I am grateful to Mark, one of the Café regulars, for expressing an interest in the Sacrament of Confirmation. In my Amazon review of Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium posted on Tuesday, I had summarized the book’s treatment of Confirmation in two sentences. [There is a 1000-word limit for Amazon submissions.] For better or worse, Café posts are limited only by me and vary depending upon the amount of coffee consumed over the past few hours.
Mark was responding to Chapter 7, “The Sacrament of Confirmation and its Role in the Ecclesiology of Communion.” The author, Moira Debono, was attempting to explain the role of this sacrament in the building of the body of Christ on earth, the Church. One of the principles of modern theology is the understanding that all sacraments are given by Christ to build the holiness and unity of the Church. Thus, when one receives the Sacrament of Confirmation, one is not receiving the Spirit simply for personal edification, but for the strength to bring holiness, wisdom, enthusiasm, prayer, and good example, etc. to the Church at hand. Even Penance, which appears to the eye as the most solitary of Sacraments, is a public gift to the Church. If I am truly sorry for my many sins, my newfound humility in confession enriches the immediate Church around me, and beyond that, my conversion away from sin becomes part of the Church’s mission to the unchurched and/or the unbaptized. Faithful living is mission, part of what we mean when we speak of the priesthood of the faithful shared by all baptized Christians.
In her essay, Debono is seeking to put meat on the bones of the Church’s understanding of Confirmation. We tend, in church work, to use too many generic and fluffy words without concrete precision. Thus, the specific definitions and rites of the sacraments are very important, or else religious life becomes a game of Vulcan mind-melding. Speaking concretely, the Church has always understood Confirmation as a pouring out of God’s Spirit which occurs in the sequence of conversion. An adult convert embraces three sacraments—Baptism, the bath which washes away the sins of the past and marks the definitive turning point of becoming a new being; Confirmation, the laying on of hands by the bishop, successor of the Apostles, who shares the Spirit of God poured out at the first Pentecost; and Eucharist, the table feast to which one is invited to the fellowship of eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ, the bread and cup of eternal salvation.
Confirmation, then, is a sacrament of initiation into the Body of Christ in tandem with Baptism and First Eucharist. Today, when unbaptized adults enter the Church, these sacraments are celebrated together at the Easter Vigil. With children and minors, however, the situation has been different. Without reviewing two thousand years of history, suffice to say that since the influence of St. Augustine [354-430 A.D.] and his clarification of what we call today original sin, there was increasing pressure to baptize infants as soon after their birth as possible, lest they die without baptism and face an eternity without the vision of God. Confirmation [and Eucharist] could be postponed until later when a bishop could confer the laying on of hands and the sacred anointing.
Once the three sacraments of initiation became separated over time, each one developed its own rationale, catechetics, and timing. In 1900, for example, a child would be baptized at birth, confirmed around seven, and make first communion in the teen years. Poor theology of the time discouraged frequent communion at any rate; Church law mandated that a Catholic receive communion at least once a year, the “Easter Duty,” setting the bar rather low. Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] revolutionized the Church’s practice of receiving communion by moving First Communion to the “age of reason” [age seven or thereabouts] and encouraging everyone to receive frequently. Confirmation was subsequently postponed; I received communion in the second grade in 1956 and was confirmed in sixth grade in 1960 with the idea that the Spirit would make me a “soldier of Christ” ready to die for my faith.
The Council Vatican II [1962-1965] attempted to restore the ancient understanding and dignity of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, Confirmation, in its document on the Church, Lumen Gentium . Debono summarizes: “A Catholic, already an integral member of the Body of Christ by Baptism, is effectively brought into active relationship with the other members of the Body; that is, in a new kind of communion with others through the Sacrament of Confirmation. This new way of relationship within the Church for the individual cannot but enhance the communion the Church lives and expresses.” [p. 113] However, Debono shows that after the Council there was very little emphasis by the Church on Confirmation’s role in building the Christian Community. It was not until 2016 with Iuvenescit Ecclesia that any formal Church document talked about this important aspect of community-building as a purpose of Confirmation.
However, in the years since Vatican II there has been much written about the nature of the Church. Debono summarizes in her essay the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the nature of the Church [“ecclesiology”] and its relation to God. The major theme which emerges is that of unity. God is Triune [a perfect unity of love between Father, Son, and Spirit.] In the act of the Incarnation, whereby the Divine Son became man, humanity has taken on this Trinitarian quality of perfect communion of love, though imperfectly. Consequently, Christianity identifies itself by its love and unity in everything that we do, including our worship and sacraments.
Pope Francis, addressing an audience on Confirmation on May 30, 2018, said this: “In Confirmation it is Christ who fills us with his Spirit, consecrating us as his witness, participants in the same principle of life and of mission, according to the design of the heavenly Father.” [p. 119] Francis continues the themes of his predecessors. However, this still leaves two critical tasks in the study of Confirmation. First, how do we concretely talk about this sacrament from the pulpit and our education programs, and second, how do we celebrate this sacrament in a way that best illuminates the unity of the baptized and the Church’s unity with Christ? Finding a common ground of understanding will address such glaring divides as the varying ages of Confirmation, which currently range from age 7 to 16 or thereabouts, or even at infancy in some cases.
Debono turns to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Doctor,” [1225-1274 A.D.] and the father of modern Catholic theology. Aquinas write that in Confirmation a Catholic is no longer living an “individual life” but is meant to be in relationship with the other baptized. Confirmation strengthens the baptized for the mission of loving union. [p. 112] Aquinas does not mention a chronological age for Confirmation. “For him, the perfect age of the spiritual life is when ‘he [the believer] begins to have communication with others.’” [p. 120] Debono uses the first Pentecost event as an image of “the perfect age.” “Before the tongues of fire rested on them, there was a personal relationship that they [the Apostles] were nurturing with their Lord….In the Pentecostal event, the young Church was spiritually galvanized as a community for the sake of the mission of Christ…The sacramental character of Confirmation gives Catholics not only a similar responsibility for the salvation of the world, but the spiritual means (gifts and graces) to carry out the mission of Christ that continues to this day.”
Debono says this about the sacramental character of Confirmation: “We are given a new rank or role in the Church to more visibly extend the Mission of Christ to bring the saving Good News of Christ to others. The power to accomplish this is also made available to us.” [p. 123] The New Testament offers several powerful teachings on this power of the Spirit within us. Romans 8:26 reads: “Now in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Galatians 5: 22-23 lists the qualities of one living in the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” In closing her essay Debono has put before us the principles of how to speak of Confirmation, how to celebrate it, and how to nurture a full adult life in the Spirit.
However, we are still stuck with the realities of everyday parish life. I follow several blogsites of Catholic religious education directors and teachers, where frustrations with Confirmation practices are frequent streams of conversation. The primary frustration is irregular or nonexistent participation in the weekly Eucharist by the young candidates for Confirmation and their families. This is a sad condition in that the Eucharist is the highest visible union we have as a Church family, and Confirmation is the empowerment to the communal family of Christ. The second is the prevailing attitude that Confirmation is “graduation” from Catholic faith formation. [I started the Catechist Café eight years ago for adult faith formation, in part to counter the idea that faith learning is just a childhood exercise.]
Catholicism—all of Christianity, really—is an inseparable marriage of mind and heart. The mind comes into play as we learn about Jesus of Nazareth and how his believers ahead of us have understood him and tried to walk in his footsteps. The heart is the love and affection for our God who loves us beyond definition and who resides in every created person, many times simply waiting to be brought to consciousness. The Spirit is the very breath of God’s love. After studying Debono’s text again this week, I did something I haven’t consciously done in a long time. I prayed specifically to the Spirit to fire up my heart again. If we as the Church cry out for that Spirit, the way will be shown to heal the broken Body of Christ, the Church.