Swimming the Tiber 15: The Sacraments: Confirmation

To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about confirmation. It’s one of the three rites of Christian initiation (the other two being baptism and the Eucharist), which means it’s integral to unity with the universal Church, but I can’t recall thinking of any particular controversy around it. Perhaps I just didn’t run in the right circles.

To that end, this week’s post is pretty short. (No, I’m not done with it quite yet; calm down.) I’ll just do a quick run-down of confirmation–how it looks and what it does, basically. Confirmation is covered in full in Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, available for free at a number of different websites (like this one). Here’s the short version:

  1. Confirmation furthers the endowment of grace begun in baptism.
  2. In the past two weeks, I talked about how baptism grants us grace from the Holy Spirit and unites us to the Church, the Body of Christ. Confirmation is the next logical step; it opens us up to the Holy Spirit even more, enabling us to persist in the Church and pursue holiness. This is a mystical reality, not merely a symbolic gesture.

    In essence, confirmation is placing a seal, an indelible mark of ownership, on a Christian. From that point forward, that person belongs not to themselves nor to any temporal person or group, but to the Holy Spirit of God. This is efficacious toward salvation, and so confirmation (like baptism) should be done as early as possible, but in the Western tradition is frequently delayed until the “age of discretion” (one might say the “age of accountability” or “age of reason”), except in emergency circumstances. (I’ll get to more on this separation in a moment.)

  3. Confirmation is shown in Scripture by the descent of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Confirmation is participation in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In this way, it is tied closely to baptism with water, which is the first rite of Christian initiation. I even talked in the last two weeks about how one leads to the other naturally. Nevertheless, there is an ordinary process: the laying on of hands. We see the extraordinary process frequently in Scripture (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32; Acts 2; 10:44-47; 11:15), but we also see this ordinary process, which we are to follow (Acts 8:14-17; 19:5-6; 2 Timothy 1:5-7).

    (Note that 1 Timothy 4:14 refers to Timothy’s ordination by the elders, which I will get to in a few weeks, and not to Timothy’s confirmation by Paul.)

  5. Confirmation is technically separate from baptism.
  6. Confirmation as a sacrament is technically separate from baptism. They are linked as rites of Christian initiation, but they do not necessarily need to happen simultaneously.

    This is important to note, because as I wrote a moment ago, the Western tradition separates them temporally. You see, confirmation is bestowed by one’s bishop, signifying the new convert’s unity with the whole Church (and not merely the local parish). As time passed in those early days, the rapid increase in baptisms meant that the bishop could not be present for every one, so confirmation was separated to retain his place in the process.

    In the East, by contrast, the bishops have granted authority to parish priests to confirm converts, so that the process of initiation is kept unified temporally. In the West, we aim to retain this unity through the renewal of baptismal promises during the act of confirmation, but delegation of that authority has not been as widespread.

  7. Confirmation is recommended, but not strictly required, before the Eucharist.
  8. Ordinarily, it makes sense that confirmation should precede the Eucharist, as the Eucharist completes the rites of Christian initiation (more on that next week). However, since confirmation has been separated temporally from baptism, it is frequently put off until adolescence (especially in the United States). And traditionally, the first reception of Holy Communion was delayed until after confirmation, but because of the lateness of confirmation, many young people were not receiving the Eucharist until their late teens, which meant they spent several formative years without the graces granted by the Eucharist.

    In an effort to correct this, Pope Pius X declared in 1910 that children of the age of reason (about 7) could receive the Eucharist. This basically reversed the order of sacraments and has created some confusion among the faithful. Bishops also have the authority to adjust ages for these sacraments in their dioceses, so some have restored the original order and some have not. As a family, you can also speak to your parish priest and bishop about receiving them in the proper order. (This is really only necessary for children, as adult converts retain the original order of sacraments.)

    Would it have been easier to order bishops to confirm children earlier? I think so, but evidently, Pius X did not. The way things are is not illegitimate or invalid, but it can be a little confusing.

I think that covers the highlights. Next week, I’m going to start talking about one of the biggest points of contention between Catholics and Protestants: the Eucharist. I’m going to go ahead and assume it will take more than one week to cover properly.

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