Christian Sacraments: Confirmation

Figure 1.--This American boy is doing his confirmation in the 1910s. Notice the dark knickers suit and black long stockings. We suspect he is Lutheran. A reader tells us that the rosary and candal suggest a Cathlic conformation. Perhaps othger readers will have a more definitive assessment.

Some churches also make a major event out of the child' renewing his vows. It thought initially it was primarily a Catholic celebration called "Rnewal" because the ininial information was from a French source and the French word is a cognate for renewal. Thed actual event is of course "Confirmation" and is a major event in a child's life when he or she confirms membership in the church. This is in part a renewal of the First Communion vows, although Catholics put more of an emphasis on First Communion than many Protestant churches. The nature of the sacrement and the age at which it was offered has varied among churches. Catholic practice, for example, was not decide in its current form until 1910 through a Papal encyclical.

Historical Background

The use of the term confirmation is first encountered in the mid-fifth century (Council of Riez, 18 Nov 439), canon 3, confirmare neophytos; and at the Council of Orange, 8 November 441), canon 2, in confirmatione). At this point in its history, confirmation does not have any connotation of strengthening, (this happens soon after) but that association becomes a main theological point as church history unfolds. Its immediate reference is to a bishop's personal involvement in a baptism over which he has not presided. In other words, the baptism preceded his "confirming" the neophytes by a longer or shorter period and was done by others.

Two passages in scripture are often used to identify the confirmation rite as a distinct rite separate form baptism (Acts 8:14-17, Acts 19: 1-6). Whether that assumption is correct or not is a matter of one's own opinion and interpretation. We know that in the first centuries of our church the rites of initiation were so closely bound together in one whole ceremony that it was very difficult to distinguish between baptism and confirmation. Those accepted into the church, primarily adults, but children as well, were initiated into the community receiving baptism, confirmation and eucharist celebrated all at the same ceremony. That was the community's initiatory process. It was a single process, and Christian initiation included what is later called confirmation (the second sacrament). This second sacrament was the link or anchor between the baptismal font and the eucharistic table.

Why did this disjointing or fragmentation of the Christian initiation process take place unlike the Eastern Church who retained their initiation rites together? There are many reasons why these changes came about beginning in the fourth and fifth centuries. As I mentioned earlier, Bishop Faustus was most influential in creating a new understanding of confirmation and his views were ultimately responsible for creating a separate sacrament. Those views continued to snowball from century to century. Also, Emperor Constantine (fourth century) had declared the Christian church as the official church of the Roman Empire. In light of this, Christianity began to spread rapidly. Churches multiplied!

Next on the scene is Augustine's theory on Original Sin in response to Pelagianism. Also infant baptisms increased significantly in the West. As the numbers grew bigger, the bishop (the only authorized presider over the rite of confirmation) could not longer be present in all the parishes to "confirm." In order that at least the "confirming" be the sole prerogative of the bishop, the administration of this sacrament was separated from that of baptism. At first, the separation of the two rites was not considered normal and less than ideal. Eventually the separation became accepted. During the scholastic period (thirteenth century) the opposition to the separation of rites began to relax and official allowances were made for concrete pastoral situations. Also, at this time, a specific theology was developed in order to justify the new rite carried out only by the bishop.

While the medieval theologians seem to have had no difficulty in accepting confirmation as one of the sacraments of the church, they did have difficulty explaining it. Another key moment came during the Protestant Reformation period when the sacrament of confirmation became questionable as a sacrament itself. Martin Luther and John Calvin claimed that confirmation was purely of ecclesiastical origin and that it had no warrant in Scripture. The Council of Trent (1545-63) responded and condemned those who questioned the sacrament of confirmation, in response to Luther, Calvin and others. In 1566, the catechism of the Council of Trent stated that confirmation could be given to any baptized Catholic, but it was not necessary to receive the sacrament until age seven, though it should not be postponed beyond age twelve.

Following the Council of Trent, confirmation was generally administered when the child was a least 7 years old and not later than twelve years. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, confirmation was still given before communion because the age for first communion came to be older, even beyond that of confirmation. Later on in the 20th century, another significant change took place which further cemented confirmation as a separate rite. Through the actions of Pope Pius X in 1910 the age of first communion moved to 7 years old. In view of this, the traditional order (baptism, confirmation, eucharist) was further disturbed. First communion would generally be received before confirmation and normative.

Reflecting back on the development through the centuries which eventually extracted confirmation from its original initiatory context, I've often wondered what part church "politics" played in the matter. Why were the bishops so intent on reserving the rite of confirmation to themselves? Was this decision truly based on scripture? Pastoral needs to visit the young people? It is not clear why the bishops in the West did not deligate the "power" to confirm as did the Eastern Rites. Because the Eastern Rites always maintained the sequence of confirmation by delegating the minister to baptize, confirm and give communion, there was never the separation as in the West. Whatever the answer, generation upon generation have felt the impact of the action of the Church in the West separating the sacraments of initiation and personal views held by church councils and famous theologians like Augustine, Lombard, Aquinas and Rahner.


There are many definitions for this sacrament. Richard McBrien describes confirmation as "The second sacrament of initiation, known in the East as chrismation by which the recipient is sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit." Others, like McBrien, see this sacrament as a second stage of initiation (Confirmation) and in the sacred rite one is anointed with chrism and with the words of the bishop, the Holy Spirit comes in a special way upon the baptized Christian. As we see clearly, this sacrament makes explicit the presence of the Holy Spirit in the person confirmed.


Two schools of thought and practice exist which are intertwined with two different and somewhat opposing theologies. The two approaches are termed "confirmation as initiation" and "confirmation as commitment." If one accepts a theological standpoint from which confirmation is seen as a sacrament of initiation, the age of administration would be earlier. If however, one adopts a more pastoral pedagogical standpoint whereby the catechesis connected with the sacrament receives more emphasis, than a later age would be considered.

Two theologies follow these approaches as well. One theology highlights the initiation process which culminates in full participation in the ecclesial assembly climaxed at the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, confirmation is either seen as process of initiation (the method first used in the early church), or as a commitment moment, a call to mission and to accept and witness the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever method is chosen determines whether Confirmation is a beginning or an end.

If one chooses the initiation process Confirmation is seen as a new beginning. If however, the celebration is delayed until the young Christian acquires a certain maturity level, this process marks the end of one's religious education period. The ritual promulgated after Vatican II seems caught in between two theologies and attempts to highlight both methods as reflected in two rites; both the Rite of Confirmation (1971) and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972) show the ideal of giving to adults all three initiation sacraments together: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. Within the Rite of Confirmation it allows special provisions for children. The document states: "For pastoral reasons, however, especially to strengthen in the life of the faithful complete obedience to Christ the Lord in loyal testimony to him, episcopal conferences may choose an age which appears more appropriate so that the sacrament is conferred after appropriate formation at a more mature age."

Event Differeces

It is difficult to destinguish between First Communion an Confirmation suits. At this time HBC can only go by the age of the boy, with the younger boys about 7 or 8 years old doing First Communion and the older boys 12-13 years old doing Confirmation. HBC has not yet determined if there were differences in the stules of suits worn for these events.


HBC is not sure at this time when confirmations became an event for which a boy was dressed up in a new suit and wore arm ribbons. At this time most of the Confirmation suits HBC has noted have been 20th century images. The earliest image noted to date looks to have been taken in the 1890s. Confirmations of course are a church ritual dating back to the early days of the church. HBC is unsure how boys were dressed for confirmation before the modern era.

National Experiences

Confirmation is a sacrament recognized by many different Christan denominaztions, including, Anglican, Lutheran (Reformed), Orthodox Christians. Generally speaking, Pro\testants especially Lutherans, place more emphasis on Confirmation than Catholics. This thus asffects individual country practices. We have begun to collect some information on confirmations in different countries. Generally speaking we note that Catholics seem to give more emphasis to First Communion and Protestants to Conformation. We also seem to note differences among countries and over time. We have some information on experiences or observations of confirmation in several countries.

Personal Experiences

Some actual personal experiences are available at:

English First Communion: The 1970s

American confirmation: The 1960

American confirmation: The 1970s


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Created: December 20, 1998
Last edited: 2:46 AM 2/2/2011