Confirmation is the second of the Sacraments of Initiation. It is closely related to Baptism and leads to the Eucharist which expresses full belonging to the Church, the body of Christ. Hence it is called a sacrament of initiation. While Confirmation is often spoken of in relation to the Holy Spirit it is important to realise that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in all the sacraments. The Holy Spirit is called upon the waters of Baptism, the oil (Chrism) of Confirmation and the bread and wine of the Eucharist but each of the sacraments of initiation have their unique emphasis:
makes us members of the Church
cleanses us from original and past personal sin
makes us sharers in the life and identity of Christ
seals us with the Holy Spirit
strengthens us for service
invites us to, and equips us for, witness to Christ
signifies and brings about our unity in Christ
enables our participation in the sacrifice of the cross
feeds and sustains us for continuing Christ’s work in the world
The actions of the sacrament of Confirmation are two-fold. Firstly the bishop extends his hands over the heads of those to be confirmed and calls the Holy Spirit upon them. Then the candidates come before the bishop who anoints each one’s forehead with Chrism (which is consecrated, perfumed olive oil) and pronounces the words: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’.
It is usually administered by the local bishop or his delegate, except during the Rite of Christian Initiation of adults when the priest who baptises the candidates, confirms them immediately afterwards. At other times, Confirmation is usually celebrated in the context of the Mass. It is preceded by the Liturgy of the Word and Renewal of Baptismal Promises (to show the relationship with Baptism) and leads into the Liturgy of the Eucharist (which shows how the Eucharist brings to completion the sacraments of initiation).
Confirmation, a rite of Initiation?
When we hear the word ‘initiation’ it can often conjure up tribal images of sometimes painful ordeals that adolescents must undergo to be admitted to adult status in a particular community but the Christian rites of initiation are based on a very different principle.
Christians believe that faith is a gift of God and that human beings in receiving the sacraments are responding to that gift, not earning it. That being said, there are aspects of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist that have some parallels with the anthropology of initiation, especially of rites of passage.
Parallels between ‘rites of passage’ and the sacraments of initiation
Rites of passage typically consist of:
a period of separation of the person being initiated from the group
a time of transition, the state of being betwixt and between, which culminates in
the incorporation of the candidate into the group.
A parallel with this movement is seen in the Adult Catechumenate of the Catholic Church. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (sometimes referred to as the RCIA) is comprised of a number of stages and steps through which catechumens move on their way to full membership of the Church.
During their preparation time, they are somewhat separated from the community. They gather with catechists and sponsors during a period of transition during which they learn and experience something of the life and faith of the Church. Finally they are fully incorporated into the life of the community by their reception of the sacraments of initiation.
A similar thing happens for Confirmation candidates. They usually undergo a special period of preparation involving catechesis, prayer and service. Some times they participate in a retreat, they choose sponsors and quite often a new name before appearing before the leader of the Church community, the bishop and receiving the sacrament.
Why a bishop and not the parish priest who might know the candidates better?
The bishop represents the wider church in which the confirmed Catholic takes his or her place. Every Catholic belongs not only to the local Church (the parish) but to the worldwide Church and beyond that to the Communion of Saints living and dead.
Confirmation: a completion of Baptism
However, the sacrament is best understood not as a rite of passage, nor as an admission to adult faith but as a completion of Baptism, a deepening of Christian identity received at Baptism and as a free gift of the Holy Spirit.
Confirmation is not first and foremost, a decision by the candidate to affirm their Baptism but a confirmation or strengthening of his or her faith by the Holy Spirit through the actions of anointing and laying on of hands. It is not something we do but something done to us. Through the agency of the bishop, it is the Holy Spirit who strengthens us, inspires us, encourages us to be able to live as those who consciously turn to Christ as the source of their life. Hence, just as we do not speak of ‘making our Baptism’ but of ‘being baptised’, we do not ‘make our confirmation’ but we ‘are confirmed’.
Symbolic signs and actions of Confirmation
While we generally understand the gesture of the laying on of hands and the signing with Chrism as the two symbolic actions of this sacrament an article entitled Confirmation: 7 Symbols in 1 Sacrament shows how Confirmation embraces a much broader symbolic field. Fr Thomas Richstatter very accessibly explores Confirmation’s connections with the foundational sacrament of Baptism and its culminating sacrament, the Eucharist. He also touches on the role of the community and the bishop as well as the significance of anointing and the words spoken in the ceremony. Two other articles explore in slightly different ways the symbolism of the Holy Oils, the blessing of these oils at the Chrism Mass and their various uses within the Church. The gesture of laying on of hands is explained in a brief but quite comprehensive article from the Encyclopedia of Christianity.
REFLECTIONS and RESPONSES
Read about rites of passage in another culture. Do you see any parallels with Christian initiation. What are some of the significant differences?
Tease out the several meanings of the word ‘confirmation’ with the class. In which sense is the word used in relation to the sacrament? Why is the expression ‘making confirmation’ inaccurate?
Set students to prepare acrostics from the names of the three sacraments of initiation using words relevant to each sacrament.
Class groups (or individuals) could make a power point of images reflecting the importance of Fr Thomas Richstatter’s seven symbols: Community, Baptism, Anointing, Touch, Words, Minister (Bishop) and Eucharist to the sacrament of Confirmation. They might prepare a brief commentary and perhaps music to accompany the images. Use the power points in class as discussion starters or reflection pieces.
Oil was used in various ways in the time of Christ. These meanings are very relevant to the use of oil in Confirmation, but we use oil in even more ways now. Brainstorm all the different uses of oil in our society and see what links can be made between these uses and the effects of Confirmation: e.g. Oil is used in motor engines to lubricate the parts and help them work smoothly together. Confirmation makes us aware of others in the Church and eases our working together.
The sense of smell is one of the most primal of the human senses. Among other roles it indicates the goodness or harmfulness of substances. You could play a game to experience how smells work. Why are some smells attractive to human beings and others offensive? Then find out why perfume is used to prepare the Chrism oil used at Confirmation. What does it symbolise? (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1294).
An older group of candidates could look for some poetry which tries to convey something of the meaning and effect of the Holy Spirit. (Look in hymnals, on the internet and in anthologies. The Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry, edited by Les Murray has several). Make a class collage of students’ favourite extracts together with their most evocative artwork.
Explore the traditional images of the Holy Spirit: wind, fire, breath. What is the effect of each of these on the natural world, on our bodies, in our way of speaking? (E.g. What does it mean when we hear expressions like ‘The team was on fire’; ‘Go catch the wind!’; ‘She was a breath of fresh air’.) How do these images help us to think about the effects of the Holy Spirit.
Devise a Confirmation game which includes as many of the aspects of preparation for Confirmation as you know (study, service, group reflection, prayer etc. Be specific about these e.g. ‘Spent ten minutes thinking about the Pentecost account in Acts’, ‘Did errand for elderly neighbour’), and also some of the difficulties or trials confronting a candidate as he or she prepares for the Sacrament. (Indifferent attitude of others, shyness about serving others or getting involved, preferring other activities to preparation time, being teased about your faith, etc. Again, be specific: ‘Couldn’t be bothered to look at Confirmation homework’, ‘Too late for footy to help my sister unload dishwasher.’) You could simply take ‘Snakes and Ladders’ as a model or think up an entirely new game plan. It can take the form of either a board or online game.
In God’s Story
CONFIRMATION IN SCRIPTURE
Some people query the scriptural basis of Confirmation as it is not mentioned in the gospels themselves. However Jesus frequently spoke of and promised the gift of the Holy Spirit and on the evening of the day of the Resurrection he himself came to his frightened and dispirited disciples and breathed the Holy Spirit into them. This giving of the Spirit on the evening of the day of the Resurrection and the account of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem described in the Acts of the Apostles are the foundational texts for the sacrament of Confirmation.
A couple of further texts often mentioned in connection with this sacrament are Acts 8:14-17, which describes Peter and John visiting baptised believers in Samaria and laying hands upon them, whereupon they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and Acts 19:1-7, which describes the baptism and ‘confirmation’ of believers at Ephesus.
REFLECTIONS AND RESPONSES
You are Matthew (or one of the other apostles). Write about how you experienced Jesus among you in the locked room, during the evening of Easter day (John 20:19-23). Don’t forget to include both what happened and your reactions; what the others were doing and how you felt and especially what your focus became when Jesus breathed his Spirit into you.
Compare John’s account of Jesus breathing his Spirit into the disciples (John 20:19-23) with Luke’s account of the events on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). What are some similarities? What are the differences?
Find three or four depictions of Pentecost from different artists and eras. What aspect of the experience does each capture? Which do you find reflects the moment most effectively?
Have a group of students retell Luke’s account of Pentecost using sounds only, no words.
Have a student read the account of Pentecost while others mime it.
In the Church’s Story
Early Church References to ‘Confirmation’
As suggested in Fr Paul Turner’s article on the Biblical Origins of Confirmation in the previous section, the practice of laying on hands and anointing of Christians after Baptism by the bishop, is well attested in the early church where it was part of the Church’s initiatory practice.
Look here (insert pdf with extracts from Fathers) for brief extracts from the writings of five leaders of the early Church which refer to a ritual substantially similar to the rite of Confirmation today.
As Christianity spread, bishops could no longer attend every baptism and so Baptism was delegated to priests. In the Eastern part of the Church, the priest baptised, anointed with Chrism and gave communion even to babies as part of their initiation. This is still the practice in the Eastern Church today. But in the Western Church the anointing was reserved to the bishop as a sign of unity. Hence, as the church burgeoned throughout Europe and dioceses became very large, Confirmation became separated from Baptism. In fact, church rules had to be introduced to ensure that Confirmation was received by at least seven years of age but even so, very many people were never confirmed at all. This brief extract from the life of St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) describes a Confirmation at which he officiated. It gives us an idea of the difficulties associated with reception of the sacrament at that time.
Thomas was the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and his writing reflects the best thought on the sacrament from his time. Though his way of approaching the sacraments is different from ours, the way he sets out his thinking is very logical. First he poses a question. In this case it is Whether confirmation is a sacrament? Then he lists various common objections to this being so. Finally he deals with each objection and gives his answer. Thomas’s thought on this sacrament tended to influence an understanding of Confirmation in terms of an increase in grace and as a sacrament of maturity in the Christian life.
Early 20th Century
The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia expresses in its very first sentence the understanding of confirmation prevalent in the first half of the 20th Century: ‘A sacrament in which the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.’
Difficulties with this definition include an unintended implication that the Holy Spirit is absent is lacking in baptism, the observable fact that confirmation of itself did not make strong and perfect Christians and the militaristic imagery associated with the words ‘soldiers of Christ’. While Ephesians speaks meta
In 1910, Pope Pius X had permitted children from the age of reason, around seven years of age, to receive Holy Communion. As Confirmation continued to be administered to 12 year old’s, this permission altered the order in which the three sacraments were received. Hence the early recognition of the relationship between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist was largely lost.
Vatican II inaugurated thinking about Confirmation in terms that we have mentioned already, as a sacrament of initiation and so in close relationship to Baptism and Eucharist (see section below). The Constitution on the Liturgy proposed that ‘the intimate connection which this sacrament has within the whole of Christian Initiation should be more lucidly set forth’ (#71). However the document did not go into any details about how this should be done and there are a few problems which seem to make this difficult to understand and act upon.
REFLECTIONS AND RESPONSES
You might divide the class into groups to work on some projects such as the following:
You have been chosen to step into the past to explore the Sacrament of Confirmation. As you begin your journey, make sure you have all your equipment ready for travel back into time. You will be travelling with a partner and you will need a notebook to take notes.
• Your first destination is Samaria circa AD 40. Disciples of Jesus arrive from Jerusalem to visit the community there. Take brief notes about your location, the surroundings, the people present and what actually happens.
• Next stop is Jerusalem in the time of Bishop Cyril. Where is this ceremony taking place, who is present. Note any developments.
• Move on to St Omer (in Northern France) in the time of Anselm. What is happening here? How many candidates are there? Why is Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury in England, confirming here in France? What are the people like? How does Bishop Anselm deal with them?
• Check out what light Fra Thomas Aquinas can throw on the understanding of this sacrament in the Middle Ages by thumbing through a section his great Summa. (Hint: pay attention to the ‘objections’ because they indicate some of the opinions about the sacrament held by people of his time.)
• Also visit Rogier Van der Weyden as he completes the Confirmation scene of his Triptych of the Seven Sacraments in Brussels in 1448. How is the bishop making the sign of the cross with Chrism on the forehead of the candidate? Can you find out why the candidate confirmed just previously is having a cloth tied around his forehead by the acolyte on the left of the bishop and other young candidates, heads bound with cloths are walking away?
• Take a short trip of less than a hundred years and find out how Confirmation was celebrated in 1913 by reading the extract on Confirmation in the Catholic Encyclopaedia of that year. This way of celebrating the sacrament would have been familiar to your grandparents. What do they remember about their Confirmation?
Reports could be compiled and presented in various ways according to the style of the report and the aptitudes and interests of students, e.g. short story, power point, recorded interview, collage, diorama, playlet.
Prepare a presentation on the more recent history of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Research might include online and written sources (primary and secondary) and two interviews. Interview (either face to face, by e-mail or on the telephone) two people who have been confirmed in the Catholic Church. It is helpful if they are of different ages. Remember to ask them:
• when, where and by whom they were confirmed,
• what they remember of the preparations and the ceremony
• ways in which the life of faith has changed since their Confirmation Your final presentation should include the following:
• a brief history of the sacrament of Confirmation
• an overview of how confirmation is prepared for and celebrated in your school or parish. Is it the same for adults and young people?
• an overview of Confirmation rituals and symbols
• results of the interviews
Hand in your interview questions with your report. In the bibliography include the names of the people you interviewed and the approximate year that they were confirmed.
Supply the class with some simple art materials: sketching pencils, charcoal, oil pastels, clay, textas. Play a recording of a setting of the hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus / Come Holy Spirit or another piece of music which evokes a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit and invite students to express their response in art or images.