Why Confirmation is Not a Mere Rite of Passage

“The sacraments of Christian initiation — Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist — lay the foundations of every Christian life.” (CCC 1212)

Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), “Pentecost”
Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), “Pentecost” (photo: Public Domain)

Working in a Catholic mentoring organization for almost a decade, I have been interested in the idea of rites of passage for years. Simply put, all societies throughout time have had specific cultural and ceremonial ways to help boys leave boyhood behind in order to become men. This was necessary because boys do not naturally grow into maturity through the logic of their bodily experience. Masculinity – culturally and generally speaking – is a gift given, being renewed with each new generation.

Today we have lost the cultural means to help boys mature, which explains much of our general masculinity issues, and even those in the Church where men are obviously not “growing up to salvation,” as St. Peter puts it.

Some think Confirmation serves this purpose. It doesn’t.

While researching Leaving Boyhood Behind, a book on masculine initiation and the Faith, I took note of Catholics adopting the language of “rites of passage” to describe the sacrament of Confirmation. You’ve heard it: “Confirmation is when you make your faith your own and ‘grow up’ spiritually because, you know, baptism happened in your infancy and you didn’t really choose it.” I understand the reasons this is said, but it shows a misunderstanding of both Confirmation and rites of passage. The sooner we stop trying to make Confirmation (and the “preparation” that surrounds it) do what it is not theologically revealed to do, the better.

To see why Confirmation is not a rite of passage, one must know what initiatory rites are and how/why they work. Although the term has the word rites in it, “rites of passage” is not a specifically Catholic phrase, but an anthropological term coined by Arnold Van Gennep when he published a work called The Rites of Passage in 1960. Gennep was the first to do a broad study of the ways cultures help individuals transition from one state of life to another. Today we mostly think of boys becoming men, but birth, marriage, death and other “milestones” would also be rites of passage.

But not every major moment is a rite of passage, a true initiation. Initiation is necessary when the new state of life one is being initiated into conflicts with the old way of life one is leaving behind. These are “no looking back” moments. For example, a man cannot be both single and married, so the marriage itself is a ceremonial and cultural transition wherein the community and those being joined in marriage recognize an initiation into a new way of life that did not exist before. Rites of passage also typically are meant to bring an individual into a new body that they were not a part of before.

Gennep observed that initiation required three stages. The first is the severance from the old life – a sort of death of the old state. The next stage is the actual transition, which is usually the ceremonial part of it where a new identity is bestowed and accepted, a sort of resurrection of a new identity made possible by the death of the old. The last stage is an effective incorporation into the new body, a deep and lasting belonging that comes with new responsibilities and dignities. Note the roots of the word incorporation are the Latin in and corpus, “into a body.”

So, again in the case of marriage: single life is left behind, marriage ceremonially and publicly bestows the new identity of the spouses, and the two join together as a new body that did not exist before and live in ways that did not before Note the pattern Gennep observed is even clearly in scripture: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother [death of the old life] and clings to his wife [marriage transition], and they become one flesh [incorporation of the new body]” (Genesis 2:32).

The Church does indeed have initiation, and it follows the observed pattern of a rite of passage. In fact, the Church even calls these sacraments the sacraments of initiation, because conversion to Christ is so total that it requires a death and rebirth, a rite of passage. Those sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. Baptism is the “death and rebirth” of the old man, Confirmation is the “confirming” and even bestowal of the new identity (which is why the custom of a new name is so beautiful, signifying the new life won in Christ), and the Holy Eucharist is the full incorporation into the new body, which is the Church, the Body of Christ. These are the exact words found in Scripture and the Catechism to describe Christian initiation – death, rebirth, identity, incorporation.

And, as Gennep noted that all three stages are necessary for a true initiation and must be considered in their unity, so too the Church says that the Sacraments must be understood in “an organic whole” (CCC 1211). Therefore, to speak of someone’s “rite of passage” is to speak of their initiation into the Body of Christ, which must be understood in the wholeness of the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. And, to be understood as initiation they are also understood in that order.

Confirmation, therefore, is not a rite of passage, but is only part of one. It is also the second stage, where the new identity given because of the death of the old (in Baptism), and it orients and prepares one to receive the fullness of initiation, which is the reception of the Eucharist, the end to which all Sacraments are ordered. To be fully initiated, spiritually and ecclesially speaking, is to receive the Eucharist.

This is why those bishops that are reinstating the “restored” order of the sacraments of initiation (doing Confirmation before First Communion) are right to do so – it is the order of the sacraments that reflects their theology. It is a historical happenstance that we have the order mixed up now, and it should be noted that the Eastern Churches have not separated and mixed up initiation, giving all three sacraments of initiation to infants. Some say this is because babies have not yet sinned and are worthy of the Eucharist, but it has much more to do with the fact that they want to fully initiate the baby into the Body, and do not draw it out all the way into adolescence.

In reality, then, the final stage of a rite of passage is the Eucharist, this is when one would be a “grown up” in the Sacraments, when they are fully incorporated into the body, doing the things that adults in that body do. Historically, it was not that long ago when the age for First Communion was closer to adolescence, making it correspond to the anthropological dynamic of a rite of passage, but also the theological reality of Communion.

Lowering the age of Confirmation and placing it before First Communion also gives youth the graces they need to go into adolescence and face the challenges unique to it. In our family, we have tried hard to have our children receive in the restored order, and we have noted that having them confirmed younger has in fact given them graces they needed – the gift of understanding, for example, has been manifest after Confirmation. When we speak of Confirmation in the sense of “making the faith their own” we overemphasize the agency of man and deemphasize the efficacy of the sacraments. In Christian initiation, God is making us his own, not the other way around.

What made cultural rites of passage effective, however, is not just that all the parts are there, but that the ultimate end is achieved, which is life-giving belonging. In the Church’s present liturgical and theological chaos, the real crisis is not just one of confusion, but of diffusion – the centrifugal force of error is spinning people away from the belonging of the Body of Christ, which is salvation itself. Most Confirmation conversations revolve around “reaching youth,” but our greater problem is that they can’t reach us, they can’t find the mature belonging that is the end of initiation. For that we don’t need more service hours or time in the classroom, but a vibrant and living community of adults that are able and willing to welcome the young into their company.

Confirmation “prep” is not bad, but what is more important are the intergenerational settings where the organic and natural mentoring needed to grow up spiritually occurs. Obviously, in adolescence this should also not be coed, but it should recognize that boys need to grow into men and girls grow into women – so men should mentor boys and women should mentor girls. No rite of passage that emphasized “growing up” was done in a coed environment, because it’s literally impossible to treat boys and girls the same in respect to growing into men and women. This is old and obvious wisdom, as even St. Paul recommended it to the newly ordained Timothy, obviously recognizing the unique needs of different ages and different sexes:

But as for you, teach what is consistent with sound doctrine. Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance. Likewise, tell the older women … they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children… Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured… (Titus 2:1-6).

If we do want the sacraments to be initiatory into mature Christian life, then we as communities of Catholics must leave the old ways of sin behind, fully embrace our identity in Christ, and grow in our belonging and love for one another. Then, as adults, we can invite the young into that life. In other words, we all need to live our rites of passage.