Confusion over CONFIRMATION
Meet an imaginary family: Jacques Julo lives with his wife Anne, her mother Marie, and their four children Jacques Jr. (age 17), Antoine (age 14), André (age 8), and Kristin (age 4). Last year they moved to your town from another diocese.
Marie was baptized in the Ruthenian Rite and received confirmation then, when she was an infant. Jacques Jr. was confirmed in the other diocese, which offered confirmation to children at age 15. André was confirmed last month because your diocese offers the sacrament at age 8. Antoine was too young for confirmation in the other diocese and doesn't want to be confirmed if the people in your town think it's a sacrament for little kids. Kristin was not expected to live when she was born, so the priest who administered her emergency baptism in the hospital also confirmed her. Anne is a sponsor for a Lutheran friend who wants to join the Catholic Church; that friend will be confirmed this summer during a rite of reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Jacques, the father, was just baptized three years ago at the Easter Vigil, and received confirmation at the same time.
This family is imaginary, but they could be real. How would you explain to them the meaning of confirmation?
Our rites of confirmation confuse the faithful. However, they came to us by well-intentioned traditions of the past, intending to meet five diverse pastoral needs: an expressive baptismal liturgy, the relationship between bishops and their people, the reconciliation of heretics, the care of the dying, and the Christian maturity of adolescents.
1) The elements of confirmation originated as expressions of Christian initiation in the early church. Several postbaptismal signs developed, including anointing with chrism, imposition of the bishop's hand, and prayer for the Holy Spirit.
Slight though significant differences in the use of these elements arose from place to place and from century to century. The Roman rite included two postbaptismal anointings with chrism, one by the presbyter and the other by the bishop. The Milanese and Jerusalem rites included only the one by the bishop. The Syrian church interpreted its prebaptismal anointing the way other churches explained the postbaptismal one. The time of year, the inclusion of the imposition of hands, the texts of the prayers, the parts of the body anointed, the minister and number of anointings--all these could vary from place to place. Gradually a more or less universal postbaptismal custom developed, which joined anointing, handlaying, and prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Although the early church never called this explanatory rite "confirmation", it later carried the name.
2) By the fifth century bishops could no longer gather all the catechumens to the cathedral's Easter vigil. Presbyters baptized in rural churches, but bishops reserved the postbaptismal anointing with chrism to themselves for a later service with the neophytes. History has left us no actual rituals from this period, but we do have canons and pastoral letters which authorize "confirming", as the action came to be called. The nature of these sources indicates who promoted the practice: Not theologians, not neophytes, not parents, not catechists, but bishops wanted ritual contact between themselves and every baptized member of the diocese.
3) A third pastoral need shaped the history of confirmation: the reconciliation of heretics. Some Christians had been baptized among heretics. If they sought reconciliation, orthodox Christianity ritualized their return. This rite of reconciliation supplied elements missing from heretic baptisms--co-incidentally, those surrounding the anointing with chrism, the same elements bishops reserved for themselves when presbyters baptized. Only in time did the term "confirmation" become applied to this rite as well.
4) During this century confirmation became part of our pastoral care of the dying. If the one near death had never been confirmed, any priest could offer the sacrament--even to babies they baptized in emergencies. Far from initiation, confirmation became commendation.
5) In the past few decades many dioceses have offered confirmation to adolescents as a sacrament of Christian maturity. For several centuries before ours, first communion supplied this occasion for adolescents, but when Pope Pius X authorized lowering the age for its reception, he left us without a maturity rite. The appropriation of confirmation to meet this need has provoked much theological debate.
These five pastoral needs, then, shaped the history of confirmation. What has remained constant? Only the core ritual elements: anointing with chrism, handlaying, and prayer for the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, flexibility has characterized confirmation. Variations in the recipient's age, the preparation required, the minister, the occasion, and the meaning of the sacrament have multiplied. It has been consistently inconsistent.
This historical overview explains why confirmation exists in several different forms today. We may group them as rites of initiation, maturity, and reception:
1) Rites of initiation. Although we call confirmation a sacrament of initiation no matter the context of its celebration, it expresses this best when it shares the same liturgy with baptism.
This occurs under several circumstances. For example, a catechumen baptized at the Easter Vigil is confirmed in the same liturgy. Even if the catechumen is a child of catechetical age, the same rule applies: the priest who baptizes must confirm. Canon law only prescribes two categories for baptism: infants and adults. Arguably, six-year olds are not infants and eight-year olds are not adults. However, these terms describe canonical states, not the nuances of Christian maturity. In law, children of catechetical age are considered adults as far as baptism is concerned. Only if they are too young to learn the significance of these rites do we welcome them not as catechumens, but with the rite of infant baptism.
Another example of confirmation as initiation occurs under Oriental law. Oriental rites confirm children at baptism, and many offer communion to them as well. The canonical distinctions of age that govern the sequence and occasion of the initiation rites in the West do not apply to the East. Virtually all Oriental confirmation is initiation.
2) Rites of maturity. When a Roman Catholic infant is baptized, confirmation is deferred until the child reaches a more mature age. Canonically, that age is around seven, unless the local conference of bishops determines another age. Consequently, the age for confirmation varies around the world from seven to eighteen. The meaning of confirmation fluctuates within this range. Later ages emphasize the candidates' commitment. Earlier ages stress the free gift of God's grace. However, all ages agree to this much: confirmation belongs at an age deferred from infancy, when a child shows some maturity.
The most extreme example of the expectation for maturity is the celebration of confirmation in danger of death. Not an initiation into Christianity, it concludes Christian life. It constitutes a last desperate attempt to offer a rite of maturity deferred from the rites of initiation.
3) Rites of reception. The rite of reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church calls for the confirmation of those who are not validly confirmed. A successor to the reconciliation of heretics, this ritual carries some implications about the requirements for reception. It implies that something was lacking in the baptism of those professing faith in the Catholic Church. It implies the need for reconciliation. And it implies the guidance of the Holy Spirit to accomplish this communion.
The rite, consequently, does not flatter the recipients nor their churches. It assumes that something broken needs fixing. The rite of reception does not simply note personal spiritual progress; it reinforces the ecclesiological assumption that the divided churches in the Christian family still need deep healing.
Some candidates for reception object that they have already been confirmed in the church of their baptism. However, the Catholic Church does not recognize the sacramentality of confirmations in churches that descended from the Reformation, nor does it accept the validity of the ordination of their ministers who preside over the rite. Consequently, their confirmation does not equal Catholic confirmation in any of its forms.
In the rite of reception one must beware of calling confirmation a sacrament of initiation. Its recipients have already been initiated in the Church through baptism, in some cases many decades earlier. At best it is a rite of transfer, a rite of communion, or a rite of reconciliation.
What lends confusion to confirmation is the co-existence of these different forms within the one family of faith. All of them are manifestations of the same sacrament, but they signalize very different human situations. Although we pretend to maintain a consistent theology of confirmation, its forms fight one another. Consider the following:
1) Catechesis. An adult preparing for baptism pursues an extensive period of catechesis, but no additional catechesis is required for confirmation. A child desiring confirmation after infant baptism may have to prepare for years. One celebrating the rite of reception may receive very little catechesis on confirmation. A person in danger of death needs no catechesis at all for this gift of the Spirit.
2) The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The treatment of confirmation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church presumes that it will be celebrated by children some years after baptism. Most details of this section do not apply to the sacrament when it is celebrated with baptism, the rite of reception, or in danger of death.
P1285 cautions that the unity between confirmation and baptism should be safeguarded; there is no such danger when the two are celebrated at the vigil.
P1289, 1292, 1297, 1307, 1312, 1313, 1318, and 1320 all show how the practice in the East differs from that in the West; but the Roman rite of adult initiation is quite similar to all Eastern initiations.
P1285, 1306, and 1314 express a common urgency that those who are baptized be confirmed; this concern arises only in the case of children whose confirmation has been deferred from their baptism; no such urgency fits the experience of catechumens.
P1309 and 1319 stress the need for preparation, but a catechumenate already takes care of this concern for adults, and preparation is waived for the dying.
P1310 stresses the importance of celebrating reconciliation before confirmation, but catechumens cannot do so till afterwards.
P1311 suggests that the godparents of baptism be the godparents of confirmation; this should be obvious at the vigil.
P1291 explains the meaning of the two anointings with chrism; this applies only to children, since the adult rite of baptism omits the first anointing to avoid confusion with confirmation, and confirmation usually provides the only anointing ever received by those celebrating the rite of reception.
P1298 and 1321 say the kiss of peace expresses communion with the bishop; but in most dioceses he rarely presides over the rites of reception or adult initiation; hence, he does not offer the kiss.
P1289 asserts that confirmation completes initiation, as if the one to be confirmed has already been receiving communion; but this is not true for catechumens or candidates for reception.
P1307 says the age for the sacrament should be that of discretion, but infants may be confirmed in emergencies.
P1308 says confirmation should not be called a sacrament of Christian maturity; no one makes that mistake at the vigil.
P1309 says preparation should lead to apostolic responsibilities, but this will not follow when confirmation is administered in danger of death.
P1311 suggests godparents and sponsors should provide spiritual aid, but their responsibilities are minimized if the time for confirmation is death.
PThe footnotes to this entire section completely avoid citing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, yet both the rites and the canons of the church stress that confirmation must be celebrated when an adult is baptized or received into the full communion of the church.
While trying to present a coherent picture of the sacrament, the catechism only succeeds in describing one of its forms. It leaves many questions unresolved for those seeking to understand confirmation in the other situations that call for its celebration.
3) Church law. The code of canon law reflects better than the catechism the many modes of celebrating confirmation. However, as one might expect, some of the instructions do not apply to all forms of the sacrament.
For example, confirmation is required if one wishes to be a baptismal godparent, a confirmation sponsor, a member of a religious community, or a candidate for ordination. The Roman rite's law needs to make this clear. In the eastern rites, confirmation always follows baptism. Special requirements for confirmation surface only because the Roman rite does not always celebrate the two sacraments together.
Similarly, both canonical and liturgical law urge everyone to be confirmed. In fact, many do not seek the celebration of the sacrament. Although this situation has plagued the entire history of the church, the Roman rite has never successfully increased the numbers of the confirmed. In frustration the church now permits priests to confirm at time of death--an admission that we have made confirmation too difficult to get. We expect catechetical preparation on the one hand, but we excuse people from it on the other.
Interestingly enough, the law does not permit infants in danger of death to receive communion. They may, however, be confirmed. This relativizes the importance of catechesis for confirmation. It may be waived under certain circumstances; but catechesis for communion is always expected.
4) The ritual. Through all these fluctuations of meaning, occasion, and canonical governance, the ritual of confirmation remains essentially the same. Whether the candidate is a sick infant, an unbaptized adult, or an unconfirmed teen, they all celebrate in exactly the same way. Only the minister may vary, depending on the circumstances.
What could the future bring?
Confusion over confirmation results from the indistinct way the church applies the same sacrament to various circumstances of the spiritual life. We are condemned to continuous great misunderstanding about confirmation unless we can clarify its applications.
The boldest move the church could make would be to move confirmation to baptism and replace it or dispense with it on other occasions. This would eliminate the difficulties we face in applying the same catechetical explanations, canonical expectations, and liturgical action to what are phenomenologically different experiences for the faithful. Imagine it this way:
1) Chrismation. Every baptism administered by a priest or bishop should include the complete rites of initiation, including the elements of confirmation. (Sadly, deacons or lay ministers would still baptize without this anointing, because of the unavailability of priests in some parts of the world.) The circumstances permitting priests to confirm have expanded especially in the last fifty years. These could expand again to include every baptism. The requirements for catechesis should be eliminated; precedents exist in both East and West.
Many results would follow: The long history of large numbers of unconfirmed Christians in the West would end. The integrity of the initiation rites would be restored. Greater unity between East and West would be achieved. The urgent appeal to be confirmed would be relaxed; parents of reluctant adolescents would rejoice.
We could even change the name. "Chrismation", the Eastern term, better expresses the meaning of this rite when it is celebrated with baptism. "Confirmation" originally described what the bishop did for those baptized by another. It "confirmed" the presbyter's ministry. "Chrismation" expresses very well what we do in the adult rites of baptism.
2) Reaffirmation. The church should expand our repertory of rites to include one for people who wish to reaffirm their commitment to the faith. Many people erroneously assume this already explains adolescent confirmation. Ask a typical parent of a teenager, or teenagers themselves, and they'll tell you that in confirmation they accept the faith that others affirmed for them when they were infants. Although this explanation has achieved popularity, official teaching avoids asserting the same. Baptism is not provisional; it bestows the life of Christ.
Moreover, acceptance of faith deepens throughout one's life. To celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament for an experience we face time and again does not match the spiritual journey. Many people recommit themselves to their faith at significant moments of their lives--with the birth of a child, after a divorce, by narrowly escaping death, or in coming to new insights through therapy. Some parish communities may wish to recommit themselves to their mission after a retreat. All these circumstances call for a ritual reaffirmation of faith. Such a ritual would simply and neatly fit into our repertory of prayer. Calling it confirmation, however, would conflict with the history of the sacrament. Throughout the last 1500 years it has referred to a rite deferred from baptism but received once in one's life.
3) Transfer. When baptized Christians celebrate a rite of reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church, we adjoin confirmation. Is this really necessary? Must the rite of reception attract part of our baptismal ritual? The patristic reconciliation of heretics included an anointing with chrism to "correct" the heretic baptism, to fill up what was missing in the ritual. Many churches already use our language of confirmation as part of baptism, praying the ancient text for the sevenfold grace of the Holy Spirit. How much more is necessary to welcome them to a common eucharistic table?
The real problem is orders in non-Catholic churches. If the ecumenical movement can attain a mutual recognition of orders, the recognition of confirmation would be a short step away. Ideally, we strive for the mutual acceptance of initiation rites among Christian churches, leading to a common table and a common priesthood. In such an ideal no rite of reception would be necessary, nor a confirmation to fill up the inadequacies of another church's rites of initiation.
We need better ecumenical conversation on baptism, profession of faith, eucharistic communion, and orders. We yearn for the day when confirmation will not be necessary for those who share our Christian faith and wish to share our table.
4) Emergencies. The need for emergency confirmation should be eliminated. If most Catholics were confirmed at birth, the need for deathbed confirmations would cease. Those who were baptized by deacons, catechists, or others who do not confirm could be released from their canonical obligation to seek confirmation later. Does initiation count or doesn't it?
Such changes would eliminate much of the confusion resulting from this sacrament. And the Julo family's next generation would never see the perplexing array of celebrations of confirmation present now. Everyone baptized would either celebrate or be dispensed from chrismation. Uniformity in theology, catechesis, and liturgy could be achieved.
This article first appeared in French as "A propos de la confirmation: Comment sortir de la confusion?" in Lumen vitae 51/3 (September 1996):265-274. It appeared in English in Worship 71/6 (November 1997):537-545.
Top of page