Catholic Christians are sealed in confirmation with the fullness of grace they first received at baptism.
Why should they have to wait so long to receive that gift?
That’s what Bishop W. Shawn McKnight was thinking Feb. 15 when he adopted under broad consultation a three-year plan to move the age of confirmation in this diocese to seventh grade.
“I believe this new policy and program will provide our young people with the assistance of sacramental graces at a more appropriate time in their life,” said Bishop McKnight, “and it will assist families and parishes with greater supports needed to imbue our children with a vibrant, deep faith in Jesus and a deeper commitment to the Church.”
The decision will not affect already scheduled confirmations for this year or 2020.
For at least a generation, confirmation has ordinarily been given in this diocese at age 16 or 17, in the junior or senior year of high school.
Work is under way to help parishes prepare to confirm all of their remaining high school students in 2021, followed by seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders in 2022, and seventh-graders in 2023 and each year thereafter.
Discussions have taken place on and off for several years about changing the confirmation age, in part because of the growing time constraints now imposed on high school students by school, extracurricular activities, college preparation, part-time jobs and family obligations.
The diocesan Presbyteral Council, a representative body of priests that advises the bishop on matters of policy and diocesan governance, has been evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of the current situation for about six months.
Presbyteral Council members consulted with other priests, deacons, staff in the Catholic Schools Office and the Office of Youth Ministry and Religious Education, and parish catechetical leadership, regarding the present pastoral needs of young people in the local Church.
“It is clear to me, as the pressures of family life have changed, our parents and catechists find the current policy, which calls for the celebration of the sacrament of confirmation during high school, to be not sufficient,” Bishop McKnight noted.
He plans to conduct a thorough inquiry and evaluation of the changes after they have been in effect for three years.
Confirming young people in middle school will bring this diocese into closer line with most other dioceses in the United States, including the other three in Missouri.
The St. Louis archdiocese generally administers confirmation during eighth grade. In the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, parishes decide on ninth or 10th grade.
The Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese allows parishes to decide between seventh, eighth or ninth grade, with a preference for receiving the sacrament before high school.
Part of something bigger
John DeLaporte, diocesan director of youth ministry and religious education, is working with the diocesan youth advisory council to put together materials to assist parishes of all sizes through the transition.
Bishop McKnight has directed him to continue drawing the needs and expectations of the diocese’s parishes and schools into a comprehensive catechetical, sacramental and spiritual program for use throughout the diocese.
Recent surveys have indicated that as many as 85 percent of Catholics in the United States have stopped actively practicing their faith within seven years of being confirmed.
Mr. DeLaporte noted that if the Church wants to change that outcome, it will have to change how it prepares young people for the sacraments.
“If the only thing we do is shift confirmation back a few years in a young person’s life, we’re not going to see much improvement in retention or evangelization down the road,” he said.
But when properly integrated into a larger, lifelong faith-formation strategy, rather than a perceived “graduation” moment, confirmation can become one of many important milestones that help grow young disciples for Jesus.
“We shouldn’t present it as some culminating rite of passage and then all of a sudden, you can do what the grown-ups in the parish can do,” said Mr. DeLaporte. “It should be one of many incremental steps in that discipleship process.”
He realizes that many parishes already have strong and effective confirmation preparation programs, and he wants to help build them up to be even stronger throughout the transition.
“I’m especially interested in what parishes are doing with young people before it’s time to prepare for confirmation, and what they have in place to help these young people move from the grace of the sacrament to the next step in their journey,” he said.
Toward mentoring disciples
Father Daniel Merz, pastor of the Linn and Frankenstein parishes, chairman of the diocesan Liturgical Commission, and a member of the Presbyteral Council, said most of priests in this diocese expressed support for lowering the confirmation age.
Specifically, they wanted “to make sure that our Catholic youth are getting the grace of the sacrament, and getting it early enough for the challenges they have to face,” he said.
“Theologically, the closer together we can bring the sacraments of confirmation to baptism, the better,” he stated. “Because it’s the confirmation of your baptism. It’s the strengthening of your baptism.”
He noted that Church law only requires a person being confirmed to be “adequately informed” and “properly disposed.”
“That means you have to be able to understand the significance of the sacrament and you have to say, ‘Yes, I want to strengthen the graces that were given to me at baptism,’” he said.
He believes this will create an opportunity for parishes to take a fresh look at their entire process for preparing young people for sacraments.
Mr. DeLaporte pointed out that contrary to what many believe, confirmation is not a coming-of-age rite in the Church. It is not simply an opportunity for a young adult to decide to accept the faith on his or her own.
“What we need to be doing for our young people throughout confirmation preparation and all throughout high school is moving them along the path of discipleship — mentoring them and apprenticing them into the faith,” he said.
“That results in their continued, lifelong commitment and participation in the faith life of the community,” he said.
He believes that often, parish youth programs and sacrament preparation programs operate in isolation from the rest of the parish community.
“But when those things are actually integrated well, young people tend to go forth from their preparation programs into being full participatory members of the faith community,” he said. “And that’s what we’re working toward.”
Mr. DeLaporte noted that while there are many effective resources available for parishes to keep newly confirmed middle-schoolers engaged, active and continually growing in their faith through high school and beyond, the most important things that can be done through preparation programs is strengthen the bonds between the parish, young people and the family.
He highlighted two important things the Church can offer families through sacrament preparation programs: skills and memories. Skills to help parents continue forming their kids in the faith, and memories that families need to stay connected to the Church and to one another.
“Anything we do has to have a robust parent and family connection, and a robust component for integrating confirmation prep into the rest of the parish,” he said.
Catechists must stay focused on promoting a continuing encounter with Christ, not just for young people but people of all ages.
“We want to be offering meaningful retreat experiences and service opportunities and making them available earlier in life,” he said.