Bishops and theologians differ over whether Communion should come before Confirmation. Cian Molloy looks at the tradition behind both sacraments and the stresses and strains involved in what have become social rights of passage as much as religious events.
For Irish Catholics, First Communion is a major ceremony that takes place in second class, when communicants are usually aged between seven and eight, and Confirmation takes place in sixth class, when pupils are aged around thirteen. However, for those belonging to the Church of Ireland, there is no particular First Communion ceremony; it takes place at about 13 years of age and is preceded by Confirmation.
Within both Churches, Catholic and Anglican, there is a debate about changing the current order: many Anglicans now advocate that Eucharist should come before Confirmation, while within the Roman Catholic Church some dioceses in England, Australia, Argentina and the United States have switched to having Confirmation before First Communion. There is no debate about these issues in the Eastern rite Churches, because they administer all three sacraments to infants in one ceremony, with the babe in arms being provided with communion by the priest dipping his finger in his chalice and then placing his moistened finger in the child’s mouth.
Until the 12th century, it was also the practice in the Roman Catholic Church to give First Holy Communion to infants in the form of wine, but by the time of the Renaissance most Roman Catholics did not receive First Holy Communion until the start of adolescence, when they were about eleven years of age. This changed in 1910 when Pope Pius X (now Saint Pius X) lowered the age for receiving First Communion to the age of reason, reckoned to be about seven years of age.
In his Quam Singulari decree on First Communion, Pius wrote: “It is clear that the age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion. Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required, for an elementary knowledge suffices; similarly full use of reason is not required, for a certain beginning of the use of reason, that is, some use of reason suffices.”
Age of discretion
In Ireland, and in many other parts of the world, this decree appears to have caused First Communion to leap-frog ahead of Confirmation. Today, Canon Law, the internal rules of the Catholic Church, says that the sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion, unless the Bishops’ Conference has decided on a different age. In Ireland, the Catholic bishops have decided that the Sacrament should usually be administered to sixth class pupils. Although priests can administer confirmation, in Ireland a bishop nearly always administers the sacrament. This is a very strong tradition, with the Synod of Armagh in 1614 decreeing that no one other than a bishop could administer the confirmation sacrament. A shortage of bishops in Penal Times may be the main reason for the practice of confirming Irish Catholics later in life than seven years of age. As Bishop Thomas Flynn told The Word: “ln 1595, one of my predecessors, Eugene Hart, as Bishop of Achonry, was one of only two bishops in Ireland and there exists a letter by the Lord Lieutenant of the time complaining that he was doing confirmations down in Cork.”
One of the outstanding features of First Communion for Catholics in Ireland is the white dresses and veils worn by girls on their special day. Over the years, these outfits have become increasingly elaborate and expensive. Once most girls would have been happy with a simple white dress and a cardigan, now the full rig out may include: white shoes and tights, petticoats, an embroidered dress, a cloak, a veil, a tiara, a handbag and an umbrella. It is reckoned that the average amount spent dressing a girl for First Communion in Ireland is about 400 euro, a huge sum for those on low incomes or who are unemployed.
Cost to families
“It’s a very expensive day for families,” says Columba Faulkner, of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, a charity that combats poverty and social exclusion. She says: “The times when families come to us most looking for help are Christmas, the back-to school period and First Communions. In addition to the expense of dressing up the daughter or son, who is making their First Communion, parents want the rest of the family to look well also. There is also a huge pressure on them to go out for a meal or on some kind of outing after the religious ceremonies. We try to provide financial and practical help. In addition to grants, we also give some families disposable cameras, so that they can have pictures of the big day, which is very important particularly for people whose children will not be having a university graduation ceremony.
“Confirmations are also expensive, but at least the children get a bit more wear out of their clothes. I know it is lovely to be able to dress up your children, particularly when it’s a little girl in a pretty white dress, but I do wish we could come back a little from all the expense and concentrate more on the sacrament.”
At least in Ireland, while the boys’ First Communion clothes are expensive enough, they are not as elaborate as those worn by most girls. In Spain, there is a tradition of dressing boys up in white naval uniforms when they are making their First Communion. Of course, no Spanish mother would dress their son up as an ordinary seaman; the little boys all have officer’s caps, epaulettes and plenty of gold braiding on their sleeves. So common is this tradition that in some Spanish phrasebooks you will find the greeting “ala Capitan!” listed as the appropriate salutation when greeting a young lad who has just received the Blessed Eucharist for the first time!
The Aran jumper
Before leaving the matter of boys’ First Communion dress, its worth considering one spin off that has been a major money earner for the Irish tourism industry: the white Aran jumper. Traditionally, the jumpers worn by men everyday were dyed, and usually coloured blue, with white jumpers only being worn by boys making their First Communion. Somehow, the white jumpers became a fashion item and led to the creation of a valuable cottage industry!
It is reckoned that the tradition of dressing little girls in white dresses dates back to the late 19th century and the promotion in France of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, with the white signifying the virginity of our Blessed Lady. However, the custom may be even older than this, as the Solemn Communion ceremony at the age of thirteen marked a time when a young girl started preparing her trousseau for marriage and was allowed, by the conventions of society, to wear a chignon hairstyle.
The Solemn Communion tradition in France lasted until the I 970s. After Pope Pius X’s decree in 1910, French children would receive First Communion with no major fuss at about seven years of age, but once they reached thirteen they took part in a public ceremony like that for First Communion in Ireland.
The practice was disapproved of by Rome, but there is still an echo of it to be found in a “Profession of Faith” ceremony, which takes place after a period of catechetical education at the age of thirteen. The Profession of Faith is not to be confused with Confirmation, which most French Catholics undergo at sixteen years of age. “The way they do things in France now is much better than it was in my day,” says Marie-Ange Zakrzewska, a French woman living in Ireland but with grandchildren in France. “Religion there has become much more a personal thing. In the public schools, there is no religious education. If you want catechism, you have to do it outside of school hours with a chaplain. Much to my daughter’s surprise, my grandchildren chose to have religious education and chose to be confirmed at the age of sixteen.”
This approach to having Confirmation in the late teens is based on a theology that sees Confirmation as a sacrament of affirmation. The Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick, Michael Mayes, for instance, says his personal preference would be to have confirmation in the late teens or early twenties as “one of its essential features is an opportunity for public affirmation”.
Sacraments are not merited
But those who argue for Confirmation before First Communion, at the age of seven, come from a theological viewpoint that sees the sacrament as one of initiation. In the United States in the Diocese of Fargo, Bishop Samuel Aquila is particularly strong on this point: “All sacraments are a gift from our Heavenly Father. Sacraments are not earned or merited. For this reason, Confirmation should not be perceived as the sacrament of adult commitment to the Church. In fact, the Church even requires priests to confirm infants and children younger than the age of reason when they are in danger of death so that they may receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. An authentic mature commitment to Christ and the Church is expressed in full participation in the Eucharistic and apostolic life of the Church. It is not achieved at a single moment but throughout the life-long deepening of our intimacy with Christ.”
Elsewhere in the United States, many dioceses have moved Confirmation from sixteen years of age to twelve to thirteen years of age, chiefly because once having left their Catholic primary schools to go to state high schools many baptised Catholics (in some dioceses more than half) were not being confirmed.
Whatever about the theological arguments, it is unlikely that there will be any change in the age for confirmation for Irish Catholics in the near future.
Bishop Flynn told The Word: “I would be in favour of current practice until such time as any of the other approaches were more attractive and I am not too sure that they are. Theologically, there doesn’t seem to be any great difficulty with the present arrangement.”
This article first appeared in The Word (May 2003), a publication of the Divine Word Missionaries.