The problems with moving Confirmation to before first Communion

Photo credit: Latin Mass Society

Every now and again, a Bishop who is concerned for his flock decides to put in place a new policy whereby the sacrament of Confirmation is administered before the reception of first Holy Communion.

Usually, the primary justification for this change is that the sacraments are restored to their proper order - everybody knows, don't they, that in the "early Church", Confirmation was received before the Holy Eucharist. The villain of the story is St Pius X who, though a great chap in other ways, messed the sacraments up by radically lowering the age for Holy Communion.

You may have suspected by now that I don't buy any of these arguments. I don't, and furthermore, I think that the practice of putting Confirmation before first Communion in the context of the present practice of the western Church causes a break with both Eastern and Western tradition without offering any worthwhile advantage.

Tertullian is our earliest witness for the rite of Baptism. As the patrologist Quasten points out, his work De Baptismo is only Ante-Nicene treatise that we have on any of the sacraments. The work details how, immediately after Baptism, the person is anointed with chrism and then has the ceremony of laying-on of hands. (c.7-8) We can accept this as evidence for the sacrament of Confirmation (though, of course those who reject our sacramental theology will disagree.) It is generally reckoned that Tertullian wrote this work early in the third century, before he became a Montanist heretic. At this time, the full ceremonies of baptism would be conferred by the Bishop, but if there was persecution, illness or other grave cause, it was allowed that a priest, deacon or layman could baptise. (De Baptismo c.17)

This standard pattern whereby the full ceremonies, when carried out in peace, were conducted by the Bishop, remained the ideal, but there is plenty of evidence of other arrangements being made. For example, St Cyprian refers to the laying-on of hands by Peter and John by which the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the Samaritans (Acts 8:15) and says:
And this is also carried out now among us, that those who are baptised in the Church are offered to those who are in authority in the Church and through our prayer and the imposition of the hand, they receive the Holy Spirit and are perfected with the Lord’s seal. (Epistola Iubiano 73.9; PL 3.1115)
This shows us that in the first half of the third century, there could be one minister of Baptism and a different minister for the conferral of the Holy Spirit. Presumably these ministers were priest and Bishop.

In the early 4th century, the Council of Elvira laid down the following:
A faithful person, who has their own washing preserved intact, and who is not a bigamist, can, by necessity of illness, baptise a catechumen who is travelling around in a place or who does not have a Church nearby, provided that, if he survives, he takes him to the Bishop so that it can be completed by the laying-on of hands. (Canon 38. Denzinger-Schönmetzer (DS) 120)
We see in this text the hardening of a distinction between the minister of baptism, and the minister of Confirmation who must be a Bishop. This is endorsed by Pope Innocent I (pope from 401-417) in his letter to Decentius where he says that it is not lawful for anyone to sign infants [viz. with Chrism] except the Bishop, since priests do not have the highest power of the pontificate [apex pontificatus.] (DS 215) However, by the time of St Gregory the Great (pope from 590-604) writing to Januarius, it was necessary to allow for exceptions. He writes:
It has also reached us that some have been scandalised that we have prohibited presbyters from touching with chrism those who have been baptised. And indeed we have done this according to the ancient use of the Church; but if they are entirely saddened by this where bishops are lacking, we concede that presbyters should touch on the forehead with chrism those who have been baptised. (Epistola Ianuario episcopo (4) 26; PL 77.696)
What was then a more "modern" custom, that of having priests confirm, is preserved in the Eastern Churches, both those in union with the Holy See and those in schism. In the Western Church, the more ancient use is preserved, that of having the Bishop confirm. However, the Eastern Churches preserved the link between the Baptism and the Chrismation which continue to be part of the same ceremony. (The Baptised, including infants, then also receive Holy Communion.)

As the Church in the West grew, thanks to the missionary work of the Celtic monks and others, the pattern of ecclesiastical organisation adapted. Rather than being tied to large cities which had a cathedral and a Bishop, there were smaller settlements with either a monastery or the beginnings of what we now know as the parish. So the Bishop would travel round to administer the sacrament of Confirmation. As time went on, the sacrament of Confirmation was more definitively separated from Baptism and given when a child reached catechetical age; but the link with the Bishop was retained.

When, in the Western Church, a Bishop determines that the order of the sacraments of initiation should be "restored" and mandates that the sacrament of Confirmation be given before Holy Communion, the arrangement is that parish priests throughout the diocese are given permission to confirm. After all, it would scarcely be possible for the Bishop to go to all the parishes within a few weeks to minister Confirmation before first Communion.

So there are two important consequences:
  • The link between Confirmation and the Bishop, as preserved in the West, has been lost
  • The link between Baptism and Confirmation, as preserved in the East, has been lost. 
I do not think that the gain of having a correct numerical order is worth the cost.

Oh, and by the way, it is an injustice to characterise the reform of St Pius X as "lowering" the age for Holy Communion. Were he alive today, he would surely thump the table and insist that anyone who put it that way had missed the whole point. In his excellent Quam Singulari, the saintly Pope insisted that he was simply reinstating the discipline of Lateran IV and the Council of Trent, restoring the age for first Holy Communion to the age of reason, and abolishing the Jansenist abuse of delaying first Holy Communion in order to impose lengthy, extraordinary, and burdensome preparations for the sacrament.

Don't take my word for it; you can read Quam Singulari for yourself.

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