There is a lot of confusion about the sacrament of Confirmation, due to the fact that, in the early Christian centuries, both baptism and confirmation were part of a single sequence which culminated in Communion. All three sacraments, when celebrated together, were called ‘baptism’. Hence, the Fathers of the Church had no need to differentiate clearly and consistently between baptism and confirmation and were content to say that the Holy Spirit is given with the laying on of hands or by the unction with chrism and felt no need to ask why this is needed when the Spirit has already been given in baptism. Only when the bishops of the Latin West reserved this part of the rite to themselves did the differences between Baptism and Confirmation become important; but the picture was too confused to give us a clear idea about the nature of confirmation by itself, and as theologians had come to prefer what authoritative sources have said about the sacraments to evidence from the liturgy itself, they failed to notice much that would have helped them to arrive at a more satisfactory theology. While popes and councils have their place, the liturgy is the primary source of our understanding the sacraments.
Trying to cope with the confusion, and being faced with the necessity to prepare young people for the sacrament here and now, some people find answers based on the concrete situation in western Christianity. They say something like, “You were baptised as infants when you could not be consciously involved and were not able to make a decision to be a Christian. In Confirmation, you confirm your faith as an adult in front of the bishop. It is an entry into Christian adulthood. This sacrament completes your baptism and you receive the Holy Spirit who strengthens your faith and gives you the capacity to live as an adult Christian.” This seems to be the theology expressed in the Anglican rite of Confirmation. The bishop asks the candidates: “Do you here, in the presence of God and of this congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your baptism; ratifying and confirming the same in your own persons, and acknowledging yourselves bound to believe and to do all those things which your sponsors then undertook for you?” He lays hands on each candidate with these words, “Defend, O Lord, this thy child with thy heavenly grace, that he may continue thine forever, and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thine everlasting kingdom.” John Macquarrie, in his Guide to the Sacraments, SCM Press, 1997, says that “Confirmation (as the word implies) is simply a strengthening or ratification of the gifts received in baptism….These words (of the bishop over each candidate) seem to justify my choice of the term “perseverance” to designate the special grace associated with confirmation.”
But this explanation is too dependent on the western tradition and the pastoral situation it has produced. It is also too focused on the individual alone, rather than on the liturgical process by which an individual enters into ecclesial communion as a Christian person, which is the main theme of the whole initiation celebration. Also, the Anglican rite speaks of the young person ‘confirming’ his faith; but it is the bishop or his substitute who confirms, not the candidate. Also, this view of confirmation hardly fits the facts on the ground. I have heard of Anglican confirmation described as a passing out parade, because so many do not go to church again once the ceremony is over; and it is not much better in the Catholic Church in many places! Also, if the chief function of confirmation is to give the candidate a spiritual maturity, why cannot confirmation be repeated when, for some reason or other, the sacrament clearly failed to work the first time? What is unrepeatable about confirming our faith, and why is becoming a mature Christian a single, unrepeatable act rather than a process? Also, if spiritual maturity is so different from ordinary maturity that it can be given to an eight week old Greek or Russian child, should it be called ‘maturity’ at all?
To arrive at a satisfactory understanding of confirmation we must also ask ourselves what the confirmation rites in East and West have in common, and look for the meaning of the sacrament there, because liturgical celebration is the principle expression of Catholic Tradition at its most authentic, both in the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, and it is the place where every other dimension or aspect of Church life comes together in a unity forged by the Holy Spirit. A true theological investigation must pay adequate attention to confirmation when it is given to an eight week old child, as is done in the Byzantine Rite. It must also ask what western Christians wanted to preserve which was so important as to justify breaking up the classical sequence of baptism, confirmation and communion in order to have the bishop as the ordinary minister of confirmation. If what they wanted to preserve is also important in Eastern liturgical practice, then it is most likely to be a key element in our understanding of confirmation.
To justify its claim to be a sacrament, Confirmation needs to be a symbolic action by which the Church realises itself in the individual in a distinctive way, without calling into question the sufficiency of baptism. If we follow the more classic pattern of celebrating Christian initiation, it is related to the baptism that preceded it and the communion that follows it. It is distinct but not separate from those two sacraments, and membership of the Church is what each sacrament and the whole sequence are about. We may well ask, using our own vocabulary rather than that of long ago, why did the early Church see the need to put another sacrament between the reception of Baptism and the reception of Communion? Or again, what did Baptism not symbolise with sufficient clarity, but which the early Church wished to emphasise, something that is a necessary pre-requisite to become a member of the Eucharistic Community?
The answer must not call to question the sufficiency of baptism. Whatever confirmation gives to the recipient, it must be already implicitly given in baptism. In spite of this, there must be a strong reason for the universal but spontaneous practice of giving this dimension of Christian initiation a separate sacramental sign which conveys a sacramental character of its own.
There are precedents for this in other areas of the Christian life because all are particular manifestations of the one Christian Mystery. It could be said that the doctrine of Christ’s Ascension is already implicit in the Resurrection. After all, where was the risen Christ during those forty days when he was not appearing to the disciples? The Ascension receives very little mention in St Mark’s Gospel (16, 19), and is not mentioned in the Gospel of St Matthew at all; it is charged with immense symbolic and doctrinal importance, so that St Luke had to make it the subject of a separate verbal icon, and this has been followed in the traditional iconography of the Church ever since. A similar process may have taken place in the early history of baptism, in which a dimension of being a Christian that is only implied in baptism was seen to need its own separate emphasis, its own sacramental sign.
There may be also a parallel between the relationship of conversion to baptism and the relationship of an invisible but real effect of baptism to confirmation. A person who is converted and is truly able to say “Jesus is Lord” has already been united to Christ and the Church by the Holy Spirit through his faith; but, because the Church on earth is a visible, sacramental reality, this conversion needs a visible, sacramental expression in baptism. In this way, Christ continues to form the Church as a visible organism of those who share the baptismal sacramental ‘character’. However, there is more to the Church than baptism; and, perhaps, there are dimensions of church membership which the person has received in baptism which, nevertheless, require visible, sacramental expression; and the very nature of the Church may require a further sacrament that imprints a character that helps build up and form the visible Church as a Eucharistic community.
Even though the Catechism does give the ordinary Catholic teaching on Confirmation, it fails to put it all together to show us clearly the distinct nature of Confirmation, largely, I believe, because it does not relate in a coherent way the many things that have been said by theologians, councils and popes, because it is not grounded in the liturgy. It quotes Pope Paul VIth in saying that Confirmation, “in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church” (1288); but doesn’t say in what way. Confirmation is “the gift of the Holy Spirit that completes the grace of Baptism” (1288); but it does not explain in what way the grace of Baptism needs completion. “Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace”(1303); but so do all other sacraments, especially the Eucharist which is the climax of the process of initiation and has every claim to be considered the Pentecost that makes the Church the body of Christ. Moreover, what does “an increase and deepening” really mean, and does the valid transmission of this sacrament depend on this “increase and deepening” taking place? “It gives a special grace of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never be ashamed of the Cross.” (1303). (How? Better than a good sermon?) Is the direct effect of the sacraments to change our attitudes and emotions, strengthen our willpower or our way of thinking? Again, “Like Baptism which it completes (how?) Confirmation is given only once.(1304)” . Apart from saying somewhat vaguely that Confirmation “completes” Baptism, no good reasons are given why Confirmation is a sacrament in its own right, distinct from other sacraments, and why it is given only once. I have no doubt that these statements are all true, but there is something missing which, if it were present, would make clear what they all mean; and that ‘something’ is the liturgy.
What The Sign Language Tells Us
When we look at the liturgy, the contrast between Baptism and Confirmation is very clear. The most impressive differences are a) the strong connection with the bishop in Confirmation, and b) the use of oil with the emphasis on the Holy Spirit. With this in mind, let us try to formulate the beginnings of a definition.
In the West, the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation, though he can give permission for a priest to confirm for a grave reason; and the priest celebrates the sacrament as the bishop’s deputy. If chrism is used without the proper blessing by a bishop, or if a priest celebrates Confirmation without permission, then there is no valid Confirmation. In the East they have kept the original pattern of Baptism – Chrismation or Confirmation- Communion, which means that the priest has to confirm whenever there is a baptism; but he cannot confirm with oil unblessed by the bishop or patriarch. A priest can baptise with water which has not been blessed by the bishop, but he cannot celebrate a valid confirmation without being delegated; and universally, he must use oil blessed by the bishop. All this leads me to propose that the connection with the bishop contributes something essential to the outward sign of Confirmation and is a key to what is signified by the sacrament.
Moreover, the chrism is not just any olive oil, and the blessing is not just any kind of blessing: it is oil blessed by the bishop in a context of prayer offered by the whole local Church represented by the concelebrating priests and by the congregation of lay people, on the one day of the year when it can be said that the whole diocese celebrates the Eucharist together, on Maundy Thursday in the Chrism Mass. That Mass is the supreme expression and celebration of the diocese as a sacramental organism, a manifestation in its own right of the whole Catholic Church in one place. The use of this oil associates the recipient of the sacrament with the diocese, and the invocation (epiclesis) of the bishop over the oil associates those who will be anointed with the whole Catholic hierarchy. If it is consecrated by the patriarch, then the emphasis is on the recipient’s relationship with the hierarchy and the visible Church structure.
It must be remembered that, while the Church is body of Christ and we are baptised into this body so that Christ lives in us to the extent that we die to our own egotism and live in union with him, it is the Holy Spirit who moulds the Church, unites its members to each other and to Christ, and gives to each member his or her distinctive role in the body. The unity between the bishop and his Church and the relationships between its members are brought about by the Holy Spirit who makes the Church a sacramental organism, the body of Christ, centred on the Eucharist; and this is true whether we are talking of the local diocese or the Church throughout the world. This is the teaching of both St Paul and the Fathers. St Augustine is particularly insistent on the teaching that the Church is united by the power of the Holy Spirit. Pope John Paul II wrote about this aspect of St Augustine’s teaching:
Another fundamental theme is that of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Mystical Body: “what the soul is to the body of a man, the Holy Spirit is for the body of Christ, which is the Church.” The Holy Spirit is also the principle of community, by which the faithful are united to one another and to the Trinity itself. “By means of what is common to the Father and the Son, they willed that we should have communion both among ourselves and with them. They willed to gather us together, through that gift, into that one thing which both have in common; that is, by means of God the Holy Spirit and the gift of God.”. He therefore says in the same text: “the fellowship of unity of the Church of God, outside of which there is no remission of sins, is properly the work of the Holy Spirit, of course with the cooperation of the Father and the Son, because the Holy Spirit himself is in a certain manner the fellowship of the Father and the Son.”.
In the early Church as now, integration into the local church and communion with the bishop were not an optional extra but an essential dimension of the Christian life, and it was the means by which a church member was related to the Church throughout the world. This is a main theme of the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century. He wrote:
“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup unto unity of His blood, one altar, as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery, and deacons, my fellow-servants, so that whatever you do, you may do it according to God.” (Ign. Phil. 4; also to be interpreted in the light of this passage: Eph. 20; Mag. 7; Tral. 7; Phil. sal.)
For him unity with the bishop and obedience to him as God’s representative is absolutely crucial for preserving this unity in faith and love. Unity with the bishop and unity with one another because we share the same bread and the same cup are two dimensions of the same reality, the reality called salvation. In a passage which is important for understanding Confirmation he writes:
I congratulate you who have become one with him (the bishop), as the Church is one with Jesus Christ and as Jesus Christ is one with the Father, so that all things may be in harmony. Let no man be deceived. If a person is not inside the sanctuary he is deprived of the Bread. For if the prayer of one or two men has so much force, how much greater is that of the bishop and the whole Church. Anyone, therefore, who fails to assemble with the others has already shown his pride and set himself apart. … Let us be careful, therefore, not to oppose the bishop, so that we may be obedient to God. (Eph. 1)
I received your whole community in the person of Onesimos, your bishop, in the flesh, a man whose charity is beyond all power to say.” (Eph).
St Cyprian is in complete agreement with St Ignatius. He wrote,
“The Church is the people in union with their bishop. .. Thus you must know that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop.”
St Cyprian went further: this harmony should exist, not only within each church, but in the relationship of churches with each other. The Church is like the seamless tunic of Christ in each local church but also as a “universal brotherhood” (On the Unity of The Church ch 12) The Episcopate is one as is the universal Church, and unity with one bishop is unity with all others who are in communion with him:
This unity (of the Church) we ought to hold firmly and defend, especially we bishops who watch over the Church, that we may prove that also the episcopate itself is one and undivided. .. The episcopate is one, the parts of which are held together by the individual bishops. The Church is one which with increasing fecundity extends far and wide into the multitude.(ch 5)
It is still Catholic teaching that the baptised person lives his Christianity within the universal Church only by participating in the local Church. In the concluding document published by the CELAM Conference of South American Bishops which was held in Aparecida, Brazil, May 13 -31 in 2007, it is stated:
We affirm that faith in Jesus Christ reached us through the ecclesial community and she “gives us a family, the universal family of God in the Catholic Church. The faith liberates us from the isolation of the ego, because it brings us into communion. This means that a constitutive dimension of the Christian reality is belonging to a concrete community, in which we can live the permanent experience of discipleship and communion with the successors of the Apostles and with the Pope. ( 5,56)
This membership of a concrete community and the unity with its bishop and, through him, with the hierarchical structure of the universal Church, is implied in baptism where we are made members of the Church, but it is in confirmation that this ‘constitutive dimension of the Christian reality’ is given the importance it deserves by being signified in a sacrament. The bishop forges a link with the newly baptised Christian by sealing him with ‘the Gift of the Holy Spirit’ which, all in one package, unites him to a concrete Church community with the bishop at its head, and gives him or her, those charismata, or gifts of the Spirit, that are necessary for anyone whose task is to bear witness to Christ and thus share in the mission of the Church as a whole. Furthermore, the sacramental character, being permanent, leaves the door open for the confirmed person to receive any other charismata that he or she may need to fulfil his or her particular vocation. Hence, this is the way in which Confirmation perfects Baptism; and, as the connection with the hierarchical Church is for life, Confirmation does not have to be repeated.
St Paul, writing about his own relationship with the Corinthian Church, argued that, because we have the Spirit, relationships within the Church should take on certain characteristics of Christ’s relationship with the Church, one being his whole-hearted dedication, his sacrificial love. Thus, because Jesus was never “Yes and No” but always a wholehearted “Yes”, St Paul’s dedication to them is also wholehearted. He wrote:
As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No”. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus, Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes”. For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes”. For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen” to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes (confirms) us with you in Christ and has anointed us by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment. (2 Cor. 21, 22).
Hence, when the bishop, as Christ’s representative, confirms us, anointing us and sealing us with the “Gift of the Holy Spirit”, he is telling us that the same Spirit who binds the Father and Son together in love also binds us to him and to the visible Church with its hierarchy; and he implies that, if we are open to the Spirit, then we will be bound to him as the Church is bound to Christ and Christ is bound to the Father; and this is the doctrine of the Fathers. We shall become wholeheartedly dedicated to the Church authorities that he represents and also to one another in Christ, just as the Church authorities will be bound to us and our spiritual good; and this will show that, together, we have truly received the gift of the Spirit.
Confirmation is a sacrament for the sanctification of the individual like all sacraments, and it sanctifies by ending the person’s egoistic individuality that can only end in death; and bringing him to share the divine life of the Holy Trinity, so that he or she becomes a Christian person in communion with the persons of the Trinity and with all others who share with Christ eternal life. Confirmation is also for the building up of the Church, a sacrament, along with baptism, orders and marriage, that gives shape to the Church on earth, in this case by externalizing the spiritual relationship between the episcopate and the faithful and relating to it the gift of the Holy Spirit that each Christian receives as member of the Church. There can be no opposition between the charismatic dimension of the Church and its hierarchical structure, because, at the very moment when the connection between the baptised person and the bishop is confirmed, and by the very same sacrament, the baptized person is made an instrument of the Holy Spirit and a recipient of those charismatic gifts the Holy Spirit wishes to give him. Confirmation shows us that these gifts must be exercised in union with the bishop “for the building up and knitting together of the body”, and never apart from him. This is the way confirmation completes baptism and why it is only given once.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this important dimension of the effect of being “sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit” very succinctly:
“The practice of the Eastern Churches gives greater emphasis to the unity of Christian initiation. That of the Latin Church more clearly expresses the communion of the new Christian with the bishop as guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church, and hence the connection with the apostolic origins of Christ’s Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1292).
My only criticism is that what the Latin liturgy “clearly expresses” is not in the very centre of the section on Confirmation, because the author gives more weight to statements about Confirmation, even if they lack clarity, than he does to the ritual that celebrates it. For the same reason, he underestimates the importance of the blessing of the oil by bishop or patriarch in the Eastern rites which also emphasizes the absolutely necessary communion with the bishop. A person anointed by this oil is included in the invocation (epiclesis) of the Church voiced by the patriarch or bishop and benefits from the divine response to that petition, the consecrated oil being a symbol both of the Church’s petition that the Father send the Spirit on the oil and of the divine positive response. In ritual, who is involved, what is done, even simple gestures, have their own theological meaning which can be mistakenly passed over by a theologian who only concentrates on written statements from authorities rather than on the liturgy itself.
The Apostolic Constitutions (latter half of 4th Century) speak of the practical consequences for the Christian of being confirmed by the bishop:
“How dare any man speak against his bishop, by whom the Lord gave the Holy Spirit among you upon the laying on of his hands, by whom you have learned the sacred doctrines, and have known God, and have believed in Christ, by whom you were known of God, by whom you were sealed with the oil of gladness and the ointment of understanding, by whom you were declared to be the children of light, by whom the Lord in your illumination testified by the imposition of the bishop’s hands” (Apostolic Constitutions 2:4:32)
That this connection with the hierarchic Church is a dimension of what is signified by Confirmation is confirmed by the fact that it is the traditional means of reconciling to the Church a person who has been baptized outside its communion. Hence, St Cyril of Jerusalem wrote:
It has been asked among the brethren what course ought specially to be adopted towards the persons of those who . . . baptized in heresy . . . and subsequently departing from their heresy, and fleeing as supplicants to the Church of God, should repent with their whole hearts, and only now perceiving the condemnation of their error, implore from the Church the help of salvation. . . . According to the most ancient custom and ecclesiastical tradition, it would suffice, after that baptism which they have received outside the Church . . . that only hands should be laid upon them by the bishop for their reception of the Holy Spirit, and this imposition of hands would afford them the renewed and perfected seal of faith” (Treatise on Re-Baptism 1 [A.D. 256]).
This was also the practice in the West. St Cyprian of Carthage had a controversy with Pope Stephen in the middle of the 3rd Century over the re-baptism of heretics and schismatics, but Pope Stephen’s upholding of Roman tradition won the day, so that an African council in the fifth century could declare that:
“The former council . . . decreed, as your unanimity remembers as well as I do, that those who as children were baptized by the Donatists, and not yet being able to know the pernicious character of their error, and afterward when they had come to the use of reason, had received the knowledge of the truth, abhorred their former error, and were received in accordance with the ancient order by the imposition of the hand, into the Catholic Church of God spread throughout the world” (Canon 57 [A.D. 419])
Even now, Confirmation is the way the Orthodox churches receive a layperson into communion who has been baptized outside Orthodoxy. They are then able to receive communion. This seems to me to be very sound, because, according to the mind of the Fathers, our relationship with the visible Church is sacramental in nature and only secondarily juridical, and our union with our bishop is a work of the Holy Spirit before it is the result of jurisdiction being exercised and accepted.
Further reading: "The Celebration of Confirmation"