With increasing frequency, Catholics are growing into adulthood without having received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and therefore without having been fully initiated into the Roman Catholic Church. One reason for this is our mobile society. When families move from one diocese to another, older teenagers who were planning to be confirmed in high school may move to a parish where Confirmation programs are for much younger children.
Furthermore, Confirmation is increasingly presented, especially to older adolescents, as a free choice. They are often asked if they really want to be confirmed and if they feel ready to make a commitment to the faith of their baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1319) states that candidates for Confirmation must "be prepared to assume the role of disciple and witness of Christ, both within the community and in temporal affairs." And, as the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (#11) states, "Bound more intimately to the Church by the Sacrament of Confirmation, they are endowed by the Holy Spirit with special strength. Hence they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith both by word and deed as true witnesses of Christ." Given this, some adolescents are sincerely recognizing that they are not yet ready to make such a mature faith commitment and they choose not to be confirmed before graduation from high school.
However, when do young people have the opportunity after high school to receive this important sacrament of Christian initiation? In an attempt to address this pastoral need, some parishes have begun offering the Sacrament of Confirmation to baptized Catholic adults through their Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. There are many sound psychological and theological reasons for offering Confirmation to Catholic adults who were baptized as infants and raised in the faith.
The goal of initiation into the Roman Catholic Church, even for those baptized as infants, is an active, freely accepted, and committed adult faith. Personal conversion is needed to achieve this goal. While Catholic theology recognizes the ongoing nature of the conversion process, this does not reduce the importance of initial conversion. Initial conversion is primarily a conscious commitment to Jesus Christ and an adult decision to give one's life to Him in discipleship. Because initial conversion is so important, Catholics should never simply presume it will happen and the local Catholic community should formally celebrate whenever it does happen.
Psychologists have identified general stages in Christian faith formation. John Westerhoff in his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? , labels these "experiential faith," "affiliative faith," "searching faith" and "owned faith." "Owned faith" is the acceptance and internalization of what one has tested during the "searching faith" stage and found to be true. "Owned faith" is when most people are willing to put their faith into action and stand up for what they believe in. It is, for many, a time of initial conversion. However, studies have shown that "owned faith" usually does not occur before adulthood.
This mature "owned" Christian faith demands sacramental expression. However, it is unfortunate that the dynamics of Christian conversion and attaining "owned faith" usually do not find meaningful expression in the sacramental rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. In order to be more personally meaningful, the Catholic Church should seek to align its initiation rituals with the stages of faith and the experience of initial conversion.
It has been said that sacraments are for people and not vice versa. The reality being celebrated by the ritual must correlate with the reality being lived in order for the ritual to be personally meaningful. However, many Catholics view the sacraments as a kind of spiritual magic that automatically does something wonderful to their soul. Sacramental grace is not some kind of spiritual liquid that God magically pours into our soul. Rather, sacramental grace is the deepening of our personal relationship with God. Just as in our relationships with others, our relationship with God is a two-way street. God will always do His part. But, we must be able and willing to do our part in order for the relationship to grow.
The sacraments, including Confirmation, offer only the potential for the experience of God's grace and power. It's like being given a car as a free and unmerited gift. You did nothing to earn or deserve it. However, the power of that car can only be experienced when you make an act of faith and turn the ignition key, believing it will start. Until then, that power is just potential. It's available, but not used.
The same is true with the gift of the strengthening of the Holy Spirit given at Confirmation. Confirmation is when one publicly professes their willingness to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, as were the Apostles at Pentecost, into committed witnesses for Christ. As the Rite of Confirmation (#22) implores, "Be active members of the Church, alive in Jesus Christ. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit give your lives completely to the service of all."
However, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1131) states, sacraments will only "bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions." Is it reasonable to expect the "required dispositions" from children or adolescents, most of who have not yet attained "owned faith"? If not, why not delay Confirmation until they are more able and willing to make a mature and meaningful commitment to the faith of their baptism?
Let's not further belief in sacramental magic. Offering the Sacrament of Confirmation to adults is an opportunity for the Church to truly celebrate the initial conversion of those baptized as infants and raised in the faith. These could be adults of any age who voluntarily acknowledge their "owned faith" and readiness to deepen and formally commit to the faith of their baptism. Only then is a person genuinely able and willing to complete their initiation as a mature member of the Catholic Church, one who has personally appropriated the gift of faith and consciously committed him or herself to a life of faith. For "Baby Baptism needs Commitment Confirmation for Internalized Initiation"!
Of course, one's initial conversion and faith commitment cannot be "programmed" or evaluated by another. Only each adult can freely acknowledge his or her own readiness to respond to the grace and love of God by making a formal, conscious commitment to Christ.
Instead of specifying a certain age or grade level, the age of Confirmation could be left open and voluntary. More important than age are: (1) the ability and willingness of the individual Christian to make a formal, public commitment to Jesus Christ and to the Roman Catholic Church, and (2) the readiness of the local parish community to support that commitment with frequent programs of spiritual development and service. The ideal moment for Confirmation is whenever both of these are present.
In lieu of adult Confirmation, another sacred rite could be developed for formally celebrating initial adult conversion and mature commitment to baptismal faith. This new, non-sacramental rite could be similar in solemnity to religious vows and could include a profession of faith, a renewal of the covenant, a laying-on of hands, a commissioning and a sending forth. However, such a new rite would not have the same import as does the Sacrament of Confirmation.
As we have seen, more than a few official Church texts speak of Confirmation as a celebration of faith that is active and involved. So, offering Confirmation to baptized adult Catholics (e.g., through the RCIA program) or implementing a new adult commitment rite will provide a valuable opportunity to deepen and formally celebrate one's mature faith commitment and "owned faith." Jesus expressed the value of an individual public profession of faith when he said, "Whoever declares publicly that he belongs to me, I will do the same before my Father in heaven" (Matthew 10:32).
Given the increasingly secular society in which we live, the Church cannot simply presume that those baptized as infants will grow into faithful, committed adult Catholics. There is a pastoral need for those whose faith development has reached the "owned faith" stage and who were baptized as infants to have a rite of passage into mature faith and committed Christian discipleship. The Church should provide the opportunity for all adult Catholics to freely acknowledge, gradually deepen, and formally celebrate their initial conversion and adult response to the grace and love of God. Either offering Confirmation to adults though the parish RCIA program or a new initial conversion rite for adults could be this opportunity.