In the early years of the Church, each city had its own bishop. To this day, in fact, most Italian cities each have their own bishop, which is why there are so many more Italian bishops than there are bishops from any other country.
There really weren't any parish churches until the eleventh or twelfth century. Instead, each city had one church, the cathedral. Everyone would go to the city cathedral for Mass and all the sacraments. There might be some outlying meeting places on the edge of the city, but sacraments only happened in the cathedral.
In early Christianity, the one receiving the sacrament was typically an adult (i.e., over the age of twelve). No unbaptized person was permitted to attend Mass beyond the homily - after the homily, all unbaptized persons would be escorted out of the Church, the doors would be locked, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist would then commence.
The Eucharist was considered so sacred that no one was permitted even to be present in the building unless they were fully initiated into the Faith. Remnants of this practice are still found in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: after the homily, the deacon will call out "The doors! The doors!" - a reminder to get the unbaptized out of the building and lock the doors.
So, anyone seeking to enter into the Church wouldn't know about anything except baptism. They would spend years being instructed about baptism. Then during the night of Easter Vigil they would be taken into the baptistry (which was an eight-sided building external to the Church), stripped naked (men in one group, women in another, and separated by a screen so they couldn't see each other and be scandalized) and there be baptized.
Incidentally, the two roles the deaconess performed in the ancient Church was the anointing of naked females with baptismal chrism (it was deemed unwise to let men see the women naked) and the barring of the doors after the homily. Deaconesses were never considered to be part of Holy Orders.
In any case, after baptism, the newly baptized would be clothed in a white garment. The bishop would now confirm the newly baptized, who would in turn then run across the lawn in their white garments, smelling of the fragrant oils of baptism and confirmation, and enter into the Church where the Catholic faithful had been praying all night. At that point, the Mass would begin.
As the newly baptized (called neophytes, which means "new plants") ran in, everyone present would remember the time when THEY had gone through the same ritual, running across the cold, snowy lawn and into the warm Church filled with men and women praying for them. They would remember the excitement of the congregation, the cries of "Hosanna" and "Alleluia!", the heady fragrance of the oil mixing with the incense and the smoke from the candles and the torches in their sconces, at their own initiation. It was an exuberant joy that no one ever forgot.
But there was more. The neophytes knew about baptism, but only during the homily would they find out about and be instructed in the mystery of the Eucharist. Then, immediately after the homily, when the doors were locked and barred, the gifts would be consecrated, and the newly baptized would would be brought forward and given the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ for the first time.
So, that was the order of sacramental reception: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.
But two things changed.
First, as all the adults in western Europe were brought into the Church the emphasis switched away from adult baptism and towards infant baptism. Second, as the Church spread, the number of cities each new bishopric had to oversee increased.
Because of this switch in emphasis, the bishop found he could not be present at every baptism. For obvious reasons, infants don't need instruction, they can be baptized at any time. Indeed, Origen said (185-253 AD) "The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants" (Commentaries on Romans 5:9). The Council of Carthage (A.D. 252) condemns those who postpone baptism until the eighth day after birth. Baptism perfects Jewish circumcision. St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote to Fidius, "As to what pertains to the case of infants: you said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth,... In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judged that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born."
And because of the both the number and the size of cities to be overseen had grown, using just the city cathedral for sacraments became difficult. Monasteries out in the country tamed the land (monks were always built in wild forests, swamps or desert places - monks were the European equivalent of the American pioneer/cowboy), people moved out to farm the newly cleared land and those same lay people started participating in the sacramental life of the monastery instead of always making the long trek into the city.
This is where the concept of the parish church really arose. A place that wasn't the cathedral but you could still get sacraments there - that was unusual at the time.
But now you can see the problem. While adults had always been brought in as a batch on Easter Vigil in the single city cathedral, infants were being baptized literally every day of the week in several cities and monasteries simultaneously throughout the diocese.
There were only two ways to solve the problem: have the priest do both baptism and confirmation or have confirmation await the appearance of the bishop. In the East, the bishops decided to let the priests confirm as long as they used oil blessed by a bishop; the oil was called myron. In the West, the bishops chose to reserve confirmation to themselves.
But the number of cities and parishes each bishop had to oversee kept increasing. Consequently, the time between (1) baptism in infancy and (2) confirmation followed by First Eucharist kept increasing.
By the time Bernadette Soubirous was having her visions of Our Lady of Lourdes in the 1800's (and for several centuries prior), it was not uncommon for confirmation and First Eucharist to be administered as late as the age of fifteen or sixteen.
This wasn't good. It was not uncommon for people to marry by that age and they needed the grace of the sacraments (remember, the Blessed Virgin Mary herself was believed to have accepted the Incarnation somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14). Pope Pius IX didn't like delaying full initiation for so long, so he introduced First Eucharist at the age of seven with the directive Quam Singulari in 1910.
Now, he assumed that all of the bishops would realize that if the age of First Eucharist was lowered, the age of confirmation would also have to be lowered in order to precede confirmation as it always had. Unfortunately, most of the world's bishops failed to take the hint. They moved the age of first Eucharist but didn't do anything with the age of confirmation.
Thus, about 1910, many areas of the Church began doing something extremely odd from an historical point of view: they began giving confirmation AFTER first Eucharist. The practice has continued in some areas right up until this day.
This is a really weird new innovation, and Rome doesn't particularly like it. She keeps hinting to the bishops that Confirmation should really be coming before First Eucharist.
So, if you read through the CCC or any of the other Magisterial documents, you will always see the sacraments of initiation listed in this order: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.
At Easter Vigil, the order of sacramental reception is always: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.
If you read Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, he hints in #17 and 18 that the order of sacraments should really be looked at and established so that the emphasis is always on the Eucharist.
This is a very quiet way of prodding the bishops throughout the world, since every bishop has studied philosophy, and philosophy always insists that the last thing done in a process is the point of the whole process. Thus, if you want an initiation process that is centered on the Eucharist, the Eucharist should really be the last sacrament that is received.
The bishops of Scotland have taken the hint and restored the order as have several other small countries, but there are a lot of bishops in the US, so it's a lot more difficult to get all the bishops in America to get on the same page.
Since the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) was newly re-established in the 1970's, Rome had the opportunity to establish the regulations for RCIA in such a way that it forces the American bishops to do things a little more like they are supposed to be done, tying all three sacraments of initiation together very tightly and in the proper order. Thus, it says:
"Since those who have the faculty to confirm are bound to exercise it in accord with canon 885:2, and may not be prohibited from using the faculty, a diocesan bishop who is desirous of confirming neophytes should reserve to himself the baptism of adults in accord with canon 863." (RCIA Appendix III, #13)A priest who baptizes anyone who has come through RCIA or RCIC (the rite for children) must confirm in the same ceremony. He has zero choice in the matter. It doesn't matter what the diocesan age for confirmation is or whether or not the candidates have gone to all the retreats, done all the service hours, etc. They have to be confirmed if they are being baptized.
Unfortunately, we lay Americans (even some bishops) don't have much historical sense nor much knowledge of history, so we tend to be under the false impression that confirmation is supposed to be last. The only reason we think this is because that's how our parents and grandparents did it. We've forgotten that this practice really doesn't go back farther than our great-grandparents, and is really not what happened throughout the whole history of the Church nor is it even what happens throughout the entire world today.
Today, many bishops realize that the sacraments are not properly ordered, but they don't feel the backlash they would get from the laity in the diocese to be worth the trouble of changing the sacramental reception ages back to the correct order.
Worse, some bishops actually tend to use the sacrament as a carrot to force children to go through excessively long preparation. At this point, many dioceses actually force children to go through a confirmation process that is FOUR TIMES LONGER than the process engaged adults are asked to go through in order to get married and raise a family (two years for confirmation, six months for marriage).
Catechists like later confirmation ages because it forces children to stay in front of them: they typically aren't competent enough as teachers to hold most children's interest otherwise. Once a child is confirmed, the child is finally freed from any sacramental motivation to continue to attend religious education classes. A child who hates these classes generally never returns to learn more. Most children apparently hate the classes, because most don't come back after confirmation.
But if children don't come back, directors of parish religious programs have very little rationale for the existence of their job. Instead of having hundreds of children in their programs through eighth grade or high school, they have a dozen or so that stay on past third grade. The only way to keep their phony-baloney jobs is to keep confirmation age as high as possible. They all get together and lobby the bishop to make sure this happens.
The only way to stop the madness is to follow the directive found in the Rite of Confirmation #3:
"The initiation of children into the sacramental life is ordinarily the responsibility and concern of Christian parents. They are to form and gradually increase a spirit of faith in the children and, at times with the help of catechism classes, prepare them for the fruitful reception of the sacraments of confirmation and eucharist. The role of the parents is also expressed by their active participation in the celebration of the sacraments."As you may imagine, this is a passage which is never quoted by bishops or parish religious staff. The idea that parents should fulfill their sacramental vows of marriage and teach their own children is anathema to the power structure of most parishes. It is a positive danger to the paychecks of thousands of youth ministers and directors of religious education.
So, parishes actively attack parental rights and responsibilities instead of assisting parents in doing what parents are ordained by their marriage vows to do: teach their own children about God. Until this situation changes, the parish will be but one more contributor to the breakdown of the American family.