I recently had the enormous privilege of performing my first confirmation as a bishop. It took place at Holy Cross Parish in Moor Park, California, a large, bustling and bilingual parish in my pastoral region. I told the confirmandi — and I meant it — that I would keep them in my heart for the rest of my life, for we were connected by an unbreakable bond. In preparation for this moment, I was, of course, obliged to craft a homily, and that exercise compelled me to do some serious studying and praying around the meaning of this great sacrament.
It is sometimes said that confirmation is a sacrament in search of a theology. It is indeed true that most Catholics could probably give at least a decent account of the significance of baptism, Eucharist, confession, matrimony, holy orders and the anointing of the sick, but they might balk when asked to explain the meaning of confirmation. Perhaps they would be tempted to say it is the Catholic version of a Bar Mitzvah, but this would not even come close to an accurate theological description.
A survey of the most recent theologizing about confirmation — the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, etc. — reveals that this is the sacrament of strengthening, as the term itself (confirmare in Latin) suggests. First, it strengthens baptized people in their relationship with the Lord Jesus, and then it further strengthens them in their capacity to defend and spread the faith.
The roots of it, of course, are in the great day of Pentecost when, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, 11 timorous and largely uneducated men became fearless evangelists, ready and able to spread the Gospel far and wide. Keep in mind that to proclaim Jesus publicly in that time and place was to take one’s life in one’s hand — and the disciples knew it. And yet, on the very day of Pentecost, they spoke out in the Temple and in the public squares of Jerusalem.
With the exception of John, they all went to their deaths boldly announcing the Word. I told those I confirmed that they are, in a certain sense, successors of those first men upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and that they have the same fundamental task. Their confirmation, I further explained, is therefore not really for them; it is for the church and the wider world.
Now what makes this transformation possible is the third person of the Holy Trinity, who comes bearing a variety of powers, which the church calls the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These include wisdom, knowledge, understanding, fortitude, counsel, piety and fear of the Lord. In order to understand these more fully, we must keep in mind their relationship to evangelization and apologetics, to spreading and defending the faith.
As I have argued often, a dumbed-down, simplified Catholicism is not evangelically compelling. We have a smart tradition, marked by 2,000 years of serious theologizing by some of the masters of Western thought: Origen, Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton and Joseph Ratzinger. If one is going to defend the Catholic faith, especially at a time when it is under assault by many in the secular culture, one had better possess (and cooperate with) the gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding.
In order to be an effective evangelist, one also needs the spiritual gift of fortitude or courage. Will the defense of the faith stir up opposition? Watch the news, read the papers and above all surf the Internet, and the question answers itself. It would be tempting indeed to withdraw from the arena and cultivate one's faith privately, but confirmed people, endowed with fortitude, are meant to be soldiers of Christ, engaged in the fight.
Some folks suggest that this phrase should not be used as it evokes the terrors of religious violence. However, the struggle of a soldier of Christ is to resist violence, not with the weapons of worldliness but with the weapons of the Spirit — peace, patience, kindness and forgiveness. Does evangelization put the evangelizer in harm's way? Just ask Peter, Paul, Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe and Charles Lwanga. But also consult anyone who has been insulted, joked about, mocked or excluded because of his faith in Christ. The gift of fortitude empowers the confirmandi to stay in the arena.
Those who would spread and defend the faith also require the gift of counsel, which is the capacity to discern right from wrong, to know what God wants us to do in any given situation. As we move through the day, we perform hundreds of acts. Are we motivated primarily by the worldly desires for wealth, pleasure, power, self-protection and honor; or are we motivated by a desire to please God? Counsel enables one to make the right moral decisions for the right reason. It is precisely this holiness, this consistent option to follow the will of God that makes a person radiant and compelling to others — and hence evangelically persuasive.
Finally, the confirmed evangelizer needs the spiritual gifts of piety and fear of the Lord. Though these terms carry a somewhat fussy connotation, they in fact name something strong and bracing. They designate the capacity to place God at the absolute center of one's life, to worship God alone. The person of piety and genuine fear of the Lord (respect for God), does not run after every passing fancy, or devote herself to a variety of worldly goods; rather, her heart is set upon God alone, and every other passion or interest in her life is related to that central value. This right ordering of the self conduces toward integrity, and integrity of life makes a person saintly and deeply attractive.
I reminded those I confirmed that their confirmation was meant to set them on fire with the Holy Spirit, precisely so that they in turn can set the world on fire. Once again, the gifts that they received were not for them.