Today we had our Episcopal Vicar, Msgr. Sean Harty, come to offer the sacrament of Confirmation to the children of our parish. The two celebrations we had were well-attended, and a reverent atmosphere prevailed throughout. I think our kids got a lot out of it, so my only real hope now is that it doesn’t become their graduation ceremony from the Catholic Church.
William J. Bausch called Confirmation “a sacrament in search of a theology”. The problem seems to come down to the question, “Just what does Confirmation do?” Many people erroneously believe that Confirmation is like a Catholic bar mitzvah, where the young man or woman publicly declares that they are taking responsibility for their faith. While this is a nice idea, we do this in fact at every Easter when we renew our baptismal promises — we don’t need another sacrament for *that*. Also, the fact that it is possible to confirm even infants — in fact, this is the norm in Eastern churches — just highlights the fact that the use of Confirmation as a spiritual “coming of age” ceremony just isn’t part of our ancient tradition.
It doesn’t help that Confirmation is said to bestow the presence of the Holy Spirit in a way that parallels the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Pentecost had dramatic special effects (sound of rushing wind, tongues of flame resting on people’s heads) as well as astonishing gifts for the recipients of the Holy Spirit — the speaking of different languages, for example. Contrast that with what we see: holy oil is applied to the forehead of the confirmand, who walks away with……an oily forehead. For some it just seems like a bit of a let-down. Of course there is more going on, but what?
Personally, I think a lot of the problem is our lack of vision regarding the sacrament. We tend to think along individualistic lines in Western society, so we look for individual-oriented effects within the sacrament. But we need to remember that Pentecost was not only the start of the bestowal of personal charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues: it was also the birthday of the Church, the start of this great “corporate gift” which is itself a sacrament of salvation to all the world.
To be sure, Baptism is the sacrament which originally bestows the Holy Spirit, and which causes us to be incorporated into the Church. But we need to keep in mind that the Church is a stubbornly incarnate reality. Unlike some of our Protestant brothers and sisters who see the “true Church” as a fundamentally invisible reality, we Catholics believe that the mystery of the Church truly subsists in a genuine visible element, i.e. in the Catholic Church. The word “subsists” is important. It means that elements of the life of the Catholic Church can truly exist outside of the visible boundaries, but it also means that those visible boundaries are not negligible — we have a responsibility to be “in” the Catholic Church, to be genuinely part of a concrete faith community.
The way I see it, Confirmation is one of the ways we sacramentally express this theological reality. Baptism makes us a member of the Body of Christ, of the Church, but often enough a member who is living outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. Presbyterians, for example, are definitely members of the Church by the Baptism they perform (which the Catholic Church recognizes as valid), but they aren’t members of the Catholic Church. If they were, they’d be Catholics, not Presbyterians. But Confirmation is a very different reality. For a Confirmation to be valid it must be performed with oil which can only be blessed by a bishop, and can only be conferred by a bishop, or by a priest with the proper jurisdiction delegated by apostolic authority (whether directly by a bishop, or more generally by canon law itself). Anyone can baptise, even a non-baptised person, but Confirmation is a sacrament that directly depends upon the ministry of a very special class of people — bishops — who themselves, for their ministry to be valid, must be ordained in a direct line of apostolic succession, a line which theoretically could be traced all the way back to the original apostles at Pentecost.
Where the bishop is, there the Church is also. St. Irenaeus (writing around A.D. 150) himself said that a criterion of a “true” Church was that it’s bishops were ordained in the apostolic succession. It also works in reverse. Since Confirmation is the sacrament that most closely ties us to such individuals, it is also a sacrament that closely ties us to the Church — not the Church considered as the “mystical Body of Christ”, but the Church considered as a concrete historical reality — the Church of Montreal, founded in 1836, or the Church of Jerusalem, founded in A.D. 33.
One of the reasons I am so attached to considering the sacrament in this way is that it means that God has written into the very constitution of the Church — because sacraments are part of the constitution of the Church — a means to combat the relativism of our times. Statements like “I believe, but I don’t go to church,” “I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in organized religion”, and “I’m a Catholic, but I decide for myself what parts of my faith I will follow” are directly contradicted by the nature of the sacrament of Confirmation itself. Let me put this as plainly as possible: holding these views is inconsistent with being a confirmed person. Confirmation is about accepting to be part of a concrete historical community, warts and all, and living according to what that means.
As for the catechesis needed to prepare people for Confirmation, I’d revise it considerably. The current emphasis on memorizing the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” seems to be to be a relic of a time when we were trying to see what gifts the Holy Spirit was giving at Confirmation, given that tongues didn’t seem to be breaking out all over. I’m not denying the importance of those gifts, but let’s not forget that we’ve had those gifts since Baptism. Teach about them, but just make it part of the regular catechesis kids should be getting anyway. As for Confirmation, though, this is the time for people to learn what it means to be *Catholic*. Teach them about the Apostles, and then take them on a field trip to the cathedral and have them meet a successor to the apostles. Use the time of catechesis to instill some confidence in them about being Catholic, and teach them their rights and responsibilities as members of this visible society. In other words, give them a Catholic identity: teach them to be part of something bigger than themselves, and help them to find their place in it. Then they can truly be “in the world, but not of it,” because they will have another visible home in our visible world: their visible Church, the Catholic Church.