Image: by Lawrence OP via flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Of all the sacraments, Confirmation is perhaps the least understood, even by many Catholics. But there is no better time than this Sunday’s Feast of Pentecost to explore the truth and power of this sacrament, because the Sacrament of Confirmation applies the graces and gifts of Pentecost to each one of us personally!
The practice of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation to older children or even young adults has in part led to the idea that it is a coming-of-age sacrament or the opportunity for someone baptized as an infant to make the faith his or her own—to move from childhood to maturity, spiritually speaking.
While there is certainly an aspect of coming to maturity and deepening one’s commitment to the faith in older recipients, these are not the primary fruits or graces of the sacrament. Waiting until the age of reason (or older, if the bishop so chooses for his diocese) is a requirement of canon law in the West, not a requirement for the validity of the sacrament. Confirmation may and should be administered earlier when a child is in danger of death, or for another grave reason (Code of Canon Law 891). And in the Eastern Catholic churches Confirmation is conferred right after Baptism.
The Church calls this sacrament “Confirmation” because it confirms or completes baptismal grace and strengthens the recipient in the gifts of the Holy Spirit (it is called “Chrismation” or simply “Anointing” in the East). It is the sacrament of witness and mission, by which we are definitively established as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In it we are conformed to Christ and consecrated as both priest and sacrificial victim. We are also more firmly attached to the faith of the Church and thereby strictly obliged to witness to and defend that faith.
Confirmation is prefigured in the actions of anointing and laying on of hands in the Old Testament, when someone was consecrated for a special mission or office, especially priests (e.g. Aaron, Exodus 28:41), prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Isaiah 61:1), and kings (e.g. David, 1 Samuel 16:13). In addition to priests receiving the laying on of hands, we also see priests laying hands on sacrificial victims before offering them (see Exodus 29). In the New Testament, the laying on of hands is the primary sign of Confirmation. When the Apostles lay hands on the baptized, the Holy Spirit falls on them and Pentecost is continued in the Church (see Acts 8:14–17, 19:5–6).
Just as the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost and filled them with the power to witness to Christ—such that some 3000 people believed and were baptized that day (Acts 2:41)—so too Confirmation fills us with that same power of the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Christ. We first receive the Holy Spirit and His gifts in Baptism, but the gifts of the Holy Spirit are strengthened in us in Confirmation when we are consecrated for the particular mission of bearing witness to Christ.
It’s important to remember that we are not witnesses on our own power. Jesus tells us plainly: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But the grace of Confirmation enables us to truly abide in God and depend on Him for the strength to fulfill the mission He has given us. The Catechism lists the effects of the sacrament:
- it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation 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. —CCC 1303
This Pentecost, may we thank God for the gift of His Spirit and for giving us in the Sacrament of Confirmation “the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (CCC 1302)!