There is a close relationship between the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
While Confirmation is a distinct and complete sacrament in its own right, its purpose is to perfect in us that which was begun in Baptism. We might say—in a sense—that we are baptized in order to be confirmed.
The Roots of Confirmation:
We do not know exactly when, during His public life, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Confirmation. This is one of the “many other things that Jesus did” which, as St. John tells us, are not written down in the Gospels (see John 21:25).
We know that Catholic Tradition (the teachings of the Church which have been handed down to us from our Lord, or from His Apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit) is of equal authority with Sacred Scripture as a source of divine truth. If a “Bible-only” friend thrusts out his jaw and says, “Show it to me in the Bible; I don’t believe it unless it’s in the Bible,” we do not fall into that trap. We answer sweetly by saying: “Show me in the Bible where it says that we must believe only what is written there.”
However, it does happen that the Bible tells us about Confirmation. Not under that name, of course. Aside from Baptism, our present names for the sacraments were developed by the early theologians of the Church; “Laying on of hands” was the earliest name for Confirmation. This is the name which the Bible uses in the following passage taken from the Acts of the Apostles:
“Now when the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John. On their arrival they prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for as yet He had not come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. But when Simon [the magician] saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’.” (Acts 8:14-19)
It is from this passage, and the attempt of the magician Simon to buy the power to give Confirmation, that we get the word “simony”—the name given to the sin of buying and selling sacred things. That, however, is a very minor point.
The real significance of this passage lies in what it tells us about the sacrament of Confirmation. It tells us that while Confirmation is a complement to Baptism, a completing of what was begun in Baptism, nevertheless Confirmation is a sacrament distinct from Baptism.
- The Samaritans already had been baptized, yet it still was necessary for them to receive the “laying on of hands.”
- The passage also tells us the way in which Confirmation was to be given: by the placing of the hand of the one who confirms, upon the head of the one to be confirmed, with a prayer that he may receive the Holy Spirit.
We are particularly interested in this fact which the passage makes plain: the fact that it was the Apostles—that is, the bishops—who did the confirming. Whoever it was who had baptized the Samaritans very evidently did not have the power to “lay hands” upon them and to impart to them the Holy Spirit. Two of the Apostles, Peter and John, had to travel from Jerusalem to Samaria in order to give the sacrament of Confirmation to these new Christians.
The bishop was the original minister of Confirmation. Ordinarily, the bishop still administers this sacrament so that there is a clear link to the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. However bishops can also permit priests to administer this sacrament, and in practice this is often done.
Confirmation is the Perfection of Baptism:
Although, in the West, Confirmation is usually received as a teenager, several years after making First Communion, the Catholic Church considers it the second of the three Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism being the first and Communion the third). Confirmation is regarded as the perfection of Baptism, because, as the introduction to the Rite of Confirmation states:
by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.
Growth is vital to human life; the body and mind must grow to stay alive. Catholics believe that the soul also needs to grow to maturity in the life of grace, just as the human body must grow through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Catholics believe the Sacrament of Confirmation is the supernatural equivalent of the growth process on the natural level. It builds on what was begun in Baptism and what was nourished in Holy Eucharist. It completes the process of initiation into the Christian community, and it matures the soul for the work ahead.
The Byzantine Church confirms (chrismates) at Baptism and gives Holy Eucharist as well, thus initiating the new Christian all at the same time.
So what occurs during a Catholic Confirmation? The Holy Spirit is first introduced to a Catholic the day that she’s baptized, because the entire Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are invoked at the ceremony. During Confirmation, God the Holy Spirit comes upon the person, accompanied by God the Father and God the Son, just as he did at Pentecost.
The Feast of Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven to earth upon the 12 apostles and the Virgin Mary, occurring 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 2:1–4).
This sacrament is called Confirmation because the faith given in Baptism is now confirmed and made strong. Sometimes, those who benefit from Confirmation are referred to as soldiers of Christ. This isn’t a military designation but a spiritual duty to fight the war between good and evil, light and darkness — a war between the human race and all the powers of hell.
Confirmation means accepting responsibility for your faith and destiny. Childhood is a time when you’re told what to do, and you react positively to reward and negatively to punishment. Adulthood, even young adulthood, means that you must do what’s right on your own, not for the recognition or reward but merely because it’s the right thing to do. The focus is on the Holy Spirit, who confirmed the apostles on Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4) and gave them courage to practice their faith. Catholics believe that the same Holy Spirit confirms Catholics during the Sacrament of Confirmation and gives them the same gifts and fruits.
Fruits of the Sacrament of Confirmation:
Traditionally, the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit are charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity. These are human qualities that can be activated by the Holy Spirit. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These gifts are supernatural graces given to the soul.
Matter (or Symbol) of the Sacrament of Confirmation:
The ceremony may take place at Mass or outside of Mass, and the bishop wears red vestments to symbolize the red tongues of fire seen hovering over the heads of the apostles at Pentecost. The following occurs during the Sacrament of Confirmation:
Each individual to be confirmed comes forward with his sponsor. At Baptism, Junior’s mom and dad picked his godfather and godmother; for Confirmation, he picks his own sponsor. The same canonical requirements for being a godparent in Baptism apply for sponsors at Confirmation. The sponsor can be the godmother or godfather if they’re still practicing Catholics, or he may choose someone else (other than his parents) who’s over the age of 16, already confirmed, and in good standing with the Church. One sponsor is chosen for Confirmation. (Most people have two sponsors, one godparent of each gender, for Baptism).
Each Catholic selects his own Confirmation name. At Baptism, the name was chosen without the child’s consent because the child was too little to make the selection alone. Now, in Confirmation, another name — in addition to the first and middle names — can be added, or the original baptismal name may be used. It must be a Christian name, though, such as one of the canonized saints of the Church or a hero from the Bible. You wouldn’t want to pick a name like Cain, Judas, or Herod, for example, and no secular names would be appropriate.
The Catholic being confirmed stands or kneels before the bishop, and the sponsor lays one hand on the shoulder of the one being confirmed. The Confirmation name is spoken, and the bishop puts Chrism Oil on the person’s forehead, says his name aloud, and then says, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The person responds, “Amen.” The bishop then says, “Peace be with you.” And the person responds, “And with your spirit” or “And also with you.”
The Form of the Sacrament of Confirmation:
Many people think of the laying on of hands, which signifies the descent of the Holy Spirit, as the central act in the Sacrament of Confirmation. The essential element, however, is the anointing of the confirmand (the person being confirmed) with chrism (an aromatic oil that has been consecrated by a bishop), accompanied by the words “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit” (or, in the Eastern Catholic Churches, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”). This seal is a consecration, representing the safeguarding by the Holy Spirit of the graces conferred on the Christian at Baptism.
The Minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation:
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “The original minister of Confirmation is the bishop.” Each bishop is a successor to the apostles, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost—the first Confirmation. The Acts of the Apostles mentions the apostles imparting the Holy Spirit to believers by the laying on of hands (see, for example, Acts 8:15-17 and 19:6).
The Church has always stressed this connection of confirmation, through the bishop, to the ministry of the apostles, but She has developed two different ways of doing so.
Normally, only the bishop confirms the Catholics in his diocese. However, priests can be delegated to confirm adult converts from other religions when they’re brought into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil and they’ve attended the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program in the parish. Non-Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith and converting to Catholicism attend RCIA classes.
Confirmation in the East:
In the Eastern Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Churches, the three sacraments of initiation are administered at the same time to infants. Children are baptized, confirmed (or “chrismated”), and receive Communion (in the form of the Sacred Blood, the consecrated wine), all in the same ceremony, and always in that order.
Since the timely reception of Baptism is very important, and it would be very hard for a bishop to administer every baptism, the bishop’s presence, in the Eastern Churches, is signified by the use of chrism consecrated by the bishop. The priest, however, performs the confirmation.
Confirmation in the West:
The Church in the West came up with a different solution—the separation in time of the Sacrament of Confirmation from the Sacrament of Baptism. This allowed infants to be baptized soon after birth, while the bishop could confirm many Christians at the same time, even years after baptism. Eventually, the current custom of performing Confirmation several years after First Communion developed, but the Church continues to the stress the original order of the sacraments, and Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, has suggested that the original order should be restored.
Many Latin (Western) Catholics are baptized as infants, receive First Communion as children, and are confirmed as adolescents, but the Sacraments of Initiation are for any age. Adult converts who’ve never been baptized are baptized when they become Catholic; they’re confirmed and receive their First Communion at the same Mass when they’re baptized, or if they were baptized in a Protestant Church, they make a Profession of Faith, are confirmed, and receive Holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil Mass — the night before Easter.
Eligibility for Confirmation:
Even in the West, priests can be authorized by their bishops to perform confirmations, and adult converts are routinely baptized and confirmed by priests. All those who have been baptized are eligible to be confirmed, and, while the Western Church suggests receiving the sacrament after reaching the “age of reason” (around seven years old), it can be received at any time. (A child in danger of death should receive Confirmation).
A confirmand must be in a state of grace. If the sacrament is not received immediately after Baptism, the confirmand should participate in the Sacrament of Confession before Confirmation.
The Effects of the Sacrament of Confirmation:
The Sacrament of Confirmation confers special graces of the Holy Spirit upon the person being confirmed, just as such graces were granted to the Apostles on Pentecost. Like Baptism, therefore, it can only be performed once, and Confirmation increases and deepens all of the graces granted at Baptism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists five effects of Confirmation:
- it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation [as sons of God] which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!”
- 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.
Because Confirmation perfects our baptism, we are obliged to receive it “in due time.” Any Catholic who did not receive Confirmation at baptism or as part of his religious education during grade school or high school should contact a priest and arrange to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
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