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Sacraments: Confirmation

Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Confirmation is the sacrament of Christian maturity. By a unique sealing with the gift of the Holy Spirit, baptismal grace is strengthened and perfected, confirming the Christian for public witness to the Gospel. But why is Confirmation necessary – is it not enough to be born-again in Baptism?

'Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit' (Acts 8:14-17).

This passage suggests that, right from the apostolic period, baptism was strengthened by a second, distinct action: the laying on of hands to call down the Holy Spirit. Any explanation of how the earliest followers of Jesus became 'Christians', and how God formed these men and women into a recognisable 'Church', has to look at the sacraments – those efficacious signs of God's grace in our lives. The Church recognises three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. The first two leave an indelible spiritual mark on the individual, newly remade in the image of Christ, and can only be performed once. If Baptism is the birth into the Christian life, Confirmation is its maturity – and clearly these cannot be repeated. The Eucharist, however, is our heavenly food, even 'daily bread', to nourish us regularly along the way.

How, then, is Confirmation truly distinct from Baptism? In the early Church, the two were performed by the bishop in a double ceremony, but they became divided in the Latin tradition when bishops could not easily reach every part of their expanding dioceses. Baptism could be done by the local priest (or anyone, in fact) but Confirmation required the bishop to be the ordinary minister, so the latter sacrament was separated out and could occur even years later, just as soon as the bishop was available. This tells us something important about the sacrament. The bishop's action in conferring Confirmation is a sign of the unity and apostolicity of the Church. As successor to the apostles (who are 'sent'), the bishop now sends out these confirmed Christians to witness to Christ in the Holy Spirit.

The liturgical actions are a further indication of what Confirmation is all about, because they constitute the visible sign by which the sacrament is conferred. After being presented, the candidates make the renewal of baptismal promises; the link to Baptism is especially clear if the candidate's sponsor for Confirmation is their baptismal godparent. There follows the laying on of hands, according to the apostles' example.

Now, crucially, comes the anointing with chrism. This is the perfumed oil consecrated by the bishop on Holy Thursday and used also for conferring Baptism and Holy Orders. Oil is a traditional sign of abundance and joy, being employed to cleanse, heal, beautify and strengthen (CCC 1293). But it has a very special meaning here: Jesus is the Christ, which means the Anointed One, the Messiah, who is priest, prophet and king. Our anointing with chrism, therefore, consecrates us to Christ, marking us out as his own, his beloved. And as the bishop applies the chrism, he names the candidate and says:
Confirmed by Bishop Kenney
'Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.'

We say there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord (cf. Is. 11:2-3; CCC 1831) – and twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit – charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, chastity and self-control (cf. Gal. 5:22-3; CCC 1832). These traditional lists may seem to imply placing limits on God's grace, to be measured out by human standards. In fact, they do the opposite, pointing to the sheer variety and superabundance of these graces at work in the different aspects of our lives. If someone says the life of the Spirit is (for instance) simply joy, we joyfully reply, 'Yes, yes, yes! And so much more!' The Holy Spirit is a Divine Person and obviously cannot be measured, or dispensed in degrees. But the Spirit operates in us in diverse ways and for different purposes. That is why the Spirit can be given to us more than once – in Baptism then Confirmation – not because he has changed, but because we have.

Confirmation is our Pentecost, when we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit to take the bold step of witnessing to Christ in our lives, in word and deed. As confirmed Christians, even if we are young, unsure and inexperienced, the Spirit of Jesus brings us to a new maturity, completing baptismal grace within us, and commissioning us for God's work in the world. 

'It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has commissioned us; he has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.' (2 Cor. 1:21-22)

If perhaps we struggle to express what this strengthening really consists in (which is why some say Confirmation is 'a sacrament in search of a theology'), that is only because human maturity is very difficult to describe. But we need not worry: the apostle Peter resorted to the words of the prophet ('I will pour out my spirit in those days') and simply went on to proclaim the Good News to the crowds (Acts 1:14-40). The Spirit's gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding help us to appreciate that the operation of divine grace becomes a visible and tangible mystery in the sacraments, sufficient to bring us to salvific faith. In piety and reverence it is our commission to live out that faith wherever we are, and – with fortitude and counsel – to proclaim it to others.


The Church invites baptised Catholics who are not yet confirmed to come forward to receive this sacrament 'at the appropriate time', to complete their initiation (CCC 1306). Thus sealing our maturity, we are conformed more closely to Christ and strengthened to witness to the reality of salvation in him. 

On the other hand, it is a sad fact that many Catholics fall away from the Church even after Confirmation, especially if conferred during early adolescence as a default rite of passage. Clearly, our Christian lives need to be nourished in daily prayer, the regular participation in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) and in a vibrant community of faith. Ordinary human maturity does not prevent us making mistakes; likewise, God's grace, which builds on nature, does not guarantee a perfect Christian life. Yet God's grace is infinite, and no matter how far we drift away, the Father is always extending his loving embrace to welcome home his prodigal sons and daughters (for that is what we all are). And, of course, it is Christian maturity in Confirmation that best disposes us, humbly and gratefully, to accept and return that love.

Matthew Jarvis OP


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