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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church
By Jack Hartjes
Thinking about Confirmation
Confirmation is a confusing sacrament for Catholics to think about. It is a sacrament of initiation, with Baptism and Eucharist. It belongs between the other two. In the early days of the Church new members were baptized, anointed with the Spirit, and then fed on the Eucharist, in that order, all in one ceremony. Now, except for adult converts and in Eastern Rite churches, Confirmation occurs usually around the time when a person is beginning, or not quite beginning, adulthood. It's long after a person has been baptized and admitted to the Eucharistic table.
In ages past it was the bishop’s responsibility to welcome new members into the Church. That’s still the case today, and it makes an important statement. The Church is manifested in two opposite arenas. One is the local Church, the community that gathers for liturgy week after week. The other is the universal, worldwide Church. In Catholic theology the connection between the two is the bishop. That gives bishops and their dioceses an importance in the Catholic Church that they do not have in Protestant churches, where the local celebrating community ranks higher. Reconciling these differences in emphasis is an ecumenical task that is going forward even now. Meanwhile, ever since dioceses got too big for the bishop to preside personally at every Baptism, the initiation process has been split into the sacrament of Baptism, performed at the local level by the parish priest or deacon, and the sacrament of Confirmation, which the bishop ministers to Catholics who were baptized as infants. Adults becoming Catholic are confirmed in their parish church by the pastor of the parish during the Easter Vigil, but the bishop has a role in these cases also. Before the Confirmation itself all the adult candidates in the diocese receive a call from the bishop in a special rite in the Cathedral. It’s like an invitation to step out into the world with our faith.
Since its separation into a sacrament on its own, the timing of Confirmation has evolved generally in the direction of increasing its distance from Baptism. The original order of the three sacraments of initiation was altered when Pope Pius X urged more frequent and earlier use of Holy Communion. Since then children generally receive Communion for the first time around age seven. Confirmation in my case waited until age nine. Our bishop visited each parish once every three years and confirmed all of the third, fourth, and fifth graders.
My religion teachers didn’t seem to have much trouble explaining what this sacrament meant. When I was confirmed, they said, I would receive the Holy Spirit and the seven gifts of the Spirit, especially the gift of courage. This would make me a “soldier of Christ,” ready to die for my Catholic faith like so many martyrs of old. It was a romantic notion that I readily accepted. It didn’t hurt that I was pretty sure that sort of thing didn’t happen any more, except in Communist countries, “behind the Iron Curtain.” I’ve learned better since then, and I’m convinced that following Jesus today requires a great deal of courage. Still I prefer less militant ways of describing the confirmed person of faith.
Such descriptions of what it might mean to be “sealed in the Spirit” are not in short supply, but there is a problem matching what we say about Confirmation to what the young people experience in their lives. As a naïve child of grade school age, I had little doubt that I was ready to be a soldier of Christ. Today the sacrament of Confirmation has been delayed to the high school years, and doubt is almost another name for that age in life. At Confirmation do the young people become witnesses, showing Christ to the world by their words and actions? Do they becomes "adults in the Church," fully committed, ready to take on adult responsibilities? Do they "say YES to their Baptism," making their own the decision that was made for them when they were infants? What if maturity and anything like a definitive decision to accept Jesus lie in the unforeseeable future? Many young people being confirmed today and limited to these ideas about what they are celebrating wonder if Confirmation really is for them.
This is regrettable, especially when you think that sacraments are celebrations of grace that God is always giving us and when you think that God gives this grace also to the spirited or hesitant, searching or wandering people in the stage of life we call adolescence. We need to name that grace, but first we must identify it in the experience of people. It does not need to be a new grace that Baptism left out. After all, Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, beginning and entering more deeply into the mystery of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit, whom we celebrate especially in Confirmation, came as well to the baptized person.
Our life of faith is a journey. We celebrate its beginning in Baptism. But on a journey we don't stay in one place very long. A journey is movement and change, and it includes all the uncertainties that come with change and the various degrees of hope that there is a destination and a meaning to it all. This movement can take many different directions, but one direction common to just about everyone’s life is from a smaller to a larger environment. We start with the early familiarity and comfort of a small local community and move on to the later challenges of contact with a wide variety—in fact, a whole world—of people and places and ideas. The gifts of the Spirit take on new meanings in this larger context. Responsibility for oneself and the courage to be a witness to others are more important. It’s a more dangerous world.
The seven gifts of the Spirit—wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and fear of the Lord—are the way we often sum up the powers, the virtues, that help us travel successfully life’s paths. We need to celebrate that journey of life and those gifts. Confirmation, the sacrament of the Holy Spirit, is a good time to do that, to take a look at the place where we are on our journey of faith, wherever that is, and to take note of the qualities we have, gifts from the Spirit, that are helping us carry on where we are and progress to wherever we need to go next.
Confirmation does not require adult faith and unshakable commitment any more than Baptism does when a person who is not an adult is baptized. If you are ready to celebrate your journey and your abilities and whatever courage God is giving you to take just the next step, you are ready for Confirmation.
This makes the moment of Confirmation a less crucial one for the person being confirmed, but Confirmation throws an intense light on how important each person’s whole life is. It’s also an important moment in the life of the Church. Parishes recognize this with an extended period of instructing and mentoring Confirmation candidates. The bishop in my diocese recognizes it by celebrating with each parish every year, not just once in three years. When possible, Confirmation is scheduled at a regular parish Mass because Confirmation celebrates graces God gives to all of us. Not just family and sponsors but the Christian community may join in a whole-parish celebration. They lend encouragement and support to those being confirmed, and they celebrate their own ongoing journeys of faith, the journey of their faith community, and that of the entire Church.
When there are difficult decisions to make, difficult steps to take, or difficult changes to go through, there is no greater support we can give to one another than encouragement. As Christians we are challenged to believe in each other's gifts and to communicate that belief. When a person is baptized, the community promises to support him or her on this new journey of faith. Confirmation sponsors, those engaged in mentoring and instructing, and all who come together to celebrate with those being confirmed help make good on this promise. We support each other on our way and come together in Confirmation to celebrate the journey, the gifts of the Spirit, and the work of supporting each other.