Confirmation is the second of the Sacraments of Initiation. It is closely related to Baptism and leads to the Eucharist which expresses full belonging to the Church, the body of Christ. Hence it is called a sacrament of initiation. While Confirmation is often spoken of in relation to the Holy Spirit it is important to realise that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in all the sacraments. The Holy Spirit is called upon the waters of Baptism, the oil (Chrism) of Confirmation and the bread and wine of the Eucharist but each of the sacraments of initiation have their unique emphasis:
What actually happens at a Confirmation ceremony?
The actions of the sacrament of Confirmation are two-fold. Firstly the bishop extends his hands over the heads of those to be confirmed and calls the Holy Spirit upon them. Then the candidates come before the bishop who anoints each one’s forehead with Chrism (which is consecrated, perfumed olive oil) and pronounces the words: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’.
It is usually administered by the local bishop or his delegate, except during the Rite of Christian Initiation of adults when the priest who baptises the candidates, confirms them immediately afterwards. At other times, Confirmation is usually celebrated in the context of the Mass. It is preceded by the Liturgy of the Word and Renewal of Baptismal Promises (to show the relationship with Baptism) and leads into the Liturgy of the Eucharist (which shows how the Eucharist brings to completion the sacraments of initiation).
Confirmation, a rite of Initiation?
When we hear the word ‘initiation’ it can often conjure up tribal images of sometimes painful ordeals that adolescents must undergo to be admitted to adult status in a particular community but the Christian rites of initiation are based on a very different principle.
Christians believe that faith is a gift of God and that human beings in receiving the sacraments are responding to that gift, not earning it. That being said, there are aspects of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist that have some parallels with the anthropology of initiation, especially of rites of passage.
Parallels between ‘rites of passage’ and the sacraments of initiation
Rites of passage typically consist of:
A parallel with this movement is seen in the Adult Catechumenate of the Catholic Church. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (sometimes referred to as the RCIA) is comprised of a number of stages and steps through which catechumens move on their way to full membership of the Church.
During their preparation time, they are somewhat separated from the community. They gather with catechists and sponsors during a period of transition during which they learn and experience something of the life and faith of the Church. Finally they are fully incorporated into the life of the community by their reception of the sacraments of initiation.
A similar thing happens for Confirmation candidates. They usually undergo a special period of preparation involving catechesis, prayer and service. Some times they participate in a retreat, they choose sponsors and quite often a new name before appearing before the leader of the Church community, the bishop and receiving the sacrament.
Why a bishop and not the parish priest who might know the candidates better?
The bishop represents the wider church in which the confirmed Catholic takes his or her place. Every Catholic belongs both to the local Church (the parish) and to the worldwide Church. Read an article which describes well how the sacrament of Confirmation challenges a narrow parochial view of the Church.
Confirmation: a completion of Baptism
However, the sacrament is best understood not as a rite of passage, nor as an admission to adult faith but as a completion of Baptism, a deepening of Christian identity received at Baptism and as a free gift of the Holy Spirit.
Confirmation is not first and foremost, a decision by the candidate to affirm their Baptism but a confirmation or strengthening of his or her faith by the Holy Spirit through the actions of anointing and laying on of hands. It is not something we do but something done to us. Through the agency of the bishop, it is the Holy Spirit who strengthens us, inspires us, encourages us to be able to live as those who consciously turn to Christ as the source of their life. Hence, just as we do not speak of ‘making our Baptism’ but of ‘being baptised’, we do not ‘make our confirmation’ but we ‘are confirmed’.
Symbolic signs and actions of Confirmation
While we generally understand the gesture of the laying on of hands and the signing with Chrism as the two symbolic actions of this sacrament an article entitled Confirmation: 7 Symbols in 1 Sacrament shows how Confirmation embraces a much broader symbolic field. Fr Thomas Richstatter very accessibly explores Confirmation’s connections with the foundational sacrament of Baptism and its culminating sacrament, the Eucharist. He also touches on the role of the community and the bishop as well as the significance of anointing and the words spoken in the ceremony. Two other articles explore in slightly different ways the symbolism of the Holy Oils, the blessing of these oils at the Chrism Mass and their various uses within the Church. The gesture of laying on of hands is explained in a brief but quite comprehensive article from the Encyclopedia of Christianity.
REFLECTIONS and RESPONSES
Devise a Confirmation game which includes as many of the aspects of preparation for Confirmation as you know (study, service, group reflection, prayer etc. Be specific about these e.g. 'Spent ten minutes thinking about the Pentecost account in Acts', 'Did errand for elderly neighbour'), and also some of the difficulties or trials confronting a candidate as he or she prepares for the Sacrament. (Indifferent attitude of others, shyness about serving others or getting involved, preferring other activities to preparation time, being teased about your faith, etc. Again, be specific: 'Couldn't be bothered to look at Confirmation homework', 'Too late for footy to help my sister unload dishwasher.' ) You could simply take ‘Snakes and Ladders’ as a model or think up an entirely new game plan. It can take the form of either a board or online game.