By Father Thom Hennen
Q: I recently read that 80% of fallen-away Catholics never received the sacrament of confirmation. What if my child doesn’t want to be confirmed? Is it a parent’s responsibility to make sure their kids are confirmed?
A: I have not seen that particular statistic, but it would not surprise me. However, this could be for a number of reasons and so this statistic may point more to correlation than causation. It is not necessarily because kids are not confirmed that they fall away but that those who are less engaged in their faith are less likely to be confirmed or to continue living their faith beyond high school.
At any rate, this issue comes up frequently in parish ministry and can be a major point of friction within families. On the one hand, parents want what is best for their children and that means passing on the fullness of the faith to them. On the other hand, forcing it can have the opposite effect and end up pushing children further away. Too lax and the kids may think it doesn’t really matter; too hard and you’ve lost them. At best, they will just be “going through the motions,” and I am not sure that is good for either the young person or the Church. What is a parent to do?
A little context may be helpful. The sacraments of initiation are baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Up until the 20th century, this was the order in which they were celebrated, with confirmation preceding one’s first holy Communion. In 1910, Pope St. Pius X issued a decree allowing children who are of the age of discretion (about 7 years of age) to receive their first Eucharist. Prior to that, children would receive their first holy Communion at around age 10 or older and only after having been confirmed. This effectively flip-flopped the order the sacraments of initiation to baptism, Eucharist (preceded by the sacrament of penance), and then confirmation.
Over time, this had the unintended consequence of making confirmation into a “coming of age” ritual or, worse, a “graduation” from faith formation. It also situated the sacrament of confirmation at a time in young people’s lives when they are naturally more questioning of everything and, especially, of “authority.” It takes an emotionally and spiritually mature young person to authentically desire this sacrament during this turbulent time of life, but I believe that many young people can and do rise to the occasion.
In one parish where I served, the confirmation program was a two-year process but the young person could choose to be confirmed anytime in high school. That meant if they wanted to be confirmed as a ninth-grader, they started the confirmation program in eighth grade. I liked the idea of the child having some agency in this decision and that this could account for differences in personal readiness. At the same time, I worried that it might needlessly delay the sacrament.
I think we have to be careful neither to set the bar too high, making this sacrament of initiation celebrated for centuries with children (even infants in some traditions) out of reach, nor too low, leading families and children not to take it seriously.
In the end, while I absolutely believe in the grace of the sacrament, I guess I would rather have a young person approach this decision seriously and maturely, even if it meant delaying it, than simply doing it out of fear of punishment or to placate their family. To this end, I would start with an open and loving conversation with your child about both your desires and their concerns.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)