THE ORIGINS OF CONFIRMATION: AN ANALYSIS OF KAVANAGH'S HYPOTHESIS
Scholars have long regarded the Apostolic Tradition (AT) of Hippolytus(*3) as the oldest liturgical document describing the ritual we have come to call "confirmation." Kavanagh proposes that the initiation rites of AT do not include "confirmation" at all, but rather a baptismal dismissal rite performed by the bishop. AT says the neophytes come to the presbyter who baptized them to receive an anointing, and then they proceed to the bishop who prays for them while imposing a hand. Kavanagh believes we are seeing a presbyteral anointing with a christic, not a pneumatological, meaning, and an episcopal handlaying in the style of a dismissal, not of conferring the Holy Spirit.(*4)
If Kavanagh is right, he has dethroned confirmation from its traditional pneumatic interpretation to one almost rubrical in origin. When displaced from its intercalary position between baptism and eucharist, it carries more weight than it was ever intended to bear, and its meaning becomes problematic, especially in its distinction from baptism.
To build this theory, he gathers rites of dismissing groups from the liturgy, and examines the similarity between them and AT's postbaptismal handlaying. The strength of this argument is that similarities exist; the weakness is that the patterns are incomplete.
This article intends to analyze the sources upon which
Kavanagh builds his argument and to test their impact upon his conclusion. The
sources are grouped into catechumenal missa texts, missae of the
West, the missae of the order of penitents, missae in the monastic
offices, and prayers of inclination. After these groups have been analyzed, the
critical passage from AT 22 will be examined. Each section gives 1) the context
of the cited source, 2) its application to Kavanagh's argument, and 3) a
Catechumenal missa texts
Structurally speaking, Kavanagh's assertion is that prayer and handlaying are elements belonging to the ritual genre of missae. Since Hippolytus is familiar with the structure, it is possible he will apply it to other circumstances--e.g., the rites following baptism.(*6)
Although prayer and handlaying are evident in this and other missae, they are elements of other liturgical rites as well. Observing these two elements together, one may be looking at a dismissal, an ordination, a reconciliation, or an exorcism. In addition, it will be noteworthy that the presider who imposes hands on, prays for, and dismisses the group at the conclusion of this catechumenal session may be a member of the laity.
Kavanagh believes this is another example of a missa since prayer and handlaying are elements of this rite over which the bishop presides. There is no formal dismissal since those to be baptized will spend the night in prayer.(*8)
Although the rite contains what Kavanagh calls "dismissal elements" (prayer, handlaying, and episcopal presidency), what it obviously lacks is a dismissal: those to be baptized remain in place. It's clear this is an exorcism; it's less clear it's a dismissal.
The Canons of Laodicea, 19
This text illustrates two dismissals. Kavanagh believes their structure is similar to the dismissals from the catechumenal session in AT 19 and the pre-vigil exorcism in AT 20.(*10)
The structure is similar, but the occasions are different: The dismissal at AT 19 concludes a catechetical session, presumably after the catechumens have already been dismissed from the assembly (a dismissal which Laodicea now describes). AT 20's dismissal is in the non-eucharistic context of a pre-vigil exorcism. Similarities are evident: prayer, handlaying, and dismissals while the assembly continues its prayer (except in AT 20). However, the text is silent on key points: It is unclear if the "hand" belongs to a bishop, and if catechumens in addition to penitents "approach" it. If the text argues that handlaying is part of the missa structure for penitents, it does so less clearly in the case of catechumens.
The Apostolic Constitutions 8, 6
Kavanagh calls attention to this structure's similarity to Laodicea. He accordingly reconstructs the Apostolic Constitutions (AC) and suggests that groups were dismissed by group prayer, episcopal prayer, and handlaying by the bishop.(*15)
The similarity to Laodicea is that prayer precedes the dismissal. But handlaying in AC cannot be established. While it is true that AC dismisses various groups from the liturgy in a repeatable pattern and with a variable prayer, the unit concludes when the groups bow heads for the blessing, not with the bishop imposing hands. Granted, if individual handlaying had been customary in dismissals, it is possible that it had further evolved into a group blessing by this time. But AC does not specify handlaying for any of the five groups dismissed from the liturgy.
Egeria's Travels, 24.2 et al.
21.1), and at Lauds the following occurs: "But at the time when it begins to dawn, then they begin to sing the morning hymns. And then the bishop appears with the clergy, and he immediately enters within the cave, and from within the enclosure he first says the prayer for all; he also remembers the names of those he wishes, and thus blesses the catechumens. Similarly he says a prayer and blesses the faithful. And after this, when the bishop goes out from within the enclosure, all approach him to his hand, and while going out he blesses them one by one, and thus the dismissal happens presently at dawn."(*16) Other offices conclude in similar fashion.
Kavanagh sees here a pattern of episcopal prayer and handlaying which concludes a liturgical service, sometimes immediately before another service begins. This practice of dismissing from one liturgy into another will compare favorably with his thesis that the postbaptismal handlaying in AT concludes with a dismissal into another liturgical rite; viz., the eucharist. Kavanagh believes the structural evidence is similar to that found in Laodicea, AC, and AT.(*17)
Egeria's missae conclude different events. Called a "blessing" (24.11), the rite accompanies the departure of pilgrims from certain sites and the conclusion of certain liturgical services. The hand of the bishop is clearly and consistently in evidence. In describing the liturgy of baptism, Egeria is silent about a post-baptismal missa and even about an anointing. Compared with other sources, Egeria describes diverse occasions with the term missa, but she does describe handlaying in the ministry of the bishop more clearly than do Laodicea, AC, and AT.
Augustine Sermon 49.8
Cassian, Institutes 11.16
deacon the dismissal for catechumens after the office had been changed again: then finally he knocked on the door."(*20)
Kavanagh's illustration is another reference to the practice of liturgical dismissals in the West.(*21) As far as it goes, the reference is sound. Once again, there is no clue to the elements of the dismissal.
The missae of
Augustine Letter 149, 16
Kavanagh says Augustine complains about the long lines coming to him for the dismissal, inferring that it was customary for penitents to come individually under his hand.(*23)
Augustine refers neither to the length of the line nor the number of penitents. Nor does he specifically state that "offering" the constituency means dismissing them with the blessing. Still, he does imply that episcopal handlaying is part of the blessing of individual penitents.
Augustine Sermon 232, 8
Again, Kavanagh sees this as evidence that individual handlaying was a part of the episcopal missa.(*25)
This passage implies that individual handlaying upon penitents
was part of the bishop's responsibilities.
Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 7, 16
Kavanagh maintains the same structural elements here support the missa structure.(*27) Although Sozomen reports the role of a praying bishop in the dismissal, he gives no indication here of handlaying.
Damasus, Epistle 5
Kavanagh sees in this text evidence that the missa structure--here used in reconciling penitents--was reserved for bishops.(*29) The line does not occur in Migne's edition of Letter 5.(*30)
Second Council of Carthage,
The text demonstrates the prerogative of the bishop in the penitential missa.(*32) Although the reservation to the bishop is clear, the text is not conclusive about the presence of other missa elements. One may also surmise that the legislation appeared because presbyters had been performing these rites.
Third Council of Arles, 24
Kavanagh believes that "blessing of penance" is dismissal under another title.(*34) Granting this, the text shows how plentiful references to penitential dismissals may be.
Vita S. Hilarii 13, 16
The text implies that the structural element of handlaying was part of the prayer for penitents.(*36)
It seems clear that episcopal handlaying was part of Hilary's ritual for penitents.
Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 74
Kavanagh surmises that the complaint arose because too many people were leaving after the readings and the sermon, at the time catechumens and penitents were dismissed. This could have contributed toward the ultimate suppression of dismissals.(*38)
Caesarius never mentions the formal dismissals of catechumens or penitents in this sermon. Rather, he admits various occupations prevent people from staying: "for a sickness of the body holds some, public necessity holds others, a whim tempts others and binds them like captives."(*39) But he mentions neither catechumens nor penitents, nor that the premature departure of the faithful occurred at a regular point in the service, whether after the sermon or before communion. It is unclear whether or not his assembly was familiar with dismissals at all.
Still, the evidence from these sources is strong that episcopal handlaying was in many places part of the ritual for dismissing penitents.
Missae in the Monastic Office
This describes the custom of concluding a monastic office with a formal dismissal.
Cassiodorus: Expositio in Psalmis, 25
As time progressed, the term missa came to describe the entire ritual which it concluded--in this case, the eucharist.(*42)
The Rule of the Master
Since this section of the rule patterns that of Benedict (see below), Kavanagh sees in its liturgical rubrics an argument for the presence of monastic missae.(*44)
Although its services end in prayer, the Rule of the Master never uses the term missa or describes the dismissal rite.
The Rule of Benedict
Kavanagh hypothesizes that these missae combined a formal ritual of prayer and a coming of the monks individually to the abbot's hand. He admits the reconstruction cannot be absolutely certain.(*46)
What is missing here is a clear explanation from the Rule of Benedict about just what these missae are. The text itself gives no indication that the blessing, which one might expect to be given generally over the assembly, was given individually to the monks.
In short, the evidence of monastic missae never mentions handlaying.
Prayers of Inclination
Byzantine Liturgy of St. John
Kavanagh follows Robert Taft's hypothesis that this prayer originally accompanied a dismissal of those faithful who were not receiving communion that day. This would lend order to a point in the service that had become increasingly chaotic. The prayer and blessing might then be a fourth or fifth century innovation based on a liturgical structure (the missa) to which the people were already accustomed.(*48) If Taft's thesis is acceptable, there is additional evidence that the bishop's blessing and dismissal of individual groups was a recognized liturgical form adapted to different circumstances.
Council of Agde, 47
Kavanagh interprets this blessing not as a final dismissal, but as a Western prayer of inclination, further evidence of the practice of episcopal dismissals. In a footnote he indicates that the Councils of Orange and Orange III promulgated similar canons.(*50) The evidence does support the practice of episcopal dismissals, but textually this blessing may as well refer to the final dismissal. Orange and Orange III are pseudonymous counciliar texts dating from the Middle Ages.
Kavanagh proposes that these dismissals may also have been for non-communicants -- similar to prayers of inclination.(*52)
It is difficult to know who is dismissing whom, and what is the occasion of the dismissals, but Kavanagh's interpretation is one possibility.
Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2, 23
Kavanagh surmises that the deacon's instruction indicated another Western prayer of inclination.(*54) His argument is plausible, although the text is silent about the elements of the rite.
AT's Postbaptismal Handlaying
Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 21-22
"is anointed from the oil which was consecrated (by the thanksgiving prayer of the bishop) by the presbyter saying: 'I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.' And thus, drying themselves, the individuals are vested, and afterwards are brought in the church. "But the bishop laying his hand on them prays, saying: 'Lord God, who made them worthy to merit the forgiveness of sins by the washing of rebirth of the Holy Spirit, send your grace onto them, that they may serve you according to your will; for to you is the glory, to the Father and to the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy Church, both now and for ever. Amen.'
"Afterwards, pouring the consecrated oil from his hand and laying it on the (neophyte's) head, let him say: 'I anoint you with holy oil in the Lord, the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.'
"And sealing (the neophyte) on the forehead, let him offer the kiss and say: 'The Lord be with you.' And let him who has been sealed say: 'And with your spirit.' Let him do thus to the individuals."(*55)
This is commonly regarded as the ritual predecessor to confirmation. However, Kavanagh challenges this assumption by analyzing the earliest manuscript edition of AT, the eighth century Verona Urtext. This edition does not include the prayer for the Holy Spirit commonly associated with confirmation. Verona's text simply prays for God's grace, that the neophyte may serve according to God's will. Kavanagh believes the anointing has a christic, not a pneumatological meaning.(*56) He builds a convincing argument that later generations added the epicletic formula during an age which developed the theology of the Holy Spirit.(*57)
If the Verona manuscript, the earliest, is the most correct, and if the epicletic formula is a later accretion, one is left with a disturbing question: If AT 22 is not confirmation, what is it? Kavanagh's response is that it is a baptismal missa. He believes the bishop's action is the public conclusion of a rite begun privately. The rite of baptism, Kavanagh says, would conclude with the assembly's prayer in preparation for the Eucharist. The steps of prayer, handlaying, signing the forehead, and offering the kiss of peace, he maintains, are steps later sources call a missa.(*58)
Does the evidence cited above prove this hypothesis? Not really. That's why it remains a hypothesis. Patterns of episcopal missae are evident, but tantalizingly incomplete. Since the genre takes various forms it is tempting to apply it to the baptismal liturgy. But the thesis remains unprovable in the end, despite Kavanagh's forceful rhetoric.
There are other problems. A postbaptismal dismissal would be logistically awkward in AT 22: The neophytes have already left the place of baptism and entered the place of communion when the bishop imposes hands on them. Entrance is an unusual moment for a dismissal. And if there had been a dismissal from baptism, surely that would have occurred at the font, before coming to the bishop. One also wonders why baptism would be a separate liturgical unit requiring a dismissal. Other missae have marked the completion of an office, the end of the liturgy of the Word, or the blessing of pilgrims. When Egeria's pilgrims were dismissed into another service, they went from one complete liturgy to another; when catechumens,
energumens, illuminated, penitents, non-communicants, and the faithful are dismissed from the liturgy, they leave the place of assembly completely. The baptismal rites of AT seem integral to the liturgy. This would be the sole instance of a dismissal within a liturgical unit. In addition, the appearance of oil, which has been absent in other missae, remains unexplained.
Another difficulty concerns the content of the episcopal prayer. Among the three examples from AT which Kavanagh proposes may be missae, only this one presents the actual content of the prayer spoken on the occasion. By taking pains to iclude the prayer, Hippolytus may be indicating he has a special meaning for this ritual. In fact, among all the dismissal texts cited above, the presentation of the prayer's content is exceptionally rare.
Apart from these texts, the difficulty of chronology remains. AT is the earliest text under consideration. Other examples of missae postdate it sometimes by centuries. Contemporaneous evidence is scant. In fact, in Tertullian (155-220) the theological treatise on baptism recounts its ritual contrary to the way Kavanagh interprets the Verona Urtext of Hippolytus: After baptism and anointing, "the hand is imposed for a blessing, calling and inviting the Holy Spirit."(*59) Although Kavanagh dismisses this as "allusive evidence,"(*60) it gives witness to an epicletic handlaying as part of the baptismal ritual. The possibility of this rite being a dismissal remains open, but Tertullian has given it a pneumatological meaning.(*61)
One also has the very difficult passages from Acts of the Apostles to reckon with. Kavanagh is right that the application of the events in Acts to the postbaptismal handlaying comes fairly late, around the fifth century.(*62) But surely the coming of the Spirit in Acts, both at Pentecost and through the apostolic handlaying, remains in the background in early Christian initiation proceedings. The gift of the Spirit is what baptism is all about. It should not be surprising to find a pneumatic handlaying in early Christian initiation rites since it was part of apostolic testimony.
Thus the original problem returns: If the episcopal handlaying of AT 22 is not confirmation, what is it?
It seems there are two possibilities, depending on the reliability of the Verona Urtext. One is that Verona is incorrect, and that there really was an epiclesis in Hippolytus' prayer. The witness of Tertullian makes this possible. In this case, calling the rite "confirmation" is anachronistic, but it would remain a forerunner to what developed as confirmation later in the Church: a postbaptismal, episcopal, epicletic handlaying. It would be part of the "symbolic overflow" for baptism, to use Pamela Jackson's expression.(*63) The meaning of baptism is so rich that additional rites explore its wealth.
Another possibility is that Verona is correct, and there is no support to the epicletic nature of Hippolytus' postbaptismal prayer. In this instance, instead of asking why do the neophytes come back to the bishop, it may be as helpful to ask why did they first go away? The neophytes were baptized in private and then led back into the assembly where the bishop laid hands on them. Since baptism in the nude was a private matter, the handlaying may have been the first public gesture of ratification for the bishop and the faithful who did not witness the pouring of water. It could have been a neophytic version of the catechumenal exorcism: Instead of praying for protection from evil, the bishop now prays for the bestowal of grace.
Kavanagh's book is important because it scrutinizes the meaning of confirmation from the point of view of a ritual scholar. By analyzing ritual texts, he proposes a ritual solution to what confirmation means. Martin Luther, by contrast, scrutinized the meaning of confirmation from the point of view of a biblical scholar. By analyzing biblical texts, he proposed a biblical solution to what confirmation means.(*65) There are those today who scrutinize confirmation as catechetical scholars. By analyzing the process of catechesis, they propose a catechetical solution to what confirmation means. To sacramental theologians who vainly strive to reclaim the modest beginnings of an overgrown rite, Kavanagh offers hope.
This article first appeared in Worship 65/4
(July 1991):320-336. It has been reprinted in Living Water, Sealing Spirit:
Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: The
Liturgical Press , 1995):238-258. The
Liturgical Press ISBN number is: 0-8146-6140-8 if you wish to order the book.