We have looked at the basic truths about the sacrament of confirmation: that it confers the Holy Spirit, completing what was first given in baptism and increasing the life of God within the recipient, making one a “soldier of Christ.” Confirmation is typically conferred by a bishop who prays while laying hands on the candidates whom he then anoints on the forehead with the sacred chrism, saying “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In the life of the Church, one significant and ongoing question regarding confirmation is at what age/maturity ought one receive the sacrament. Recall that the Church’s law recommends that it be conferred around the “age of discretion,” unless another age is determined by the bishops in a given place (canon 891). In the United States, each individual bishop typically establishes the age for confirmation within his own diocese. Accordingly, there are some significant differences between dioceses. For example, many places have in place that students who are in high school be confirmed – allowing for the maximum amount of time in their school years for Catholic catechesis and formation – so that they will know the faith and be able to make an informed decision to ask for confirmation. This approach tends to emphasize the role of each person making their own decision to be confirmed with the hope that this decision will be lived in their entire life.
While confirmation during high school years is common, this approach is not without weaknesses - as receiving confirmation as the last of the three sacraments of initiation risks the appearance of confirmation being the end goal – when in truth it is Holy Communion that is the end goal (both in this life through reception of the Eucharist as holy communion and in the next in the “Communion of Saints”). Thus, in light of what is sometimes referred to as the “traditional ordering of the sacraments,” confirmation fittingly is ordered before first communion (and in fact, this is how it is conferred upon adults in the RCIA).
Thus, in recent years a few bishops in the U.S. have chosen to restore the “traditional ordering,” moving confirmation to be offered before first communion. In practice, these bishops go to parishes to confirm 2nd grade-aged children, with first communion taking place in late 2nd grade or in the 3rd grade year. Such a practice most certainly restores the ordering in pointing toward the Eucharist as the end goal. Yet, some argue that the children can not be formed as fully as possible to receive it – and what about the rest of their years of religious education?
A third group of bishops around the U.S. have set the age for those in middle school – perhaps capturing a set of years that can be fruitful for formation while reaching young people when they are still open to the supernatural in a way that sometimes high school students are not – but once more risking losing them earlier.
While I could give an opinion on this question (and I definitely have one), the concern over the age of confirmation must always account for both the basic truth/definition of confirmation itself as a sacrament and a gift of God (and not something earned by us), and that every sacrament requires our personal cooperation with God’s grace to be properly fruitful. If we gravitate too much toward emphasizing human effort (as can happen with older kids) we risk making confirmation into appearing as a “merit badge” after completing a set of required works. On the flip side, knowing that confirmation needs to be requested indeed places responsibility on individuals to express a true desire and openness to receive it, requiring a person’s free will. Thus, the bottom line for any age it is given: God desires to give the Holy Spirit to His children – how he gives it to those who ask (see Luke 11:9-13).