For many Christians, confirmation is one of the three rites of initiation which incorporate an individual into the Body of Christ–that is, membership in the Christian Church (Acts 8:15–16). The other two are BAPTISM and Eucharist. The purpose of confirmation is to confer the presence of the Holy Spirit into the life of the child or adult. The practice of administering confirmation immediately after infant baptism was of ancient origin. Throughout the early church, and still today in the Eastern churches, infants received the three sacrament of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist within a few minutes of each other, and in that order. This tradition emphasized the innocence and equality of children with adults, in the eyes of the Church, by granting them full participation in the liturgy. Children did not have to prove their worthiness to receive the sacraments by mastering the catechism or by testifying to their belief in Christian dogma when they attained the age of discretion (i.e., seven). The early Church identified full participation with the spiritual maturity conferred by baptismal regeneration. Membership in the Church was spiritual. It had nothing to do with age or intellectual and physical maturity. Confirmation as an episcopal rite was characterized by the laying on of hands and chrismation, which involved the application of chrism, a consecrated oil. The bishop anointed the forehead with chrism and recited these words: "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Throughout its early history, the Catholic Church did not assign any definite age for the reception of confirmation. Beginning in 1563, however, the Council of Trent determined that twelve was the ideal age for conferring confirmation, and that no child under the age of seven should be admitted to that sacrament. The year 1563 was thus a watershed in the history of sacramental theology. With a simple decree, confirmation became one part of a trilogy of sacraments (confirmation, penance, and Eucharist) that was henceforth identified with the age of discretion. It is reasonable, therefore, to expect that many practicing Catholics starting in the late sixteenth century received penance and the Eucharist before they received confirmation at the age of twelve. In effect, the Council of Trent admitted that the order of the sacraments could be altered and that the change reflected its changing attitude toward children. Instead of associating confirmation with infancy, Trent saw it as the sacrament of discretion. Candidates for confirmation were now expected to display a measure of spiritual maturity. They were asked to profess publicly their own commitment to Christ and to his Church, fortified by the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, purity, and fear of the Lord. Trent's decision to postpone confirmation until prepuberty may have been influenced partly by the views of sixteenth-century reformers. For most Protestant reformers, spiritual readiness was equated with physical maturity. Their rites of confirmation and the Eucharist became in effect twin rites of PUBERTY–a public acknowledgment that the physically mature Christian was also spiritually mature and morally responsible.
Martin Luther rejected the idea that confirmation was a true sacrament and referred to it as a "sacramental ceremony." He saw it as a preparation for the reception of the Eucharist and as a sign of the remission of sins. For Protestants and the Orthodox, confirmation always precedes the conferral of the Eucharist, but for most Roman Catholics, it does not. The age at which confirmation is conferred on children varies among Christian denominations today, but it is most often conferred during ADOLESCENCE.
DeMolen, Richard L. 1975. "Childhood and the Sacraments in the Sixteenth Century." Archiv fuer Reformationsgeschichte 66: 49–71.
Marsh, Thomas A. 1984. Gift of Community: Baptism and Confirmation. Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier.
Marsh, Thomas A. 1990. "Confirmation." In The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Peter E. Fink. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Whitaker, Edward C. 1970. Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, rev. ed. London: S.P.C.K.
RICHARD L. DEMOLEN