Proper Theology of Confirmation

In our scientifically-minded world, we tend to study the brush strokes of the artist (the created world), with every increasing detail and wonder, while failing to see, in the art itself, the evidence of the artist himself (God) and be moved and changed by His work. This mindset is so pervasive in our lives that we often don’t even realize the ways it affects our views, especially in matters of faith.

This can certainly be true of how we approach Confirmation, specifically, and the sacraments, generally. Below are some theological concepts that are central to a proper understanding of the sacrament of Confirmation—and further reinforce the need to restore the proper sequence and age of reception.

Much More than Symbol and Ritual

Someone once described the Eucharist to the great Catholic author, Flannery O’Connor, as a beautiful, powerful symbol. She famously responded: “If that’s all it is, then to hell with it.” The sacraments are not mere rituals or symbolic practices.

If we see the physical symbols and human actions of the sacraments but fail to acknowledge the deeper reality, we are studying the paint and sound waves but remain unmoved by the great work of the artist and composer. The Catechism states this clearly:

“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace….by which divine life is dispensed to us…The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.” (CCC 1131) This is true of Confirmation just as it is with all the sacraments.  Something very powerful is happening, but before we can appreciate what’s happening, we must understand who’s making it happen.

Christ is the Primary Actor (not the confirmandi)

In focusing on the purely material aspects of the sacraments, we also tend to focus on the human actions involved in the sacrament; we lose sight of the fact that Christ himself is acting through the sacraments and making his grace available to us in these moments.

Again, the Catechism teaches:

…in them (the sacraments) Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.

CCC 1127

In the sacrament of Confirmation, Christ is at work in the life of the confirmandi; it is not the confirmandi who are “confirming” their faith.

What Actually Happens in Confirmation (it’s not a graduation)

So, Christ is the actor in Confirmation, but what is he actually doing?  In Confirmation, Christ fulfills his promise to bestow the Holy Spirit, with His seven-fold gifts, upon the confirmandi, as he did with the apostles in the upper room at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit enters the confirmandi in a new way, deepening their baptismal grace and binding them more perfectly to the Church and enriching them with a special strength for missionary witness.

The sacrament is ordinarily conferred by the bishop, through the laying on of hands and sealing of the confirmandi with sacred chrism, and, saying the words “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” The bishop also raises his hands over the entire group of confirmands and invokes the Holy Spirit with this prayer:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.
Send your Holy Spirit upon them
to be their helper and guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgement and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Through this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in this sacramental rite, the confirmandi are permanently and indelibly marked and strengthened with His many gifts.  Thus, the sacrament of Confirmation is not a graduation from religion.

In fact, the Catechism specifically states:

Although Confirmation is sometime called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification to become effective.

CCC 1308
Oriented toward and Enriched by the Eucharist

It is also important to note that Confirmation, along with the other sacraments, is oriented toward the Eucharist. The Catechism teaches us that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian Life. The other sacraments…are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it.” (CCC 1324) After all, if each sacrament is a moment in which God enters our created world, the Eucharist is the very place where the creator of the universe makes himself truly present, Body, Blood, soul, and divinity. We not only receive God’s grace in the Eucharist, we literally receive HIM into our very being, such that His divine life is coursing through our own veins. 

The other sacraments, including the sacrament of Confirmation, predispose us to properly receive this amazing gift and reinforce its fruitfulness in our lives.  As noted above, the Catechism teaches that the sacraments of initiation culminate in reception of the Eucharist:

The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord's own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.

CCC 1322

Confirmation precedes reception of the Eucharist, and the Eucharist completes full initiation into the faith.

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