Change is in the works for the timing of the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Diocese of Burlington.

After a yearlong process of consultation with priests, religious education directors and staff, Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne has directed that by the 2021-2022 school year youth in the sixth grade will receive the sacrament, after a gradual lowering of the age at which it is received.

According to Michael Hagan, coordinator of religious education and catechesis for the Diocese of Burlington, there are two main reasons for the change: to retain young members of the Church and to enrich them with the special strength of the Holy Spirit.

He pointed to “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics” that offered a recent survey of former Catholic teens and young adults and found 13 is the median age when teens distance themselves from the Church. The same study listed top reasons for leaving the faith as finding disagreement with Church teaching, a lack of belief in God and perceived conflicts with Catholicism and science.

“By moving confirmation to the sixth grade, we can focus our catechesis on these issues at a crucial age,” Hagan said. “This gives us an opportunity to give students convincing arguments for the existence of God, challenge them to understand what the Church teaches on critical social issues and demonstrate how our faith does not conflict with science — all before they turn 13.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Confirmation more perfectly binds the baptized to the Church and enriches them “with a special strength of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, Hagan continued, “The sacraments are not something that we earn or empty milestones that we reach. Rather, the sacraments are moments when we freely receive God’s gift of grace, which actually affects change in us.” The hope is that the decision to lower the confirmation age will encourage more children to receive the sacrament sooner to strengthen them spiritually and enrich the entire body of Christ.

In the first centuries of the Church, the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation were celebrated along with the first reception of the Eucharist in one continuous rite, much as is done in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults today. Beginning around the 5th-6th century, as conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation was reserved primarily to the bishop, a separation in time between the celebration of baptism and confirmation became the norm.

This has been the case in the Latin Rite Catholic Church since then, with various adjustments for the age of the confirmandi (those being confirmed) throughout the centuries. In that case, the focus of confirmation was on the full initiation of Catholics into the Church. Pastoral practice throughout the past 50-60 years in the United States also evolved with a greater tendency toward delaying confirmation into high school age, in some Dioceses even as late as age 18.

Recently, however, a number of Dioceses have lowered the age of confirmation significantly. The Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, has lowered the confirmation age to third grade and returned to “restored order,” which means the Sacraments of Initiation are received in the order of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Here in Vermont, First Holy Communion will continue to be normally celebrated in the second grade at age seven or eight with confirmation to follow in the sixth grade.

While the Diocese of Burlington is lowering the confirmation age, there will be no change in the order of the sacraments at this time.

Change will be made in coordination with priests and parish catechetical leaders who will be part of an ad hoc committee focused on the change.

Although it has not been finalized, one possible implementation is 2018-2019, 10th grade; 2019-2020, 9th-10th grade; 2020-2021, 7th-9th grade; 2021-2022, 6th-7th grade.

“There is a need for ongoing catechesis regardless of what age confirmation is received,” said Hagan, who will help implement a new plan for confirmation preparation. “The constant unfolding of our faith is a process that can never be completed in this life. Confirmation is an important step in the journey of faith, but the expectation is that children — and adults — will continue to learn more and fall in love with the Church and God.”

It is important that parishes provide a regular opportunity for this growth to occur and that parents model and encourage this deepening of faith.

For more information, contact Hagan at 802-658 6110 ext. 1146.


Editor’s note 7/17/18: An earlier version of this story noted that “for the 2018-2019 school year, plans call for confirmation to be administered in the 10th grade with the age being lowered each year until the target age” without clarifying that a plan had not been finalized and gradual lowering with a target date of 2021-2022 would include at least one year when multiple grades are confirmed.