The time stretching from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday is confirmation season in many dioceses in the United States. Depending on the norms set by the ordinary of a particular diocese, the age for confirmation for children in the Latin Church can run anywhere from eight to sixteen. In recent years, some bishops have lowered the age requirement in their diocese, and some are even celebrating confirmation before First Holy Communion. But there are still many American dioceses in which confirmation is delayed until the teen years.
The reason and the effect
One of the reasons many American dioceses have delayed confirmation until the teen years is to encourage parents to keep their children in religious education classes through high school. Unfortunately, an unforeseen consequence of this protocol is that some teens decide that they don’t want confirmation after all. Over the years at Catholic Answers, we’ve received questions from distraught parents of teens who don’t want confirmation. They want to know: “Should I force my teen to be confirmed?"
What the Church says and why
Let’s look at what the Code of Canon Law says about who should be confirmed:
The faithful are bound to receive this sacrament at the proper time. Parents and pastors of souls, especially parish priests, are to see that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the opportune time (890).
This canon does not offer a specific time. As for the parental obligation, the canon states that parents are to see that their children “are properly instructed" but leaves open when the sacrament should be conferred on children.
Canon law does envision, though, that confirmation ordinarily should precede marriage: “Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before being admitted to marriage, if this can be done without grave inconvenience" (1065 §1). One reason for this requirement is because confirmation is one of the sacraments of initiation and matrimony is one of the sacraments of vocation. Christians should be fully initiated into the Church before they attempt to answer a vocation to marriage. (The other vocational sacrament is ordination, and bishops will certainly require confirmation before allowing a man to be ordained to the priesthood or the diaconate.)
Essentially then, if your child is waffling on whether or not to be confirmed, we can say that the Church does want Catholics to be fully initiated into the Church—which means that they are baptized, confirmed, and receive first Communion (CCC 1306)—but that the Church also gives leeway to Latin Catholics (in the East, the sacrament is typically given at infancy) on when they can be confirmed. The bishops set the ordinary requirements for childhood confirmation in their diocese, and parents are expected to see that their children are prepared for confirmation (890). But there is no requirement for when confirmation should occur, except that it should occur before marriage. One reason the Church does not specify such a requirement for the timing of confirmation may be because of the dispositions required for a fruitful reception of the sacrament:
Preparation for confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit—his actions, his gifts, and his biddings—in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life. To this end catechesis for confirmation should strive to awaken a sense of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the universal Church as well as the parish community. The latter bears special responsibility for the preparation of confirmands.
To receive confirmation one must be in a state of grace. One should receive the sacrament of penance in order to be cleansed for the gift of the Holy Spirit. More intense prayer should prepare one to receive the strength and graces of the Holy Spirit with docility and readiness to act (CCC 1309–1310).
Needless to say, if your teen doesn’t want to be confirmed, he likely won’t be open to the preparation necessary for a fruitful reception of the sacrament. You probably could force your kid to submit to having sacred oil smeared on his forehead by your bishop, but you can’t force him to have the internal dispositions necessary for the graces of confirmation to flow their strongest in his life.
What can I do?
I believe you have the right and obligation as a parent to see that your child is educated in the Christian religion—just as you have the right and obligation to see that he’s educated in secular subjects such as math, science, and literature. You can require him to complete the religious education program your diocese requires for confirmation, and to treat his teachers, classmates, and studies with suitable respect. Who knows? Perhaps going through the program and seeing his classmates preparing to be confirmed will change his mind. Not many people enjoy going through a course of study and then not “graduating."
Ultimately though, your child must be the one who opens his mind and heart to the truths of his faith and readies himself to receive the graces the Holy Spirit wants to offer to him. If he is completely resistant to fostering this disposition within himself, it may well be better for your child to wait for the more “opportune time" for which the Church allows (890). You can continue to form and prepare him for that time, as part of your duty as a parent.
If your child does in fact decide he doesn’t want to be confirmed, that will no doubt be disappointing for you, but it is not a reflection on you as a parent. You haven’t failed—your child is merely demonstrating he has free will.
And there’s something else you can do: you can write to your bishop and tell him your story. Then politely and respectfully suggest to your bishop that he may want to consider joining other American bishops in either lowering the age of confirmation or placing the reception of confirmation before the reception of First Holy Communion.
If enough parents let their shepherds know that their children need access to the graces of confirmation at an earlier age, before they become potentially resistant teenagers, it may be that we’ll see fewer Catholic children choosing not to receive the sacrament.