Confirmation: The misunderstood sacrament

Bishop Mueggenborg celebrates confirmation at Assumption Parish in Seattle, November 4, 2017. Photo: Ray Meuse Bishop Mueggenborg celebrates confirmation at Assumption Parish in Seattle, November 4, 2017. Photo: Ray Meuse

It’s not a ‘graduation’ or a ‘coming of age’ ritual — it is the power of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives

“I am sending the Promise of my Father upon you,” Jesus told his disciples before his ascension, and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8) When the disciples did receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they immediately began witnessing to Jesus in remarkable ways.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter witnessed to Jesus as he preached to the crowds on the very day of Pentecost, leading thousands to be baptized. (Acts 2:14-41) The members of the church also witnessed to Jesus through their common life of study, fellowship, Eucharist and prayer. (Acts 2:42)

Peter and John witnessed to Jesus by continuing our Lord’s ministry of mercy and healing for the lame man at the gate of the Temple, telling him, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” (Acts 3:1-10)

Stephen witnessed to Jesus both by his bold preaching and by his death as the church’s first martyr. (Acts 6:8–7:60)

Spiritual gifts for a courageous faith

In the sacrament of confirmation, through the laying on of hands by a bishop or a designated priest (see Acts 8:14-17 and 19:6), we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit just as the disciples did on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:1-4) With this gift, we are empowered to witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the same ways they did. For this reason, the sacrament of confirmation “completes” Christian initiation, meaning that through it the individual’s sacramental participation in the paschal mystery is completed so they can live fully as a member of the body of Christ.

The Holy Spirit strengthens us for this mission of witness by producing within us certain gifts to help us be courageous in living out our faith in everyday life. These gifts of the Spirit are not general gifts that we can use for any purpose, but specific gifts that will help us when we choose to follow Christ and stand by our faith in the face of challenges or opportunities. These gifts are mentioned by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, and the Catholic Church has traditionally taught that the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, understanding, piety and fear of the Lord. (see Isaiah 11:1-3)

God does not force the gift of the Holy Spirit on us. If a person is closed, indifferent or uncooperative in regard to God’s grace, then their ability to receive God’s gift of the Holy Spirit can be diminished. That is why Jesus instructed his disciples to pray for the Holy Spirit. (see Luke 11:13)

The same is true with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit generates these gifts within us specifically to help us live and spread our faith. In order to rightly experience this grace and the effects of these gifts, we must open our lives to God and seek the Lord’s direction to lead us through particular situations and decisions.

We see these gifts manifested in the lives of the apostles who courageously brought the Christian faith to the ends of the earth despite strong resistance and persecution. They show us what a dramatic difference the Holy Spirit can make in our lives and how the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be lived out in practical ways.

Bernini stained glass St. Peter'sGiovanni Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City/Shutterstock

We must be people of prayer

To experience these gifts, we must be people of prayer who seek and follow God’s direction in everything. If we do not pray or seek and follow God’s direction, we will not discern correctly the voice of God and will not experience the strength of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is what allows us to endure in a deep and abiding communion of life and love with Jesus so we can discern the voice of the Good Shepherd from the confusing and distracting voice of bad shepherds, especially Satan.

When accepted and lived in the context of prayer, the sacrament of confirmation gives us spiritual protection, knowledge of God’s will, and the ability to follow Jesus even in the face of difficult challenges, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, and to grow in holiness through a life of virtue by which we become the person God has created us to be.

Prayer is also the context of “filiation,” that is, the realm in which the Holy Spirit strengthens our identity as God’s children and the baptismal grace reaches fulfillment, as St. Paul stated: “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. … We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:15-16, 26)

Overcoming confusion and misunderstanding

In the early church, most people were baptized as adults, and so they were confirmed and received the Eucharist in the same continuous rite. When children and infants were baptized, they also received all three sacraments of initiation together (Acts 11:14 indicates that the entire household of Cornelius was baptized by Peter and received the Holy Spirit). Over the centuries, however, the sacraments became separated, and the age of confirmation was gradually raised (see sidebar).

The higher age of confirmation can sometimes confuse Catholics into misunderstanding what the sacrament is about. Rather than it being the moment when we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit as the disciples did at Pentecost, many Catholics have come to mistakenly believe that it is a time when children “confirm” the decision of faith that was made for them when they were infants. Such an understanding does reflect what takes place in some non-Catholic Christian churches, but it has never been a part of the Catholic understanding of the sacrament.

Great care should be taken to avoid such misunderstandings of confirmation, lest it be wrongly understood and practiced as a “graduation” or a “coming of age” ritual — it is neither. The sacrament of confirmation celebrates and bestows the grace of the Holy Spirit himself who is poured into our lives so we can be faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ and confront the many challenges we face in living our faith as his disciples.

Jesus still calls us to be his witnesses

Each of the sacraments gives us a sharing in God’s life, which we call grace. Baptism begins our life in God, Eucharist nourishes and establishes communion with our life in God, reconciliation restores our life in God, anointing brings healing through our life in God, holy orders and marriage focus how we live our life in God. Confirmation strengthens and seals the gift of the Holy Spirit we first received in baptism.

Being confirmed is thus the beginning of a new mission as an active and fully empowered disciple of Jesus Christ. Equipped with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can be authentic and courageous witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection in our daily endeavors.

Jesus still calls us to be his witnesses, active members of his mystical body in the church, so the Lord can work in us and through us for the salvation of the world.

If you were confirmed and never realized the gift offered to you, it’s not too late to open your life and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit now to fill you. Pray for the gift of the Spirit throughout the day every day. And receive the Eucharist as frequently as you can so that the body and blood of Jesus can prepare you for his Spirit.

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen. – St. Augustine of Hippo

How the age of confirmation got raised

In the early church, the three sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation and first Communion — were celebrated together.

These three sacraments were initially presided over by the local bishop of a particular church. However, as the church grew during the next few centuries, it became impossible for the local bishop to care for all the sacramental needs of the people. Already in the New Testament apostolic age, we see the establishment of priests to care for a particular congregation. (see Titus 2:15) At this time, priests cared for the spiritual needs of the faithful primarily by baptizing and celebrating the Eucharist. The local bishop retained the privilege of conferring the sacrament of confirmation as a sign of the church’s unity and his role as the primary pastor of the local church.

As the church grew out of the cities and local bishops became responsible for larger and larger areas, it sometimes took several years to visit each town. This delay began to increase the amount of time that elapsed between a person’s baptism and their confirmation.

By the mid-Middle Ages (ninth through 12th centuries), the age at which children received confirmation had increased, and it became common practice to celebrate confirmation after the “age of reason,” when a child had the basic capacity to reflect on a decision. This age has historically been understood to be 7 years old.

Following the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, the practical age for confirmation was gradually raised. By the 18th century, the Latin Church formally abolished the practice of confirming infants (except in emergency situations), and the normal age for confirmation became 12 to 14.

The Protestant Reformation and the philosophy of rationalism posed certain challenges when it came to the age of confirmation. The rationalists accused the church of taking away children’s freedom and their capacity to choose a religion. In response to this accusation, the church began to include the renewal of baptismal promises as part of the rite of confirmation for the first time since the sacraments of baptism and confirmation were separated nearly 14 centuries earlier.

It should be noted that the age at which a child received first Communion was historically raised along with the increased age for confirmation until Pope Pius X in 1910 issued his decree Quam Singulari, which reduced the age of first Communion to the age of reason — 7 years old.

But Pius X reduced only the age for first Communion, thus making confirmation the last of the three sacraments of initiation a person received, rather than the Eucharist.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 891) permitted bishops to decide the proper age for confirmation according to their pastoral judgment. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the range of 7 to 16 years of age in 2000 and, after subsequent confirmation by the Holy See in 2001, this became the established age range for Latin-rite Catholic dioceses in the United States. Each diocesan bishop was given the responsibility to determine limits within that range.

Northwest Catholic - May 2018

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.