The Sacrament of Confirmation: The Perfection of Baptism
Although in the West Confirmation is usually received as a teenager after making First Holy Communion (Eucharist), the Catholic Church regards it as the second of the three sacraments of initiation, with Baptism being the first and Holy Communion (Eucharist) the third. Confirmation is considered the perfection of the Rite of Baptism.
Confirmation can be defined as a sacrament of strength. This strength is received through the coming of the Holy Spirit and enables the confirmed individual to profess, live and witness to the Catholic faith as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. When one is confirmed, one is strengthened and more tightly bonded to Jesus Christ and to His Church.
History of Confirmation
In the Old Testament, we can find references to the sacrament of Confirmation. The prophets Joel, Isaiah and Ezekiel told of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon men.
Each stated in the Scriptures: "I will pour out my Spirit upon all mankind" (Joel 3:1), "I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring" (Isaiah 44:3), and "I have poured out my spirit upon the house of Israel says the Lord God" (Ezekiel 39:2). The Spirit that these prophets spoke about comes to us through the sacrament of Confirmation.
We also find evidence of the Holy Spirit being administered by the Apostles in Acts of the Apostles (8:5, 14-17) and (19:5-6). In these Scriptures, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the baptized people is mentioned. Jesus himself, often in his ministry, mentions the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is known that Jesus instituted the sacrament of Confirmation before His ascension into heaven. The apostles administered this sacrament after they received it on Pentecost (Acts 2:4).
Some common questions about the sacrament of Confirmation are:
Who can administer the sacrament of Confirmation?
Only the bishop can administer the sacrament of Confirmation. Bishops are considered the successors to the apostles. Under certain circumstances, priests can confirm although this is not a common responsibility for them. In the name of the Church, the bishop sends forth the confirmed to spread the faith by word and example.
What is the form of the sacrament of Confirmation?
Many people feel that the laying on of hands that signifies the descent of the Holy Spirit is how the sacrament of Confirmation is administered. This is not the central act in the sacrament. The main element is the anointing of the person with chrism oil. This is oil that has been consecrated by a bishop.
The sacrament of Confirmation is accompanied by the words, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." This seal is a consecration that symbolizes the graces conferred on the confirmed at Baptism and kept safe by the Holy Spirit.
Who is eligible to receive the sacrament of Confirmation?
Any baptized Catholic who has not been confirmed is eligible for the sacrament of Confirmation and is required to do so. Those to be confirmed must be in a state of grace before the conferring of this sacrament.
The Western Church suggests that the individual receive Confirmation after reaching the age of reason (approximately 7 years old). A child who is in danger of death should receive Confirmation even if he/she is younger than 7.
What are the effects of the sacrament of Confirmation?
Confirmation confers the special graces of the Holy Spirit upon the individual being confirmed. It is just like the graces that the apostles received on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon them.
Just like Baptism, Confirmation may be performed only one time. Confirmation strengthens and increases the graces received at Baptism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists five effects of Confirmation:
1. it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation (like
the sons of God) and gives us the right to cry out "Abba!
2. it unites us more firmly to Christ;
3. it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
4. it renders our bond with the Church more perfect;
5. 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 in the name of Christ boldly and never be ashamed of the Cross.
Why is Confirmation a sacrament of initiation?
Even though the sacrament is not absolutely necessary for salvation, the Church obliges us to be confirmed. Being confirmed makes the individual a full-fledged member of the Church. Therefore, the confirmed is required to go forth and proclaim the Church's teachings to others.
Does being confirmed assure salvation?
It does not assure that we will be saved. We still have free will, a gift from God, and the sacraments do not destroy this. However, we are never free from sin if we choose to disobey God's commandments. God gave us free will in order that we choose to do good over evil. To choose evil is an abuse of the gift of free will.
When did the Church separate the sacrament of Confirmation?
Only in the Western Church was there a separate celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation. From the 11th century onward, scholars found that Confirmation was celebrated as a sacrament separate from the sacrament of Baptism.
What are some of the perfecting aspects of Confirmation?
1. Confirmation binds one more perfectly to the
2. One receives the maximum fullness of the Holy Spirit;
3. There is a more complete sharing in Christ's mission;
4. The Holy Spirit marks our total beginning and not just a partial beginning;
5. It unites one more firmly to Christ;
6. It grants us a special strength to spread and defend the faith, and it completes baptism;
7. It perfects the common priesthood of the faithful.
What is the relationship of Confirmation to Christian spirituality?
In calling Confirmation a sacrament, the Church is emphasizing that it is a major spiritual reality. We are asked to look beyond the elements of the ritual, beyond the anointing with oil, beyond the laying on of the hands, beyond the prayers and the blessings of the ceremony.
We are encouraged to see through them and perceive God's compassion for us. We urged to see God's real presence in the celebration of Confirmation. We should be so moved as to see that the Holy Spirit is God and that God's real presence is in us. This is a major reality in the celebration of Confirmation.
In summary, although Confirmation is not necessary for salvation, it strengthens the graces we receive from the other sacraments - especially those graces we receive from Baptism. The early Church recognized that while Baptism cleansed one of sin, Confirmation filled one with grace.
In early times, baptism by water immersion was followed by an anointing with oil that, over the centuries, evolved into the sacrament of Confirmation. Baptism was regarded as dying with Christ and Confirmation as rising to new life.
Today, as a result of a decision by the Second Vatican Council, there is a unity of the sacraments of Christian initiation. Adults coming into the Catholic Church will experience Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist as one unified ritual.
Thomas J. Rillo, oblate