Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Sacraments in Focus: Confirmation

What is this Sacrament called Confirmation?

In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ entrusted to the Church for the conferral of sanctifying grace and the strengthening of the union between the individual and the Blessed Trinity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its paragraphs 1302–1303 states:

It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

From this fact, Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace:

  • it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15);
  • it unites us more firmly to Christ;
  • it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
  • it renders our bond with the Church more perfect;
  • 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 never to be ashamed of the Cross:

Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God’s presence. Guard what you have received. God the Father has marked you with his sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed his pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts.

Confirmation in the Latin Rite

According to canon law for the Latin or Western Catholic Church, the sacrament is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion (generally taken to be about 7), unless the Episcopal Conference has decided on a different age, or there is danger of death or, in the judgement of the minister, a grave reason suggests otherwise (canon 891 of the Code of Canon Law). The number of Episcopal Conferences that have set a later age, usually between 14 and 16 years of age, has diminished in recent decades, and even in those countries a bishop may not refuse to confer the sacrament on younger children who request it, provided they are baptized, have the use of reason, are suitably instructed and are properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises (letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published in its 1999 bulletin, pages 537–540).

In the Latin-Rite (i.e., Western) Catholic Church, the sacrament is customarily conferred only on persons old enough to understand it, and the ordinary minister of confirmation is a bishop. Only for a serious reason may the diocesan bishop delegate a priest to administer the sacrament (canon 884 of the Code of Canon Law). However, a priest is not only by law empowered (canon 883), but, in the absence of a bishop, is obliged[7] to confer the sacrament, if he baptizes someone who is no longer an infant or admits a person already baptized to full communion, or if the person (adult or child) to be confirmed is in danger of death. Baptism and confirmation of an adult would normally occur at the Easter Vigil.

In Eastern Catholic Churches, the usual minister of this sacrament is the parish priest, using olive oil consecrated by a bishop (i.e., chrism), and administering the sacrament immediately after baptism. This corresponds exactly to the practice of the Early Church and the non-Catholic Eastern Churches.

The practice of the Eastern Churches gives greater emphasis to the unity of Christian initiation. That of the Latin Church more clearly expresses the communion of the new Christian with the bishop as guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church, and hence the connection with the apostolic origins of Christ’s Church.

History on the  Rite of Confirmation in the West

The main reason why the West separated the sacrament of Confirmation from that of Baptism was to reestablish direct contact between the person being initiated with the Bishop. In the early Church, the Bishop administered all three sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist), assisted by the priests and deacons and, where they existed, by deaconesses for women’s Baptism. The post-baptismal chrismation in particular was reserved to the Bishop. When adults no longer formed the majority of those being baptized, this chrismation was delayed until the Bishop could confer it. Until the twelfth century, priests often continued to confer Confirmation before giving Communion to very young children.

After the Fourth Lateran Council, Communion, which continued to be given only after Confirmation, was to be administered only on reaching the age of reason. The 1917 Code of Canon Law, while recommending that Confirmation be delayed until about seven years of age, allowed it be given at an earlier age.  Only on 30 June 1932 was official permission given to change the traditional order of the three sacraments of Christian initiation: the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments then allowed, where necessary, that Confirmation be administered after first Holy Communion. This novelty, originally seen as exceptional, became more and more the accepted practice.

In the mid-twentieth century, Confirmation thus began to be seen as an occasion for professing personal commitment to the faith on the part of someone approaching adulthood. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1308 warns:

Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective.

The present (1983) Code of Canon Law maintains the rule in the 1917 Code, stating that the sacrament is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion (generally taken to be about 7), unless the Episcopal Conference has decided on a different age, or there is danger of death or, in the judgment of the minister, a grave reason suggests otherwise. The Code lays down the age of discretion also for the sacraments of Penance and first Holy Communion.

The number of Episcopal Conferences that have set a later age has diminished in recent decades, and even in those countries a bishop may not refuse to confer the sacrament on younger children who request it, provided they are baptized, have the use of reason, are suitably instructed and are properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises (letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published in its 1999 bulletin, pages 537–540).

Effects of Confirmation

The Catholic Church teaches that, like baptism, confirmation marks the recipient permanently, making it impossible to receive the sacrament twice. It accepts as valid a confirmation conferred within Churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose Holy Orders it sees as valid through the apostolic succession of their bishops. But it considers it necessary to administer the sacrament of confirmation, in its view for the only time, to Protestants who are admitted to full communion with the Catholic Church.

One of the effects of the sacrament is 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 never to be ashamed of the Cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1303). This effect has been described as making the confirmed person “a soldier of Christ”.

The same passage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church also mentions, as an effect of confirmation, that “it renders our bond with the Church more perfect”. This mention stresses the importance of participation in the Christian community.

The “soldier of Christ” imagery was used, as far back as 350, by St Cyril of Jerusalem.  In this connection, the touch on the cheek that the bishop gave while saying “Pax tecum” (Peace be with you) to the person he had just confirmed was interpreted in the Roman Pontifical as a slap, a reminder to be brave in spreading and defending the faith: “Deinde leviter eum in maxilla caedit, dicens: Pax tecum” (Then he strikes him lightly on the cheek, saying: Peace be with you). When, in application of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,[18] the confirmation rite was revised in 1971, mention of this gesture was omitted. However, the French and Italian translations, indicating that the bishop should accompany the words “Peace be with you” with “a friendly gesture” (French text) or “the sign of peace” (Italian text), explicitly allow a gesture such as the touch on the cheek, to which they restore its original meaning. This is in accord with the Introduction to the Rite of Confirmation, 17, which indicates that the episcopal conference may decide “to introduce a different manner for the minister to give the sign of peace after the anointing, either to each individual or to all the newly confirmed together.”

Information on other effects and broader matters concerning this sacrament can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1285–1321.

Heaven help us: Confirmation name

In many English-speaking countries and in German-speaking lands, in Poland, and in Lithuania, it is customary for a person being confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church (and some Anglican dioceses) to adopt the name of a saint whom that person admires or feels a special affinity with, thus securing an additional patron saint as protector and guide. This practice is unknown in many other countries (including the Spanish-speaking countries and French-speaking lands, and in Italy), and is not mentioned in the official liturgical book of the Rite of Confirmation. Obviously, the custom prevailing in a country influences, often decisively, the practice of immigrants from another country, even if they keep their own language.

The saint’s name is often used in conjunction with the confirmee’s middle name, but is without effect in civil law, unless, of course, the confirmand pursues the appropriate legal avenues.

One Response to Sacraments in Focus: Confirmation

  1. Q says:

    Here is a great explanation of what Confirmation is and is not.

    http://blog.adw.org/2010/04/clarifying-the-confusion-on-confirmation/

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