The Sacrament of Confirmation

Country singer Eddie Rabbit had a hit song some 30 years ago called “Step by Step” – it was a syrupy country-pop number that informed the listener that if you really wanted to properly woo the lady you love, there are three steps that must be undertaken. First step: take her out and treat her like a lady; second step: tell her she's the one you're dreaming of; and the third step: take her in your arms and never let her go. As I dig out from under the schmaltz, I am reminded that full initiation into the Catholic Church likewise has three steps (or better stated, three Sacraments of Initiation); namely, the first step: Baptism, second step: Confirmation and third step: the Eucharist.




Now I know some younger-generation minds might be saying that I have gotten the second and third steps mixed-up. After all, don’t youngins’ make their Holy Communion (the Eucharist) first and then later receive Confirmation? This is true in the United States and some western nations; however, this practice is anomalous to proper Sacramental order; that is, the Church recognizes that proper order of the Sacraments of Initiation is Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. It is a long and arduous explanation, which could take an entire separate article – one that I will  tackle at a later time.


Timing is Everything

Today’s article is about the Sacrament of Confirmation. Now in its ancient form, and even today in the Eastern Rite of the Church, Confirmation is received immediately after Baptism. However, through ecclesial developments in the West and the desire to clearly express the communion of the young Christian with the Bishop (CCC 1292), the Sacrament of Confirmation was separated in time from Baptism. This allowed for Sacramental preparation and for the Bishop, as the ordinary minister of the Sacrament, to be able to confirm the large number of Catholics desiring the Sacrament (i.e., he is able to go from parish to parish confirming those receiving the Sacrament). So, how old must a baptized Catholic be before he is able to receive Confirmation? That is the $64,000 question – and the answer is evasive: It may vary by Diocese in this country from age seven to seventeen, at the discretion of the Bishop.


Oils Well that Ends Well

Okay, so now that we have the time frame and context in place, what is Confirmation? Confirmation is the Sacrament that is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “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.” Let’s get more concrete about the meaning of the Sacrament; and let’s do that by looking at the Ritual of Confirmation which helps us to understand the Sacrament more clearly.

In the pivotal moment of the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Bishop anoints the crown of the head of the one to be confirmed with Sacred Chrism (a consecrated holy oil). As he anoints the candidate, he says, Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Let’s flashback to Baptism: an infant who was baptized was likewise anointed on the head with the same Sacred Chrism. Think of the application of this holy oil in terms of paint: When you have to paint a wall, you first put on a primer coat, then you put on the second coat to seal it in. In Baptism, a child receives the Holy Spirit and the Chrism is applied for the first time; in Confirmation, a second-coat (if you will allow the analogy) of Chrism is applied – sealing and completing the baptismal graces. In some manner it may be observed that Confirmation is a form of completing the Sacrament of Baptism. And like Baptism, Confirmation is received only once, as it imprints an indelible spiritual mark on the soul, marking that person as eternally belonging to Christ.


What’s the matter?

What is necessary for the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation? In the past few articles I have noted that Sacraments require specific “form and matter” to be present in order that they be in fact confected. In order for the Sacrament of Confirmation to be properly confected, the matter that must be present is a baptized un-confirmed person and Sacred Chrism; the form of the Sacrament is the proper minister saying the words Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit as the Sacred Chrism is applied.


Presents of his Presence

What are the effects of this Sacrament of Confirmation? Upon being Confirmed, the Holy Spirit goes “all Santa” on a person; he drops off a whole bunch of presents (gifts)! These gifts, known as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are traditionally identified as:

  • Wisdom - the gift that allows one to comprehend, more fully, the truths of faith
  • Understanding - the gift that allows one to appreciate creation in relation to God; hence one can see Christ in his fellow man
  • Counsel – the gift that allows one to make right judgment (unlike the common cultural orthodoxy today that tells us we should never judge anyone, God commends us to judge well)
  • Fortitude – the gift of moral courage to do God’s will, even in the face of adversity
  • Knowledge – the gift of awareness and comprehension of God
  • Piety (Reverance) – the gift of awareness of the need to worship and love God
  • Fear of the Lord (awe and wonder) – the awareness that God is aware of all that we do, in all places, at all times

Now, like all presents, we have to open them and use them to get their benefits. If you treat these gifts of the Holy Spirit like a 10-year old treats the gifts of a pair of socks at Christmas (e.g., toss them aside and look for something else in the gift pile), then you may fail to get the benefit of what God has given you. If you do put these sacred gifts to use, they will bear fruit in your life. The Church dubs these benefits as the fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continence (self-control), and chastity.


Confirming Confirmation

Confirmation is, at times, a very misunderstood Sacrament, and so I want to conclude this article addressing these misunderstandings:

  1. Confirmation is NOT a sacrament of becoming an adult in the Church. It has nothing to do with one’s age. In the Eastern Church babies are commonly confirmed. This assertion about adulthood relative to confirmation is erroneously arrived at because in this country the age for confirmation is commonly, and coincidentally, the age young people are moving toward adulthood. There is absolutely no connection between Confirmation and adulthood; after a 14 year old is confirmed he still can’t drive, can’t vote, can’t drink and can’t see an R-rated movie.
  2. Confirmation is NOT a Catholic Bar Mitzvah. This shibboleth is offensive to two religious traditions in one fell swoop; Confirmation is no more related to a Jewish boy’s Bar Mitzvah, than Christmas is related to Hanukah.  A Bar Mitzvah actually is about becoming an adult in one’s faith, Confirmation is not.
  3. Confirmation is NOT graduation from religious education. This absurd statement is heard from time to time. If one is confirmed at age seven, or as a baby, I assure you religious education still lies ahead! Again, the coterminous reception of Confirmation at approximately the same age when religious education may end for that young person is coincidental, not connected.
  4. Confirmation does NOT require “x-number” of service hours to be completed. It was fad for many years to require young people to complete a certain number of “Christian Service Hours” in order for them to complete sacramental preparation and be confirmed. Neither Jesus Christ nor Church law requires any such thing! In order for a young person -- above the age of reason and not in danger of death -- to be confirmed he must be baptized, must freely consent, and receive proper instruction about the Sacrament. There are no further requirements.
  5. Confirmation is NOT a person confirming his faith in God and His Church. While in the Rite of Confirmation, the person does renew his baptismal promises, this is done to underscore the connection to Baptism, not to confirm it.  In Confirmation, the person receiving the Sacrament isn’t confirming anything – rather, God is confirming the person receiving the Sacrament.