What has been the traditional age for confirmation in the Catholic Church? The short answer is, it varies.
For example in the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and those in union with the Holy See, the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist and chrismation (confirmation) are all administered to infants. In the Western tradition Eucharist and confirmation came later. Until the 20th century young people aged anywhere from 11 to 12 or well into the teen years were confirmed.
For example, the record of the confirmation of St. Katharine Drexel was lost, but it is assumed she received it in 1870 at the then-relatively early age of 11 when she received first Communion from Archbishop James Wood at Sacred Heart Convent.
(See the new rules setting reception of confirmation in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at grades seven and eight, here.)
The change to earlier confirmation really began after 1910 when Pope St. Pius X decreed Eucharist should he permitted at the age of discretion (use of reason), typically about 7 years of age.
Although it was not stated, many assumed this would also be the age for confirmation, but not usually at the same ceremony because confirmation except in special circumstance is administered by the bishop.
Not everyone agreed with this and because there was no clear directive, bishops using their own judgment and set different dates to administer the sacrament in their own dioceses.
On the high end, another saint in waiting, Venerable Fulton Sheen who was Bishop of Rochester (1966-69) set confirmations approximately in the senior year of high school. His successors lowered the age.
Canon 891 of the Code of Canon Law, as published in 1983, stipulates confirmation “at the age of discretion” but adds “unless the conference of bishops determines another age or there is danger of death.”
In 2000 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decreed effective July 1, 2002 that confirmation should be conferred in the U.S. between the age of discretion and 16 years of age with the limits decided by the local bishop. That is where it stands now with many dioceses, now including Philadelphia, conferring the sacrament at a more mature age.
Other canons in the 1983 Code of Canon law emphasize the importance of receiving confirmation.
For example in regard to baptism, Canon 874 states a sponsor must be a Catholic who has been confirmed.
Canon 873 states the same for a sponsor for confirmation.
Canon 1065 regarding marriage states, “If they can do so without severe inconvenience, Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before being admitted to marriage.”
Clearly confirmation is not only a major source of grace but a necessity for one’s future life in the church.
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