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In my parish in the diocese of Honolulu, we are in discussions regarding transitioning the catechetical process so that in a few years, the sacraments of initiation [Baptism, Confirmation, and then First Holy Communion] will be administered in their [that] proper order. My understanding is that some other dioceses are doing that as well.

Before it was Baptism, First Holy Communion [with First Confession], and then Confirmation.

The question is what should be the proper order of the sacraments of initiation with support from scripture and early Church practice, and how and why, if that was the proper order, was there a reordering from the proper order?

In this proper order, when is First Reconciliation/Penance/Confession?

  • are you talking about RCIA? I believe that new Catholics Recieve the Grand slam at the Easter vigil. Confirmation, being (in part) the New Covenant fullfillment of a Bar Mitzvah would not be appropreiete to young people as thier ability to understand and pass on the faith is deminished by youth. I believe the Nature of tha sacrement is the reason for the current order. One must know the Church, before they can Love it, and pass on the mysteries. Catholic Catechesis currently is in much need of revision. Our Children are mostly unaware of the faith, as are most adults. – Marc Oct 12 '15 at 12:21
  • @Marc Confirmation is not a descendant/fulfilment of the Bar Mitzvah. It existed before the modern understanding of the Bar Mitzvah came into being. – lonesomeday Oct 15 '15 at 10:44
  • @lonesomeday You may say that it was not written down in the talmad before 70 AD or that it was not written in the mishnah before 270 AD. To suggest however that it did not exist before it was written down is incorrect, after the temple was destroyed, rabinic traditions includding the Bar Mitzvah which exsisted were written down for there preservations. – Marc Oct 15 '15 at 11:37
  • @Marc Certainly. But the idea of a Bar Mitzvah has changed in the intervening 1945 years, so the modern rite of confirmation is not closely related to the modern Bar Mitzvah. Moreover, I know of no particular evidence to say that confirmation was in any way seen as a fulfilment of the Bar Mitzvah; on the contrary, it was originally part of baptism. – lonesomeday Oct 15 '15 at 12:21
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    @PeterTurner Happy New [Church] Year and thank you for the Advent Bounty 2015 for a detailed canonical answer. – user13992 Dec 1 '15 at 5:15
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+100

Until about 30-40 years ago, here in Italy the order of the sacraments of initiation was Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion - and it's the canonical order, following the Cathechism. That order is still used when an adult recieve the Sacraments: notice that usually adult pepole recieve all three sacraments in the same day, so the order is not really imprtant.

But when in 1910 Pope Pio X established that the First Communion should be received from children at 7-8 years old, the Church encountered a problem: it's very difficult to explain to such young children what and who is the Holy Spirit, and all the meanings of the sacrament of Confirmation. So, today, each italian bishop is free to choose the order, but most of them follow this:

  1. Baptism
  2. First Communion (usually at 8 years old)
  3. Confirmation (usually at 13 years old, but some bishops prefer to wait until 16)

As said, they follow that order, having in mind what Pope Benedict XVI said in Sacramentum Caritatis

"It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist"

About First Confession, it's usually celebrated few days before first Communion

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    +1; very interesting, Marco. This would be an even stronger answer, however, if you had a source for the practice and rationale of the Italian bishops. – Nathaniel Dec 4 '15 at 12:14
  • I would think that there would be some importance to the order, for example, first communion would not come before Baptism, even if the ceremony was done at the same service. Baptism is a requirement prior to recieving the Eucharist. Confirmation also has to do with learning, some time in fact is neccessary for that to happen. Other factors such as people converting from other faiths who were properly Baptized prior to the ceremony could recieve Confirmation prior to the Eucharist, which would be in line with the order of the Eucharistic celebration during the easter vigil. – Marc Dec 4 '15 at 22:27
  • @Marco Can this Returning the Sacraments of Initiation to Their Proper Order help augment your answer? Also biblically, Jesus was first baptized, immediately therafter the Spirit descendend upon him, and then before his passion death, he instituted the Eucharist. – user13992 Dec 7 '15 at 2:36
  • @FMS Biblically, there's an argomentation for the other order, too. We don't know when Apostles were Baptized (but, at least for John, we can suppose it happened before he met Jesus) but we know that they had the Last Supper before the Holy Spirit descend on them (during Pentecost) – Marco Dec 14 '15 at 10:38
  • @Nathaniel Yes, i had a source but it's in Italian... if you can read it, it's here (it's from card. Angelo Scola, bishop of Milan) – Marco Dec 14 '15 at 10:45
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+100

This answer is full of guesses, and it really only concerns the historical reason why the order of reception of the sacraments was re-arranged in the U.S. I leave the canonical explanation and the sacramental explanation to someone with better understanding of these matters than I. I do not expect to receive the bounty offered, but perhaps my answer might help bring a little light into the issue.

Firstly, the order of the reception of the sacraments was not changed universally. In the Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches (and in the Orthodox churches as well, I believe), all of the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion) are still administered at once, preferably soon after birth.

The Latin Rite Catholic Church developed a tradition of waiting for confirmation until the bishop could do it himself (CCC 1290):

In the first centuries Confirmation generally comprised one single celebration with Baptism, forming with it a "double sacrament," according to the expression of St. Cyprian. Among other reasons, the multiplication of infant baptisms all through the year, the increase of rural parishes, and the growth of dioceses often prevented the bishop from being present at all baptismal celebrations. In the West the desire to reserve the completion of Baptism to the bishop caused the temporal separation of the two sacraments. The East has kept them united, so that Confirmation is conferred by the priest who baptizes. But he can do so only with the "myron" consecrated by a bishop.

In the Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches, infant communion is also practiced, so that all sacraments of initiation can be administered at the same time. This is quite valid and licitly allowed in their canon law. In the Latin Rite Church, the close identification of confirmation with the Bishop was desired, and since the Bishop could not be everywhere at once, confirmation was pushed from infancy into early childhood. Because confirmation is the second sacrament of initiation, and First Communion the third, this meant that First Communion was pushed to even later in life. However, the order still remained for the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, then First Communion.

In what follows, I am paraphrasing (hopefully without miss-interpreting) QUAM SINGULARI.

Over time, in the Latin Church there arose a particular tradition on withholding the Eucharist from young children who had not yet attained the age of reason. This arose from piety towards the Eucharist and a desire that those children who received it understood the difference between regular food and Him in the Consecrated Species. This thinking was seen as officially sanctioned by canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council which decreed that all faithful were required to confess their sins and receive communion at least once a year after they have reached the age of discernment. (Note that this canon does not actually prohibit the reception of the Eucharist before the age of discernment!).

But the association between age of discernment and the Eucharist had been made. And as time went by many people interpreted the age of discernment as later and later --- some even arguing that full discernment only comes with a mature and complete understanding of the Catholic faith. Thus, the age for First Communion kept getting higher and higher. My guess is that this also caused the age for Confirmation to keep going up, as Confirmation was sandwiched between Baptism and First Communion. But I believe that the order of reception of the sacraments of initiation remained the same: Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion.

At the same time, also in the Latin Rite Church, it started to become a custom to postpone Confirmation after catechesis, thus pushing the Sacrament of Confirmation until after a person could have at least some understanding of the Catholic Faith. This was not at all inconsistent (and in fact, quite consonant) with the reception of First Communion --- the third sacrament of initiation --- thirdly.

So, what happened? Why did the order of reception of these sacraments come to be Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation in the U.S.?

Pope St. Pius X happened. In Sacra Tridentina he reminded the faithful of how great the Holy Eucharist is, and he encouraged all Catholic people to receive the sacrament often (provided they were properly disposed) --- he even went so far as to suggest daily communion! Soon thereafter Quam Singulari authoritatively asked that The Holy Eucharist not be denied to children past the age of reason --- when they could distinguish the difference between bread and the sacred host --- which the Congregation saw about the age of 7, more or less. Further, the Congregation envisions the reception of First Communion even before the children have finished their catechesis:

A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary either for First Confession or for First Communion. Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability.

(These guidelines do seem to require that the age of reason be reached before receiving the Eucharist in the Latin Rite Church, thus forbidding the administering of the Eucharist to very young children and infants). In any case, it seemed that First Communion need not be postponed until after full catechesis has taken place.

My guess is that, in the United States, this was interpreted to mean that First Communion could be (and should be!) received before Confirmation --- because the custom of Confirmation after the end of catechesis was too firmly established to change. And so, in the U.S., the administration of the sacraments (for children) became:

  1. The first sacrament of initiation: Baptism.
  2. The third sacrament of initiation: First Communion.
  3. The second sacrament of initiation: Confirmation.

This new order, however, did not become by any means universal across the entire Catholic Church. As I mentioned earlier, the Eastern and Oriental Catholic churches still administer all of the sacraments of initiation at once, usually during infancy. And furthermore, even in the Latin Rite Church the change in order in the administration of the sacraments did not happen. I know for a fact that in México, circa the middle 1980s (I am not sure about contemporaneous practice), the order of reception for the sacraments of initiation remained the same: Baptism first, Confirmation next, and then First Communion.

Reading Quam Singulari carefully, one notices that there is no requirement therein that the order of the sacraments be altered. Therefore, while its interpretation in the U.S. was to lower the age of First Communion and administer the third sacrament of initiation earlier than the second one, it appears that the interpretation in México (and other places in the word?) --- at least as evidenced by the practice in the mid-1980s --- was to lower the age of Confirmation significantly so that a child could still receive his First Communion at a young age. I suppose that the advantage of the practice in the U.S. is that a child is better catechised by the time Confirmation is administered. The advantage of the practice from México in the mid-1980s is that the sacraments are received in order. The disadvantage of the mid-1980s practice in México is that very often children do not finish their catechesis once they have received all of the sacraments --- catechism is seen by them and their parents these days only as a requirement for the sacraments, not a good and duty in itself ---, so the Catholic education that the faithful have is abysmal. Of course, the disadvantage of the U.S. practice is that the sacraments are received out of order.

As I said before, this answer doesn't touch upon the current canonical or sacramental issues. It makes a stab only at some historical points. A fuller answer would clarify, I think, what the current canon law is on the order of the reception of the sacraments (with perhaps a clarification on the canon law of reception of the Eucharist by infants or by children before the age of discernment), as well as the sacramental implications (if any) of receiving the sacraments out of order.

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