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The Sacrament of Confirmation: What it is and What it Ain\’t

May 8, AD2014 11 Comments

\"nicholas\"

In many dioceses in the United States, we\’re getting right into the thick of Confirmation season, and as there tends to be a lot of confusion and misinformation and misunderstanding on the subject, it seems an appropriate time for a little primer on this sacrament.

First, let\’s be clear about what this sacrament is not.

Because in most dioceses in this country, Confirmation is received in the early teen years, the sacrament often has the feel of an ecclesiastical eighth-grade graduation ceremony: you\’ve attended your classes, done your service project, and now you are receiving the mark of your accomplishments–except in this case, your head is bedecked with sacred oil rather than the graduate\’s cap, and your gown is replaced by that shirt you usually only wear for weddings and funerals that has sleeves that are just a little too short. And now you\’re done and can move on to other things, right? Clearly this picture is missing something.

Sometimes people speak of Confirmation as a time during which young people choose to accept their faith for themselves. They may have been baptized as infants, but this is when, you know, they really become Catholics. It\’s when they \”confirm\” their presence in the Church. This makes it seem as though the non-confirmed are merely probationary members who are giving the whole thing a trial run–\”if you\’re not satisfied after 13 years, you can cancel your membership!\” Problems here, too.

The sacrament is also occasionally treated as \”the point at which you become a grown-up in the Church,\” a rite of passage into spiritual adulthood, like a Christian bar mitzvah, so that you can now become an usher or something. With this conception we\’re getting a little closer to the truth, but only a little.

Each of these is lacking, but each also has a hint of truth to it, because each conveys the sense of taking a further step in being initiated into the Church.

Confirmation, along with Baptism and the Eucharist, is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation. By these sacraments one is inducted into the mysteries of the Christian faith and becomes a member of the Church–not as a member of a club, but as your arm or your leg are your \”members,\” since in the Church we are the Body of Christ, and thus are members of Him. Each sacrament deepens this membership.

Baptism incorporates us into Christ–that is the perfect word for it, too; we enter into His Body, we are \”in-corpor-ated\”–giving us new life and a spiritual rebirth. The Eucharist feeds us with Christ\’s own Body and Blood, nourishing us and allowing us to grow in the Faith. In what way does Confirmation initiate us?

St. Thomas presents us with a beautiful model for this. Baptism is our spiritual rebirth, putting us into relationship with God and giving us the power to do things that involve our own salvation, but Confirmation is our spiritual growth and maturation, giving us power to do things that involve the salvation of others. This means spiritual combat, or \”combating the enemies of the Faith,\” as St. Thomas puts it.

Confirmation strengthens us for spiritual warfare not just for defending our own faith, but for defending the Faith – for answering critics who would attack the Faith with words, for acting with charity toward those who would hate us and ours, for maintaining trust and bolstering the trust of others when some would try to rob us of our hope. Confirmation instills us with the grace needed to live and preserve the Faith in a hostile world. It arms us against our spiritual enemies.

The spiritual mark of Confirmation is \”indelible,\” meaning it can never be destroyed or wiped away. Once confirmed, always confirmed. In Confirmation, we are branded as belonging to God. The Greek term for this mark is \”character,\” which was the name for the mark made on soldiers to show they belonged to the army. St. Augustine used this term to describe the spiritual mark of Confirmation, which is why older books will speak of Confirmation as \”making us soldiers for Christ.\” It\’s why the bishop would give each of the confirmandi a little smack on the cheek. We are under attack, and we are being prepared for battle.

Confirmation is our commission. Stand to post!

Filed in: Faith

About the Author:

Nicholas Senz is a master's student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA, studying, surprisingly, philosophy and theology. Born and raised in Verboort, a Catholic enclave in irreligious Oregon, Nick grew up in a solidly Catholic family that encouraged asking questions (and boy, did he), taking him on a lifelong journey of fides quarens intellectum ("faith seeking understanding"). Nick enjoys science fiction, basketball, playing guitar, and the usual suspects: J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Church Fathers. Nick blogs at nicksenz.blogspot.com.

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  • james

    ” We are under attack, and we are being prepared for battle.”
    You forgot to mention that there are legions of deserters. What happens to them ?

    • Nicholas Senz

      They are always welcome back if they repent and ask forgiveness. Luke 15:11-32.

  • john654

    Nick, I have a question, (Not An Argument, Just A Question), what do you think about children receiving all three of the Sacraments of initiation? I have been wondering about that a lot lately. God Bless, John

    • Nicholas Senz

      I’m actually in favor of it. Briefly: 1) It was the practice of the early Church. 2) It makes more sense theologically to receive Confirmation before receiving the Eucharist. 3) Even though Confirmation is one’s “spiritual maturation,” St. Thomas points out that spiritual maturation need not proceed at the same pace as physical maturation: one can be given the gift of spiritual growth even as an infant. I could go into more detail if you like!

    • WSquared

      Good point, John. If memory serves me correctly, isn’t this what the Eastern Church does? Might not be a bad idea at all: I was reading about something like this in an article at CatholicHerald.co.uk some years ago. One priest mentioned in the article put it this way: “if you’re old enough to receive Holy Communion, you’re old enough to be Confirmed.”

      That priest has a point. At the age of seven, you are old enough to receive Holy Communion. You are also old enough to commit mortal sin (somewhat related: why are we all over how smart our kids are and how quick they learn, but we expect them to be completely stupid when it comes to spiritual matters?). Moreover, spiritual combat won’t wait until you’re in your teens.

    • Mrshopey

      The way it is written in law, Canon, is the age of discretion (7) to receive this sacrament UNLESS the Bishops (Conference) have approved another age. For us in the US, it is to be administered between the age of discretion and about 16. That is what is approved, by the Holy See, for here. When children come into the church with their parent(s), they are supposed to receive full initiation as their parents do. Not all dioceses do this which is confusing and also, imo, what leads (or helps?) in the misunderstandings about the sacraments. I reminded one young man who exclaimed HE finally got to say whether or not he wanted to be Catholic, was that he did that every Sunday he kicked himself in the butt to get out of bed and more specifically when he renewed his baptismal promises at Easter, etc.

    • Patricia

      It is the ancient tradition of the Eastern Catholic Churches that infants receive the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) of Illumination (Baptism), Chrismation (Confirmation), & Holy Eucharist at the same time. Some parishes have also kept the tradition of tonsuring the child at this time.

    • http://platytera.blogspot.com Christian LeBlanc

      I catechize 6th graders. Every year I wonder: if they had been Chrismated already, would they be getting more out of what I’m trying to communicate to them?

  • WSquared

    Thank you for this, Mr. Senz.

    “And now you’re done and can move on to other things, right? Clearly this picture is missing something.”

    …this is, unfortunately, the way we tend to treat EVERYTHING, so it’s perhaps not surprising that so many view the Sacraments the same way: as an “achievement” and a “hoop to jump through,” but not much else. It’s all about getting “done.” Any time a couple has young children, particularly if they have a bigger than “normal” family, people want to know when they’re going to be “done.” If you’ve traveled, you’ve “been there, done that,” even if you have no clue what it’s like to live there: you’ve “done” Rome. You’ve “done” Paris. Any grad student who has had to write a thesis or dissertation is almost invariably bombarded with questions from family members about when they’re going to get “done,” which are annoying for very similar reasons. Getting “done” never really addresses the issue of excellence, which is always an ongoing endeavor.

    Likewise, kids are “done” their Sacraments once they hit Confirmation, supposedly. Even with First Holy Communion, the priest almost invariably has to invite both the kids and the parents to come back for Sunday Mass the next day or Sunday Mass next week. And rare is it indeed to hear any reference to regular Confession during any Mass when kids are receiving their First Holy Communion, and that it’s important that they not only receive Jesus regularly, but when well disposed (I guess they’re “done” their First Penance, too). Also, the kids hear how receiving Communion means “being on God’s team,” which is true enough, when they also need to hear about how to stay on God’s team, and how God will enable them, but they need to let Him.

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