attained the use of reason."
Quam Singulari reprehends the custom of delaying first Communion to a later age, and particularly condemns the error of saying that there is one "age of discretion" for Confession and another for Holy Communion. Authorities cited in favour of giving Holy Communion to children who have reached the age of reason include St Thomas Aquinas, St Antoninus, Vasquez, Benedict XIII, the Roman Catechism, and Blessed Pope Pius IX.
Rightly, Quam Singulari blames the creeping delay in giving first Holy Communion on Jansenism which both saw Holy Communion as a reward rather than as a remedy for sin, and imposed lengthy and sophisticated catechesis as a preparation for the sacraments.
So Pope St Pius X was not introducing an innovation but restoring a discipline with a pedigree of 700 years, leaving open the question of whether Holy Communion might even be given at a younger age.
For our present practice, I think that there are two lessons we could take. First that there is a creeping Jansenism in operation again, requiring lengthy and burdensome catechesis for the sacraments and denying them to those who are unable to meet the requirements laid down locally. Secondly, that the "rupture" in the order of the sacraments dates back a long way before 1910.
The current practice of delaying Confirmation to adolescence has no theological justification: it is a practical measure in order to emphasise conscious commitment or "spiritual adulthood", neither of which have any support in the practice of the Church of the Fathers and both of which could also be seen as a kind of unconscious Jansenism. St Therese found it difficult to get permission to enter the convent at 15. Nowadays in some places she would find it difficult to get confirmed.
The link with the Bishop, which is our Western tradition, should, in my view, be retained. Rather than have a set "age for Confirmation", it would make more sense for the Bishop, on his visitation of a parish, to confirm all those children who have been baptised and not yet confirmed.