Some Reflections on Confirmation

Author: Cardinal John Wright


Cardinal John Wright

"Might be thought of as a kind of ordination"

Few experiences in the pastoral life of a bishop are more consoling or more happy than the administration of Confirmation. Anyone who has served as a Confirming Bishop cannot possibly disagree, and will not fail to be dismayed when he hears it suggested that the wrecking-crews, who have succeeded in downgrading First Confession, if not Confession itself, the special status of the ministerial priesthood and of marriage may turn their attention and talents to an attack on Confirmation. In fact, one already hears rumour of "coordinators of religious education" who are at a loss as to where to fit Confirmation into their scheme of things.

Confirmation, as Cardinal Cushing once pointed out some years ago, has always been more or less "the Cinderella of the Sacraments, neglected and little understood". The Cardinal argued that unless one is very clear about the nature of grace, it is particularly hard to explain Confirmation. The other six Sacraments almost explain themselves. Baptism creates in us a new life, the life of God himself, and purges us of original sin. Penance purifies us of the sins we commit ourselves. The Sacrament of the sick is explained by its very name and ushers us into the life of the world to come. Matrimony and Holy Orders establish us sacramentally in two diverse forms of Christian vocation. The Blessed Eucharist nourishes us with the very Body and Blood of Christ himself and makes him present in our very midst.

Sacrament of Christian vitality

As contrasted with these other six Sacraments, Confirmation has perhaps seemed a little vague. With the contemporary renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit and in the light of certain trials and temptations of the Christian life, its relevance and its meaning should become more clear. It cannot be easily identified with a clearly spelled out act or state, and yet it is the Sacrament, in a way, of everyday Christian vitality because it gives us the Holy Spirit in a special manner to fortify us in the day to day struggle with the powers of darkness, to enable us to answer the enemy, to come to maturity, prepared to show our faith in word and action, to live it and defend it, to persevere as defenders and witnesses to that faith and, as the old definition put it, "strong and perfect Christians, soldiers of Jesus Christ".

One hears this idea of militancy sometimes soft-toned in these days of dreams and programmes of peace, but the Christian life remains a battle from the beginning to the end, and Confirmation provides the special grace to wage that battle and to remain faithful to the graces of the other Sacraments.

Effects of the sacrament

The effects, so-called, of Confirmation are described or expressed in the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit". These are familiar, but they are not always remembered as they should be. They are Wisdom, which enables us to relish spiritual things above earthly things; Understanding, which helps us to know more clearly the mysteries of faith; Knowledge, which enables us to discover promptly the will of God; Counsel, which warns us against spiritual dangers; Piety, which inclines us to a tender love of God and his holy religion, fostering sound devotion and eliminating emotionalism in our living of the faith; Fear of the Lord, which gives us a saving dread of sin; Fortitude, perhaps the most characteristic gift that Confirmation gives, which strengthens us to do God's will especially in the face of difficulties and temptation.

To elicit all these gifts Confirmation imprints on the soul a "sacred character", like Baptism and Holy Orders. These three Sacraments can never be, as it were, erased or repeated.

Again, it is Cardinal Cushing who relates an example of the reason for theembrace or kiss of peace, so common in the Liturgy, that we receive in Confirmation. Some say it is to remind us, however casually, that we must be prepared to suffer for the faith and this is why we always braced ourselves a bit for the so-called "slight tap" on the cheek of the days of our youth. In either case it is a reminder that should we be called upon to suffer for Christ, he will give us peace of mind in the midst of our trials. The Cardinal recalls the case of Saint John Fisher: "St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in England, was condemned to be beheaded for opposing King Henry VIII, who wanted to divorce his lawful wife. His jailer in the Tower of London was attentive to his needs, but one day didn't bring the Cardinal's dinner to his cell. When he came the next day, the Saint asked him why. 'Sir', said the jailer, 'I heard that you were going to the block yesterday afternoon and I thought you would not care to eat dinner'. The old saint laughed, 'You see me still alive. In the future, let me have dinner at the regular time. If you see me dead when you come, then eat it yourself. But as long as I live, I will by God's grace never to eat a bit less'. St John's mind was at peace; he had fought for the right, and his life was in God's hands to do with as he pleased".

Need of Confirmation today

There is a widespread lack of appreciation about the necessity of receiving Confirmation. We are not "perfect Christians" without it. It may well be that it is not in itself necessary for salvation, like Baptism, but a Christian could not without sin neglect to receive it when opportunity presents itself.

Moreover, it might well be argued that in our day the Fortitude in which Confirmation strengthens us is more needed than it has been even in times of more dramatic and violent persecution of the faith. It has never been easy to persevere in the faith, but our own moment of history, while retaining the various forms of organized pressure for the destruction of the faith, has added new forms of terrorism, violence, and occasions of sin to reduce the effectiveness of sanctifying grace and to increase the occasions of sin, even apostasy and certainly the sensuality which is almost the characteristic of our culture. Indeed one might assert that it is thanks to Confirmation that the Church retains the indwelling of the spirit and therefore its identity and efficacy among us.

Gifts of the Spirit

Baptism and Confirmation may be said to create the Church, giving it its structure and uniting it with Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is by Baptism that we receive the paschal graces Christ brought us by his birth, life, death, and resurrection. It is by Confirmation that we receive the gifts of Pentecost that Christ sent us in order to make us his agents, the builders of his Kingdom. That is what people mean by the slight oversimplification that Baptism was given us for ourselves, that we might live in God, while Confirmation was given us for others that we might share the faith and cooperate with Christ in building his Kingdom on earth. That is why it is so unfortunate that relatively little attention is paid to Confirmation, apart from its being almost incidental in our sacramental lives, or a purely social occasion in the life of an infant or at most a young adolescent. Confirmation should enable the recipient to transcend the canonical and institutional structures of the Church in order to become himself, with all loyalty to the organized Church, a living agent of what Christ became incarnate and sent the Holy Spirit to accomplish to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.

The place of Confirmation in our personal lives has been the victim, in part, of the tendency in many times and places to identify it too closely with Baptism, from which other sacrament of initiation into the Christian life it differs in nature and purpose. It has also been the victim of our failure to reflect sufficiently concretely on the need and the nature of the sanctifying grace which Confirmation exists to give us at the precise moments in life when we need it. The Holy Spirit, formerly called almost as a symbol of what we are here talking about, the "Holy Ghost", is a principle of certitude, a source of hope, a principle of unity between the believer and God and among believers. It is, therefore, a principle of action that makes us restless to reach all those whom Christ came to save and to mature constantly in our own personal spiritual lives.

Without Confirmation the Church would be timid, as were the Apostles hidden away before Pentecost. Are we, too, sometimes timid Catholics today, attempting to "understand" the world, to "come to terms" with society, to "blend" faith and heathen culture, to eschew "divisiveness"? Confirmation puts sinews into our good intentions and enables us to proclaim and live the faith regardless of the consequences, and to become strong enough to pay for our courage. That is no doubt why there is frequently question in the pastoral life of the Church concerning the appropriate age for Confirmation. Without polemic one ventures to raise the question of a more precise description of Confirmation and choice of the appropriate age for its reception in our day. The differences in the ages set at various times and places for the Confirmation of young people, all suggest that the question of age for Confirmation is primarily pastoral and should be seen, like Confirmation itself, in the context of the total pastoral life of the Church. True, as we noted at the beginning, Confirmation provides a pleasant and profitable occasion for the visitation of parishes by the bishop, and for conversation with young people under unique, heart-warming and frequently consoling circumstances. It provides the joy of dialogue with the children and not merely preaching to or at them. In a most especial way it gives the bishop personally and officially the chance to make what may be his principal contribution to the development of the future life of his diocese by concentration on explaining the very nature of Confirmation and the question of vocations.

Kind of ordination

Obviously, at the moment one means particularly vocations to the priesthood, but by no means only vocations to the priesthood. In a way, Confirmation might be thought of as a kind of ordination of the young lay man or lay woman to a place in the total life of the Church, to a specific calling in the life of the Church. Pope Pius XI was eloquent on this point and stressed that Confirmation was the Sacrament of "Catholic Action". He obviously was not speaking of any partisan political action, positive or negative, but he was merely underscoring that Confirmation more and more comes at the age when young people are choosing their life careers.

After all, one can detect in Confirmation a kind of lay ordination or reception of the Spirit precisely for one's part in the life of the Church. So many of the elements of Confirmation recall parallels with ordination: the imposition of hands, the signing with the seal, the special anointing. Lay people are on the way to a fuller consciousness of being organically active members, whatever the due subordinations, by right and in fact, in the life of the Church. We can see signs of this everywhere, particularly in teaching and action in private and publicly, even ratified by a mission within the structures of Catholic Action.

One speaks in our day of the "apostolate of the laity". One sees a wider recognition, on the part of lay people who take seriously their spiritual lives, that one earns eternal life in the vocation or career by which one earns one's living: There is less emphasis on the need for a specific "mandate" to involve the devout person in "Catholic Action" and more understanding that Catholic Action is less a separate kind of organization and more what Pius X meant when he spoke of it as "the Catholic life lived".

The "subordination" of the laity in the Christian pursuit of their service of the Church is of a kind befitting faithful people endowed with intelligence, who have abilities and a sense of Christian responsibility, and who are fit and prepared to conduct their own enterprises, not as lay curates, but as strong and perfect Christians called by Christ to specific vocations in Baptism and strengthened and clarified in their vocations at Confirmation.

When to receive this sacrament

Hence the case for thinking of Confirmation more and more in terms of the Sacrament of Catholic Action. Hence too the wisdom, perhaps of linking the age of Confirmation to adolescence rather than childhood, the time when life decisions are being made.

The question remains, when is the best time in adolescence to bring, into play the forces, and the effects of Confirmation? There is a case for early adolescence when young people are headed, more and more as our culture develops along the lines it has apparently taken, toward crises ever more perilous: crises of faith, crises in the maturity of the flesh, the pride of life, the relative evanescence of the awareness of the life of the world to come, the company of the saints, the sheer joy of having the faith and being a Catholic. The middle years of adolescence are years of peril to these ancient and essential Catholic qualities.

There is, of course, also a strong case for linking Confirmation and the sense of one's place in the active life of the Church, whatever one's vocation, to the later years of adolescence when one is making holy and prayerful decisions as to what one will do with one's life, whether one marries, remains single, or seeks a religious vocation. The point is that Confirmation was instituted precisely to clarify and fortify the one who is choosing his vocation in the life of the Church.

Father Cougar in his Book LayPeople in the Church devotes considerable reflection to this manner of relating Confirmation to the prophetic office of the faithful in the general priesthood of the Church. It may be time to take a second look at the "Cinderella of the Sacraments" so that she can grow to full maturity in a Church which desperately needs that all members be aware of their responsibilities in and to the total community of the Holy Catholic Church as well as to the salvation of their individual souls.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 June 1978, page 9

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