Confirmation and the Laity's Role

Author: ZENIT


Confirmation and the Laity's Role

ROME, 30 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Could you please comment on the following which occurred at an Easter Vigil Mass in my parish at which a number of RCIA candidates were confirmed. At the confirmation the priest asked everyone in the congregation to outstretch their right arm toward the persons being confirmed as we said the "Prayer of Confirming." The words of the prayer were, in summary, "All powerful God, ... send your Holy Spirit upon (names) to be their helper and guide ... fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence. We ask this through Christ Our Lord." After this prayer the priest performed the anointing with chrism on the candidates' foreheads. The outstretching of arms by the congregation made it seem that the laity had some role in conferring the sacrament of confirmation. My understanding of confirmation is that the role is normally the bishop's (or a priest in his place) to emphasize the transmission of the Holy Spirit by apostolic lineage going back to Pentecost. — D.N., Victoria, Australia

A: There are two elements to be taken into account the laying on of hands and the proclamation of the prayer over the candidates.

During the sacrament of confirmation there is a double laying on of hands. The rite you describe pertains to the first moment, which does not form part of the essential rite of the sacrament. But as Pope Paul VI wrote when he reformed the rite of confirmation (see "Ad Pascendum," Aug. 15, 1971), the first rite should be held in high esteem as it contributes to the integral perfection of the confirmation ritual and gives a better understanding of the sacrament.

What the Church wishes to show is the transmission of the Holy Spirit, by apostolic genealogy going back to Pentecost, through the symbolism of consecrated hands being laid on the head of the confirmands.

In conformity with this principle the rubrics for this first laying on of hands states that when the bishop and priest(s) are both celebrating the Mass where confirmation occurs, they lay hands upon all candidates (i.e. extend their hands over the whole group of confirmands). However, the bishop alone says the prayer: "All-powerful God ... send your Spirit upon them. ... We ask this through Christ our Lord."

The practice of laying on of hands is certainly subject to many symbolic meanings. In some cases, such as the sacrament of holy orders and the second imposition with the anointing of confirmation, it is an essential part of the rite without which the sacrament itself would not exist.

In other sacraments such as the anointing of the sick, it forms part of the auxiliary rites performed by the ordained minister.

In other cases it is a sacramental, such as when the priest extends his hands over a person or object in order to impart a solemn blessing.

It may also be used by lay people, such as when parents bless their children. In recent times it has often been used in prayer groups such as the Charismatic Renewal.

Given the symbolic polyvalence of the gesture it is necessary to determine its meaning and importance within the context of each specific rite.

In the rite of confirmation it clearly symbolizes the power of efficaciously invoking the Holy Spirit so as to achieve the effect of the sacrament. This power properly and fully belongs to the bishop.

Priests also possess this power in a latent manner and may exercise it whenever the bishop or general Church law delegates them to do so.

This is why only the bishop and concelebrating priests should extend their hands at this moment. But only the bishop says the prayer, since he actually administers the essential rite of the sacrament.

Even in a very large confirmation, where the bishop is assisted by priests who also administer the sacrament, only the bishop recites the prayer, as the priests receive their authority to administer the sacrament through the bishop.

When a priest confirms alone, as is commonly the case during adult initiation at the Easter Vigil, then all concelebrating priests extend their hands. But only the priest who confirms says the prayer.

Thus in the case of the sacrament of confirmation it is inappropriate for the entire assembly to either extend their hands or to say the prayer, as this gesture would symbolically indicate the possession of a spiritual power which they do not possess as it requires the sacrament of orders.

It is also hard to see exactly what is meant by this change, because the other elements of the rite seem to be respected; it does not appear that it symbolizes that the community is the source of the sacrament.

It might have been introduced as a nice way of having everybody involved, without much thought given to the consequences for the meaning of the rite itself. Modifying the rites in the way described despoils them of the wealth of meaning that they embody.

The reception of this sacrament through the ministry of the bishop — and in general the need for a minister for any sacrament — is a necessary element in showing that the grace of our sanctification is primarily God's gift to us through the Church and does not spring from ourselves nor from the community.

This does not mean that the community has no role in the sacraments. On receiving confirmation, a Christian enters, in a way, into the fullness of the common priesthood of the baptized through which Catholics receive the power and capacity to participate in the Church's liturgy and to place their own personal sacrifices alongside that of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration.

However the common priesthood may only be exercised in communion with the ministerial priesthood and can never substitute it in its essential tasks.

This communion and the interplay between the two priesthoods are highlighted by the very rite of confirmation now under discussion, although it entails repeating one or two aspects already mentioned.

Before beginning the prayer of confirmation, the bishop, with the priests who will assist him on either side, says a prayer which invites all present to pray to the Father to send the Holy Spirit.

All then pray silently for a brief moment. This silent prayer is the exercise of the whole body of the faithful and thus for the faithful an exercise of their common priesthood.

After all have prayed, the bishop and priests extend their hands over the candidates while the bishop says or sings alone the following prayer which is redolent of similar priestly prayers of consecration such as the prayers of ordination:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.

Send your Holy Spirit upon them
to be their helper and guide.

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.

Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

To this prayer all give their assent by responding "Amen" in an analogous way to the final amen of the Eucharistic Prayer.

In this way the organization of the rite makes clear that the prayer of the whole assembly is called upon during confirmation although the administration of the sacrament is reserved to the bishop or priest in virtue of the ministerial and hierarchical structure willed by Christ for his Church. ZE04033021

* * *

Follow-up: Rite of Confirmation [from 04-20-2004]

One reader, a father who has seen eight children confirmed, sent in a rather ample commentary on our piece on the rite of confirmation (March 30). Basically, he advocated confirmations at a later age (high school) and a rite that involves the faithful more as a community.

"We need something in the rite," he states, "that is powerful, meaningful to the congregation as well as the persons being confirmed, to symbolize the great power of the sacrament, the privilege of it, and responsibilities as well as entering into the adult community."

Our correspondent essentially touches on two issues: the proper moment for confirmation and how best to bring out the role of the community. I believe that he correctly understands community in its full ecclesiastical sense as the Church and not just the group of family and friends who attend the celebration.

The first point touches a very delicate nerve in the understanding of the significance and meaning of the sacrament of confirmation.

From a theological standpoint the sacrament of confirmation should ideally precede first Communion, and indeed all official documents, from canon law to the Catechism, place confirmation before the Eucharist.

In a very real way, participation in the Eucharistic celebration is only fully complete after having received the sacrament of confirmation.

The sacramental character of the latter, according to the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a further participation in Christ's priesthood and a spiritual power ordained to certain sacred actions with the difference that in baptism the Christian receives the power of testifying his faith by receiving the other sacraments whereas in confirmation he receives the power of publicly confessing his faith ("Summa Theologiae" III q 63 a. 3; q 72 a. 5-6).

Although the Church shows a clear preference for having confirmation precede first Communion — and this was a fairly common practice even up to recent times as first Communion was often received at a later age — it does permit the delay for solid pastoral reasons.

If this delay is extended for a long period it can create a confusion regarding the exact nature of the sacrament. This may lead us to forget the essential point that we are dealing primarily with a sacrament, that is, a source of grace, and only secondarily a sign of coming of age or a taking up of adult responsibilities.

Thus with confirmation, as St. Thomas said, we "receive a power of testifying the faith." And the Council of Florence states that "it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and to be never ashamed of the Cross" (see Catechism, No. 1302).

It is in this sense that confirmation is the sacrament of Christian maturity, not so much a sign that one has already reached maturity, as the gift of grace to help one mature as a Christian.

For this reason I must confess that I do not agree fully with our correspondent regarding the convenience of confirming during high school.

Even when it is pastorally necessary to administer confirmation after first Communion, I believe that it is important that children receive it before facing the turbulent adolescent years; after all, that is probably when they most need the specific grace of this sacrament.

With respect to the involvement of the community and in providing "something in the rite that is powerful, meaningful to the congregation as well as the persons being confirmed," while taking care not to confuse the roles of clergy and laity, I think our reader expresses a legitimate concern along with his general preoccupation regarding an excessive individualization of the sacraments.

First of all, this understanding must be inculcated in the preparatory catechesis.

Second, a well-planned liturgy can bring out this element by using the rubrics to the full. Examples are: the choice of readers (parents, catechists, etc.); the solemnity of the assembly's "Amen" after the confirmands have renewed their baptismal promises; or even the whole assembly's singing of a hymn that expresses the same message as the "This is our Faith. This is the Faith of the Church ..." said by the celebrant.

Another element is to give proper emphasis to the moment of silence in which the community is asked to pray for the confirmands before the imposition of hands by the bishop and clergy.

This moment, while brief, should not be rushed, and its importance can be explained beforehand both during the practice that is usually held before the celebration and in opportune brief commentaries at the beginning of the rite of confirmation.

Likewise, during the essential rite of anointing the candidates, which often takes some time, the choice of hymns in which the community invokes the Holy Spirit can be a powerful moment of prayer.

An assembly that is capable of singing the sublime Latin hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" at this moment of the rite will find that the Spirit does not limit himself to showering graces on the confirmed.

While respecting the rubrics other, more general, elements of the liturgy may also come into play such as the choice of hymns, the prayers of the faithful, the rite of peace, etc.

There were also a couple of related questions on file regarding the delegation of a (Roman rite) priest to administer the sacrament of confirmation.

A priest from New Jersey asked: "Prescinding from those instances where the faculty is granted by the law, (e.g. the confirmation of newly baptized adults or of a person in danger of death), if a priest confirms without proper delegation, is the celebration of the sacrament invalid?"

Canon 887, speaking about priests who have been authorized to administer confirmation within a diocese, says that they may also confirm those who come from outside the diocese unless there is an express prohibition from their own bishop. The canon then goes on to say that these priests may not "validly" confirm beyond the confines of the diocese.

Hence it is clear that the proper authorization from the bishop is required for the validity of the sacrament and a priest who confirms without proper authorization acts invalidly and the rite of confirmation is without effect.

Another reader, from Oregon, asks: "How often does a bishop delegate confirming to a parish priest?"

Apart from special cases, such as those mentioned above, the bishop should strive to administer the sacrament to as many of his faithful as possible. Canon 884, however, allows him to delegate one or various specific priests to administer the sacrament.

This delegation can be habitual, as might be the case of a vicar general or another priest of the diocese when the bishop cannot usually cover all of the confirmations. Or it can be for specific cases when circumstances don't allow for him to attend a particular celebration.

The decision as to when and in what circumstances to make the delegation lies with the bishop himself. ZE04042022

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