CONFIRMATION AT THE EASTER
[This article first appeared in Catechumenate 19/1 (January, 1997):2-9 and was revised for publication here.]
Everything but the kitchen sink -- including some kind of bathtub -- piles onto the Easter Vigil. If you sort through the fire, the water, the candles, the bells, the music, the scriptures, the Alleluia, the white garments, and the eucharist, you may uncover the sacrament of confirmation. By understanding its meaning and planning its celebration, you may bring order out of clutter.
To understand confirmation, keep in mind how paragraph 215 from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults describes its interplay with baptism:
The conjunction of the two celebrations signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close link between the mission of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the connection between the two sacraments through which the Son and the Holy Spirit come with the Father to those who are baptized.
Most initiation ministers are familiar with the so-called "original sequence" of the initiation sacraments. At first, baptism and the anointing by the bishop preceded the first reception of communion. Confirmation in this sequence underscores the role of the Spirit in baptism and consecrates the new Christian for the eucharist.
However, paragraph 215 focuses not on sequence, but on conjunction. Sacraments in sequence could dribble out for years. Sacraments in conjunction happen in one liturgy. Their proximity symbolizes the link between the Son and the Spirit. The conjunction, not just the sequence, gives confirmation its meaning.
Confirmation at the Easter Vigil celebrates initiation, not maturity. We do not interrupt the Vigil and dismiss the newly baptized to attend classes, perform service projects, write letters to the bishop, make a retreat, and decide if they are committed to the church. Preparation for baptism suffices. Confirmation at the Easter Vigil draws the newly baptized more deeply into the mystery of Christ and the work of the Spirit.
WHEN TO CELEBRATE
Normally these rites unfold at the Easter Vigil. Baptism signifies our sharing in the paschal mystery. Although we baptize infants throughout the year in the ancient fear of impending death, you need a really good reason to baptize anyone else on any other occasion than the Easter Vigil. You would need another very good reason not to confirm at the same time.
So exceptional is the case of baptizing an adult at a time other than Easter, that the bishop, not the pastor, concedes a different preparation and occasion for initiation, based on extraordinary circumstances. Apart from Easter, ministers act independently to baptize an adult only in danger of the candidate's death. Confirmation is deferred only if the baptizing minister is not a priest or bishop, or if chrism is unavailable.
In short, if you have catechumens, baptize them at Easter. When you baptize them at Easter, confirm them as well.
When do we confirm candidates already baptized in another Christian community? During the rite of reception. Frequently this too happens at the Easter Vigil. The laws governing the occasion for their reception, however, are more permissive than those for the unbaptized. Candidates may be received at any time of year.
Regarding the occasion for the reception and confirmation of candidates, the ritual text is as helpful as a map of Manhattan on the streets of St. Paul. To wit, "The high point of [the candidates'] entire formation will normally be the Easter Vigil" (RCIA, 409). "It is preferable that reception into full communion not take place at the Easter Vigil" (National Statutes, 33). "Nevertheless if there are both catechumens to be baptized and baptized Christians to be received into full communion at the Vigil. . . the combined rite is to be followed" (National Statutes, 34). Ecumencial sensitivity influences liturgical spirituality.
The main criterion for selecting the occasion for the reception of candidates should be their readiness, not the liturgical year. In any case, if the one being received needs confirmation, confirm at the rite of reception.
WHOM TO CONFIRM
Most initiation candidates, but not all, celebrate confirmation at the Vigil. Just who approaches this holy anointing?
First, all catechumens baptized at Easter must be confirmed. That includes unbaptized children of catechetical age. If in your judgment they're old enough and ready for first communion, they must be baptized and confirmed at the Vigil. No exceptions. Canon 883, §2 says the priest who baptizes "one who is no longer an infant" has "the faculty of administering confirmation," and canon 885, §2 says the priest "who has this faculty must use it."
Next, all unconfirmed candidates for reception at the Vigil must be confirmed. The same canons apply concerning the candidates' age. Children who profess faith in the Catholic Church are confirmed and then take first communion -- at the Vigil, even if they're younger than the diocesan age for Catholic kids preparing for confirmation.
Some baptized candidates were confirmed in their own churches (Methodist, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) and may argue that they do not need Catholic confirmation. Well, they do. Our church does not call their confirmation a sacrament, nor do we recognize the orders of their bishops or ministers who confer it. When we celebrate their rite of reception, we must confirm them.
Sometimes Catholic ministers misunderstand this point because the rites for adult initiation put the references to confirmation in parentheses. This does not mean confirmation may be omitted for Protestant and Anglican candidates, or at the discretion of parents, pastors, or catechists; it means it is omitted for the few cases of those being received from other churches whose sacraments we recognize. More on this later in this article.
The category "unconfirmed candidates for the rite of reception" includes returning apostates. Apostates are those who were baptized Catholics but repudiated the Christian faith. If they did so before they were confirmed, and if they later apply for readmission to the full communion of the Catholic Church, the priest who receives also confirms.
The same category also includes baptized Catholics who became non-Catholics through no fault of their own; for example, children baptized Catholics whose parents then raised them in another religion. If they later seek admission to Catholic communion, the priest confirms them at the Vigil too.
Finally, you may actually have Catholics to confirm. Some, baptized as infants, never continued their catechesis for confirmation and/or communion in the church. A priest needs the bishop's permission to confirm them, even at the Vigil.
WHOM NOT TO CONFIRM
Does anyone not get confirmed? Yes. A person who has already been confirmed in the Catholic Church cannot be confirmed again, of course. But others are also ineligible:
Infants In the Roman rite, one baptized as an infant must wait to be confirmed at a later occasion, except in danger of death. We may baptize infants at the Easter Vigil, but we may not confirm them then. If a parent being received into the Catholic Church also presents a baptized child still below catechetical age, the child's reception is recorded with the parent's reception. But since the child is below catechetical age, he or she will celebrate confirmation and first communion later with Catholic peers.
Catechized Catholic adults Some Catholic adults missed confirmation. These were baptized as infants, formed with catechesis, and have been receiving communion. Their ordinary minister of confirmation is the bishop; their preparation should be appropriate. Theoretically, the bishop may delegate a pastor to confirm such candidates, even at the vigil, but formation distinct from the catechumenate will help both groups.
The Orthodox Anyone from the Orthodox Church who wishes to profess faith in the Catholic Church does not celebrate confirmation. The Orthodox are confirmed at baptism, and we recognize both sacraments. Their confirmation differs from that in churches descended from the Reformation. The reception of Orthodox is a procedure perilous with ecumenical landmines. If an Orthodox person approaches you for reception in the Catholic Church, call your local chancellor's office for advice.
Polish Catholics We also recognize the sacraments of those belonging to the Polish National Catholic Church, and other Old Catholics of Utrecht. We're not talking about Roman Catholics of Polish ancestry here but a separate church. If candidates already confirmed in this church seek reception into the Roman Catholic Church, we omit confirmation. Those parentheses in the rites of initiation pertain to them, too.
The Society of St. Pius X Some excommunicated follower of Archbishop Lefebvre who was confirmed in his church may wish to profess faith in the Catholic communion. The validity of the society's confirmation is questionable since Pope Paul VI changed the form of the sacrament, and the society continues to use the old form. If someone from this society approaches you for reception, consult your chancellor's office.
THE MINISTER OF CONFIRMATION
The original minister of confirmation is the bishop, but at the parish Vigil, the priest who baptizes also confirms. The bishop's ministry appears in the chrism, which only he may consecrate. This solemn ritual takes place at the annual diocesan Chrism Mass. The timing of this Mass, shortly before the Triduum, pertains specifically to confirmation. We use freshly consecrated chrism at the Easter Vigil each year for the confirmation of the newly baptized.
Careful planning for the ceremony of confirmation can make the ritual more expressive.
Location: Confirmation may be celebrated either at the baptismal font or in the sanctuary. The decision derives from the location of baptism and the rite of reception. Baptism normally takes place at the font, but if the assembly cannot gather there, baptism may be celebrated at a temporary font in the sanctuary. Confirmation follows at the location of baptism. The rite of reception, however, takes place not at the font but in the sanctuary. If your Easter Vigil includes the reception of unconfirmed candidates, all confirmations belong in the sanctuary. The values to balance are the significance of the font, respect for those already baptized, and the participation of the faithful.
Arrangement: Map out where people should stand. Which looks better in your space: standing the confirmation candidates in a line so the priest moves from one to another, or processing them one by one to the stationary presider? In either case, consider facing the candidates toward the assembly. You'll see the presider's back, but you've probably seen plenty of his face already.
Song: A short song or acclamation helps conclude the act of reception and prepare for confirmation.
Presentation of the Catholic Candidates: Those celebrating baptism and reception are presented to the community by name; however, the rite includes no proclamation of the names of Catholic candidates for confirmation. It would be courteous to announce them.
Procession of chrism: A procession of chrism, accompanied by music, may precede the anointing. A member of the catechumenate team or another appropriate person could carry the chrism up the main aisle to the celebrant. The person who carries the chrism might be accompanied by ministers with candles.
The vessel for chrism: Keep the chrism in a worthy container. Many churches display the oils year round in a decorative ambry. The vessel may be a shallow dish or a tall, thin, stately pitcher. Given the appearance of your church, what material, shape, and size will best represent the sacredness of this oil that confers the Holy Spirit?
White garments and candles: Your newly baptized will be wearing their white garments and carrying burning candles during the confirmation. You will help the presider if you ask them to hand the candle to their godparents. It lowers the risk of setting fire to your priest.
The Laying on of Hands: Although the ritual heading reads "the laying on of hands," what it describes is an extension of hands over the group to be confirmed. Quite honestly, it's a wimpy gesture. The presider may wish to throw caution to the wind and follow the ancient tradition's fuller symbolic expression: touching the head of each confirmation candidate.
Anointing: The rubrics offer a minimal instruction, the same one which appears throughout antiquity: "The minister of the sacrament dips his right thumb in the chrism and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one to be confirmed." In our contemporary efforts to elaborate symbolic expression, celebrants may consider other options. If you're a presider, try dipping several fingers into a dish of chrism, or pour oil into the cup of your right hand, and smear the candidates' face, not just their forehead. Or try pouring oil on the candidates' head and make the sign of the cross with your right hand on their forehead as the oil trickles down. It's a hair thing; expect scruple. Practice with olive oil on some members of the catechumenate team. Tell them duty calls. Chrism's perfume should fill the church. If it doesn't, use more, or ask the diocesan chef for a new recipe. During the anointing, a song may be sung.
Godparents: The godparent places his or her right hand on the confirmation candidate's shoulder. It doesn't seem like much, but it means a lot. This simple gesture of support speaks for itself, far more eloquently than the one it replaced. Candidates used to put their left foot on the godparent's right foot. Really.
The name: Avoid confirmation names. This medieval practice has disappeared from the canons and liturgy of confirmation, but it still lingers on in parishes. The baptismal name bears far more significance. Where the presider says, "N., be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit," he should use the candidate's own name.
Other symbols: Avoid introducing other symbols too -- stoles, pins, what have you. The primary symbols are hands and oil. Let them stand out.
Peace: The rite of confirmation concludes when the celebrant says, "Peace be with you," and the newly confirmed responds, "And also with you." In the rite of reception apart from the Vigil, the celebrant then takes the hand of each received. Strangely, the Vigil's rubrics never mention a gesture. Most presiders will spontaneously offer something -- a handshake, a hug, or a kiss. I think there would be no sin in this. Not to do so might seem like a slap on the face. Hey, now there's an idea!
Conclusion: Finally, the newly confirmed take their places in the assembly. If your presider congratulates them then, your church will applaud in joy.
Amid the many details of the Easter Vigil, the rite of confirmation, with its gleaming oil and expressive gestures, may shine with the glow of the Spirit. But keep this ritual in context. It is a major moment of the church's sacramental life, but it is not the highlight of the Easter Vigil. Its simple celebration will reward the assembly richly. But baptism will create more drama, and communion will carry more joy. If the Easter Vigil is the jewel of the liturgical year, confirmation is merely its sparkle.