Historical Deviation in Practice

One of the most surprising facts about the restored order is that our current practice of deferring Confirmation to the teenage years, and sequentially following reception of the eucharist, by accident of history, is out of step with 1800 years of practice. It is also in conflict with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other official Church documents and teachings. This, alone, should give us pause and encourage us to be open to questioning our practice and considering a change.

The catechism says quite clearly regarding the sequence of sacraments of initiation:

The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord's own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.

CCC 1322

And regarding the age of Confirmation:

For centuries, the Latin custom has indicated ‘the age of discretion’ as the reference point for receiving Confirmation. But in danger of death children should be confirmed even if they have not yet attained the age of discretion.

CCC 1307

The Church has clearly prescribed a formula for both the sequence and the age of reception for the sacraments of initiation:

- Sequence = baptism, confirmation, eucharist

- Age of reception = age of discretion

So, how did we end up with such a contradictory practice, and why does it persist? Our current practice is the result of an incremental drift from proper practice, resulting in deviations that have been rebuked by the Church, but never fully corrected. 

Here’s a brief summary of the evolution of the practice of the sacraments of initiation that shows how we drifted from the proper sequence of the sacraments:

One, Single Rite of Initiation: As we read in the New Testament, the Apostles first baptized whole households.  Parents, children (likely servants, too) were evangelized, baptized and brought into communion with the eucharist all together. From this time through the first several centuries, the apostles and their successors (the bishops) continued to celebrate the sacraments of initiation in a single unified ritual (babies even received small pieces of the eucharist on their tongues at their baptism, a practice which continues in the Eastern Catholic Churches).

Confirmation Emerges: By the 5th century, however, the church had grown, both in numbers and geography, to the point that it became impractical for the bishop to celebrate every baptism and initiation.  This task was delegated to the local priests, and the bishop would later return to “confirm” the full sacramental initiation. The sacrament of Confirmation as we recognize it thus first appears in the 5th century, and this practice remained in effect for roughly 1,400 years.

French Bishops Defer Confirmation: In the 19th Century, French bishops (who were highly influential in the global church at that time) began the practice of deferring Confirmation until a later age, in order to allow for a longer period of catechesis. For the first time in the history of the Church, the sacrament of Confirmation was shifted in sequence, to follow the eucharist. 

Papal Rebuke of the French Practice (but no change): In 1897, Pope Leo XIII specifically rebuked the French Bishops for this practice and mandated that the sacraments be restored to their proper sequence.  However, by this time, the practice was widely adopted, even beyond France, and Pope Leo XIII’s mandate was largely ignored.

Pope Pius X Officially Lowers the Age of First Eucharist: Prophetically anticipating some of the challenges of modern culture, in 1910, Pope Saint Pius X officially lowered the age for the first  reception of the eucharist to the age of reason, but Confirmation remained adrift and out of sequence (likely because Leo XIII had already officially corrected the sequence issue and because Pope Saint Pius X made no mention of Confirmation).

As this brief summary shows, our perception of “the way we’ve always done it,” is quite distorted.  The sequence and ages of the sacraments as we’ve experienced them in our lifetime is, in the history of the Church, quite a recent phenomenon. It’s also one that is inconsistent with Church teaching and is a practice that has been directly rebuked under papal mandate.  This is all for good reason, theologically, speaking which leads to the final consideration prompting restored order.

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