“Does this mean you don’t have to go to church anymore?” This innocent and sincere question came from a respectful 10-year old trying to figure out what he had just witnessed: the confirmation of his 16-year old Catholic friend. Chrism still moist on his forehead, the older youth shot a nervous glance at his pastor, who had overheard the question. “No,” he comforted his young friend. “I’ll still go to church.” But don’t we all wonder?
The succinct words of Sacrosanctum concilium called for a renewal of confirmation both modest and broad in scope:
The rite of confirmation should also be rethought so that the intimate connection of this sacrament with complete Christian initiation may appear more clearly. Therefore, the renewal of the promises of baptism fittingly precedes the reception of this sacrament.
Confirmation may be conferred within mass when convenient. But there should be drawn up a formula to be used in the manner of an introduction, which pertains to the rite outside mass (71).
Confirmation was one among many rites of the church to be reviewed after the Second Vatican Council. The liturgical constitution dreamed of making the church’s prayer more sincere. The specific issues varied from one rite to the next.
In this case, the single theological principal mentioned by the council was the connection between confirmation and Christian initiation. It was only one principle, but its implications were immense. Ultimately it would call into question the occasion, minister, age, preparation and meaning of the sacrament.
To start the implementation of this vision, paragraph 71 made only two practical suggestions: inserting the renewal of baptismal promises into the rite and presenting alternative rites for the sacrament inside and outside of mass. Considering all the changes that happened after the council, it is somewhat charming to see the issues the council naively thought were so important they deserved mention in the constitution.
In these few phrases the liturgy constitution changed the way we think about confirmation as well as the way we celebrate it.
The council’s vision led to a series of changes. Surprisingly, the greatest change to confirmation – the actual words by which the sacrament is conferred – was not explicitly envisioned in Sacrosanctum concilium. Formerly, the bishop said these words while anointing the forehead with chrism: “N., I sign you with the sign of the cross, and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Now, the bishop or priest says, “N., be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The formula changed to draw it closer to those used by the Eastern rites and to express more clearly the meaning of the sacrament. The former text basically articulated the rubric it accompanied. The new one calls the anointing the seal of the Holy Spirit. It also calls confirmation a gift. Drawing on the image of the traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit, this word almost warned against making too much of preparation for confirmation. Seven-year olds were eligible for the sacrament, and it comes not as reward, but as gift. The new formula implied a new way of looking at the sacrament. But to alter the formula at all required immense courage because it changed the centuries-old tradition for what constituted the valid conferral of confirmation.
The success of the renewal can be measured by the theological principle of Sacrosanctum concilium 71: make the connection between confirmation and complete Christian initiation. Superficially, it seems to have worked. People commonly call confirmation a “sacrament of initiation.” However, that is not specifically what the constitution said.
Throughout the history of our sacraments, the term “initiation” referred only to the baptismal rites themselves. By the 5th century, confirmation was commonly administered apart from baptism. By the 13th century, the first sharing of communion commonly took place apart from baptism. But in neither circumstance were these deferred rituals called “sacraments of initiation.” The expression came into theological parlance at the turn of the 20th century, but it still had not reached official Catholic documentation at the time of the Second Vatican Council. That is why Sacrosanctum concilium wanted to see “the intimate connection of [confirmation] with complete Christian initiation.” Initiation happened with baptism; confirmation needed to be connected to it – but not identified with it. This nuance, however, was lost in succeeding decades until the Catechism of the Catholic Church firmly identified deferred confirmation and first communion as sacraments of initiation.
The council’s wording had the positive effect of connecting confirmation and baptism. Formerly, if confirmation connected to anything, it was to the bishop. Inserting the renewal of baptismal promises helped to make the link between confirmation and baptism, even when a bishop presided.
But pastoral practice went further and called deferred confirmation a sacrament of initiation. When it appeared that way in official documents, the church implicitly redefined initiation. Initiation no longer takes place in one event. It takes place over the course of some years. This would not have been clear to the authors of Sacrosanctum concilium.
Based on the theological principle of connecting confirmation to initiation, other changes in the rite can be critiqued. The renewal of baptismal promises is a welcome addition. The liturgy not only includes the promises, but it also expands them with a special question about the Holy Spirit. This adaptation to the baptismal promises is unique in all of church history, and it helps underscore the role of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament, just as the new formula of administration does.
The reformed rite of confirmation eliminated the sacrament’s most famous moment: the bishop’s slap. The slap first appeared in the 13th century. Incongruously, the bishop tapped the confirmand’s cheek while saying, “Peace be with you.” The slap inspired military imagery and fostered an interpretation of confirmation as a maturity rite. Durandus, who inserted the slap into the ritual, also thought it would serve as an exorcism and as a memory device to keep people from forgetting that they were confirmed. Its meaning was poorly understood. The removal of the slap supported the council’s desire that confirmation be connected more closely to initiation. The slap never had anything to do with initiation, and its removal helped purify the sacrament’s meaning.
No mention is made of a confirmation name. It does not appear in the rite, in canon law nor in the catechism. Although the taking of a new name is not expressly forbidden, it surely is not promoted. Surely, the baptismal name is to be used, just as the baptismal godparents are to serve as sponsors. Confirmation is not about getting a nom-de-guerre or making a new personal choice; it is connected to baptismal grace.
By increasing the occasions when a priest might confirm, the post-conciliar church also connected the sacrament to initiation. Specifically, a priest may confirm the adults and children of catechetical age he baptizes. This practice did more than show the “connection” between confirmation and initiation; it inserted confirmation into the complex of parish initiation for the first time in history.
All these changes supported the link between confirmation and initiation, but in pastoral practice the connection is often lost. Just when the council tried to purify the sacrament’s meaning, the pastoral practice of the church raised the age of candidates, complicating the interpretation of the ritual.
The age of confirmation has risen in many dioceses of the world. Yet, it is still called an initiation rite. For the first time in history, many people are not considered “initiated” until many years after their baptism. This causes adolescents to think that they are not committed to the Catholic Church until they are confirmed, and many of them wonder if they are still Catholic if they choose not to be confirmed. Nowhere in the confirmation rite does the bishop ask, “Do you promise never to question the teachings of the Catholic Church and to remain a faithful Catholic for the rest of your life?” But when we place teenagers through months of preparation and line them up in front of the bishop, many people assume that is what is happening.
In spite of the theological principal of Sacrosanctum concilium 71 connecting this sacrament to initiation, confirmation has no singular meaning. It shines clearly as an initiation rite when it is celebrated in the same ceremony with baptism. But it resembles a maturity rite when it is celebrated some years after infant baptism. It looks like something else altogether when a Christian baptized in another denomination is received into the full communion of the Catholic church. In this instance, it feels like a reconciliation rite, giving the gift of the Spirit to someone whose reception of the Spirit was deficient at baptism. These conflicting meanings make it very difficult to explain what the sacrament is all about. It is about too many things.
The council did not go far enough. It could have named confirmation an initiation rite and called for it to be celebrated as such, together with baptism. But it settled for a mere connection between confirmation and initiation, leaving open the possibility of multiple meanings.
Consequently, confirmation is caught in a vortex of issues that keep its initiatory character obscure. For example,
The role of bishops: For centuries, people viewed this sacrament as a responsibility of bishops. As confirmation’s roots with baptism became more apparent, the church allowed priests to confirm at the time they baptized adults. Doing so made it easier to see confirmation as a sacrament of initiation, but less easy to see it as a ministry of bishops. It has also given the Catholic Church two quite distinct baptismal rites: one that includes confirmation and one that does not. The theology of initiation cannot long tolerate this ambiguity, but no change will happen as long as confirmation is seen by bishops as the responsibility of bishops. Bishops could do so much more when they visit parishes: meet with councils, dine with a family, tour the grounds or catechize the faithful. But confirmation demands their time and energy.
The validity of orders: Whenever we receive Christians baptized in another church into the full communion of the Catholic Church, we confirm them. Some of them have experienced “confirmation” in their own denomination. But we do not recognize the validity of that confirmation because we do not recognize the validity of orders in other churches. This same ecumenical issue underlies the refusal of the Catholic Church to share communion with other churches. If the validity of orders could be recognized, tension over a number of issues would relax, freeing confirmation from the rite of reception and shepherding it to its postconciliar purpose, a rite of initiation.
Historical changes: More than any other sacrament, confirmation has changed considerably throughout its history. It has roots in Pentecost and the imposition of hands in the New Testament, and in the baptismal rites of the early church. It did not exist as a separate rite with a separate name until the 4th or 5th centuries, and was not formally numbered among the sacraments until the 13th. The age of recipients has reached as young as infancy, but the separation of confirmation from baptism caused large numbers of Christians to go unconfirmed in every era. The sacrament continued to mutate in the 20th century, as more Catholics accepted the Protestant notion that confirmation completes religious education and rewards spiritual maturity, even as others argued it should precede the first sharing of communion in all instances. Because the history of the sacrament changed so much, theologians, pastors and bishops could make historical arguments for almost any meaning and practice of confirmation they wished to promote.
Adolescence: Adolescents question their faith as much as they question authority, custom and social values. Adults firm in their faith seek ways to ensure that adolescents will become firm in their faith as well. Many have turned to confirmation in hopes that this ritual will elicit the commitment they want teens to make. Sometimes it backfires. Sadly, some adolescents endure the preparation and the celebration because, for them, it means that after confirmation they won’t have to go to church anymore. Neither the council nor any official teaching since then has promoted such an interpretation. Calling confirmation an adult commitment to the church – or a farewell to the church - would have surprised bishops of the middle ages, catechumens of 3rd-century Rome, and the apostles themselves. If anything required a commitment, it was baptism, not confirmation. If confirmation was anything, it was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not a new commitment. Meanwhile, adolescents bear the burden of theology’s prevarications.
A tour guide at the catacombs in Rome will inform every group that in spite of what they’ve been told, persecuted Christians never hid there. Everyone is surprised. The tour guide is correct. But the popular notion of the catacombs will be very, very difficult to change. The same is happening to confirmation. The Council tried to get people thinking about confirmation differently, in connection with initiation, but the change has not yet happened. We want to have it both ways. We want to confirm newly baptized adults at Easter, but we want bishops to confirm children some years after they were baptized as infants. Confirmation will remain confused in people’s minds until its purpose becomes more focused.
Sacrosanctum concilium 71 led the way and introduced significant changes in confirmation, but more changes need to happen if the sacrament is to have its purpose clarified. The most dramatic solution is also the simplest and the one that will bring about all the desired results: allow the priest who baptizes to confirm in every instance of initiation.
This article first appeared
in a publication of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National
Bulletin on Liturgy 174:36 (Fall 2003):150-154.