Paul Turner[1]

  The practice of confirmation varies so strongly East and West that the sacrament proffers different theologies, poses pastoral dilemmas, and resists a unified presentation of its purpose.  For the universal church to salvage the meaning of this sacrament, some compromises in present day celebrations would have to be made.  Steps should be taken cautiously.

The difference in celebrations between East and West is largely one of occasion.  The Eastern rites customarily celebrate chrismation together with baptism.  The different ecclesial bodies of the East shape the details of the ritual in ways that make each unique, but the occasion for chrismation remains the same.  However, in the West confirmation forms part of the baptismal rite only when the candidate is a catechumen, whether an adult or a child of catechetical age.  Confirmation may be celebrated with infant baptism in the West, but only when the child is determined to be in danger of death.  Otherwise, the Roman Rite celebrates this sacrament on a completely different occasion.  Although the confirmation ritual never changes in the West, its various occasions alter its meaning to include forms of initiation, strength, commitment, and a seal on the rite of reception.  Between East and West, then, the difference in occasion for confirmation causes differences in meaning.  In the Roman Rite, the confirmation of an infant at baptism is rare, making it difficult for many Romans to appreciate the Eastern Rite custom regarding occasion.

As long as the universal church tolerates so many different forms of the sacrament, its meaning will remain imprecise.  But to bring integrity to the theology of the sacrament would sacrifice some part of the church's liturgical and pastoral tradition.


One way of enhancing unity would be to bring the initiatory tradition of the Eastern rites to greater conformity with the West.  It would not be the first time this happened.  As this article will show, early in the history of the church, an Eastern community changed the sequence of its initiation rites, probably to imitate the conventions growing in the West.

However, both East and West should exercise caution before nearing that pattern again.  As confirmation mutates in the West, voices could appeal to Eastern communities to imitate its development.  However, the Eastern theology and practice of chrismation offers insights to the West which could enlighten the meaning of this sacrament for the universal church.  The preservation of the Eastern tradition would honor the past by its custom and the present by its constancy.

The Eastern rites have contributed a unified front in the theology of confirmation.  In the East, chrismation always pertains to initiation.  Generally speaking, through chrismation the Holy Spirit seals the newly baptized in Christ.  Chrism represents the Holy Spirit.  In addition, since chrism is consecrated only by the patriarch even though it may be applied by a priest, it also represents the unity of the church: Each member shares the oil which comes from one leader.  Chrismation also consecrates the newly baptized as a preparatory ritual for their sharing in the eucharist.  It thus prepares them for the demands of the Christian life.[2]

In the East, this theology of chrismation blends with the occasion for the sacrament.  The position of chrismation between baptism and eucharist stands as a distinguishing characteristic of Eastern theology and initiatory practice.  The West, permitting a separate occasion, was unable to maintain the same sequence, nor the same meaning.


In the history of the West the sacrament slipped from its postbaptismal position to a completely separate occasion in order to accomodate the schedule of the bishop.  Originally the bishop had been present for baptisms; gradually that responsibility fell to his presbyters.  Western bishops created a detached confirmation as a means of maintaining their ritual and juridical relationship with all who were baptized.

As a result, the West began to view the ritual through several lenses, while the East was more easily able to retain a consistent theology of initiation for chrismation.  The West viewed confirmation as part of baptism when the bishop was present for the occasion, as part of the reconciliation of heretics, and as a juridical event which established the ecclesiological relationship of bishop and initiate.  Efforts in Western theology to present a unified theology of confirmation have proven fruitless in the face of the complexities of its historical development into manifold celebrations.


However, even before this splintering of chrismation rituals in the West, the practice in the East was not uniform at first.  Originally the Syrian church placed its anointing before baptism.  Lest the history of chrismation in the Eastern church be perceived as a consistent whole, it may be good to review the particulars.

Unique among the churches East and West, the postapostolic Syrian church maintained a tradition of anointing a candidate prior to, not after baptism.  Third century Syrian texts like the Didascalia apostolorum (16),[3] the Recognitions of Pseudo-Clement (3:67),[4] The Acts of Judas Thomas,[5] and The History of John the Son of Zebedee[6] all testify to the placement of the anointing before baptism, during a period when other traditions had placed it afterwards.  Although in retrospect the purpose of this anointing is a moving target which defies precise definition, it shared similarities with the postbaptismal chrismation of other traditions.

Fourth century Syria began with the same tradition.  A homily by Aphrahat (12:13),[7] a hymn of Ephrem (7),[8] the anonymous "Life of Rabbûlâ,"[9] and John Chrysostom's Baptismal Instruction (2:22f)[10] reported the same sequence.  Anointing preceded baptism.

However, by the end of the fourth century the pattern began to change.  The reason may be the influence of the fourth council of Laodicea (date uncertain, possibly 381).  There is recorded this canon: "Those who are enlightened should be anointed with heavenly chrism after baptism and become participants in the reign of Christ" (48).[11]  It is unclear if this canon intended to change the Syrian tradition to match what was happening elsewhere, but alterations to the pattern did happen around this time.

Specifically, Syrian initiation rites began to include a second anointing, after baptism.  The Apostolic Constitutions (3:16; 7:22,2f; 7:44,2),[12] Theodore of Mopsuestia's Baptismal Homilies (2:17; 3:27),[13] and the Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ (2:8-10)[14] from late fourth and early fifth century Syria, all show an anointing after baptism as well.  By the sixth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite had included the postbaptismal anointing in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (2:2,7),[15] even though a vestige of the former sequence still appeared in the sixth century work of Jacob of Serûgh, "Baptism of Constantine."[16]  This second anointing paralleled the one in the West which grew into confirmation.

In the early centuries of the church, even while the West had entered its "golden age of the catechumenate," where the sequence of baptism-anointing-eucharist had become deeply entrenched and richly celebrated, Syria tenaciously held its own sequence of rituals, but eventually changed to imitate the Western practice.


In recent years the practice of confirmation in the West has so diversified that the prospect of assimilating traditions could beckon again.  Strangely, a confluence of theological thought on confirmation has materialized between Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism.  Although the impetus to celebrate confirmation as a rite of commitment for adolescents is fairly new to Catholic thought, it prevailed among theologians of the Reformation.[17]  Now the Protestant theology and the Catholic practice of confirmation have become similar.  However, if the East were to accomodate its long tradition of postbaptismal chrismation to the growing consensus in the West, it would represent a loss to the universal church.

If assimilation is to occur, the reverse would prove more profitable.  The Eastern rites have preserved a meaning of chrismation for which the West longs.  Although the post-Vatican II Roman Church continually refers to confirmation as a sacrament of initiation, it is not always celebrated that way.  When confirmation is deferred from baptism to anywhere from seven to eighteen years, it is difficult to appreciate its status as an initiation rite as is so patently the case in the East.  Although the Roman church calls confirmation an initiation rite in every situation, it does not express that reality very well.

Already the West has moved somewhat closer to the East in one aspect of confirmation: the minister of the sacrament.  In recent decades, presbyters have received permission to confirm in more and more circumstances.  For example, in 1929 Pius XI delegated certain presbyters to confirm in Latin America where bishops were scarce.[18]  Presbyters received general authorization to confirm the dying in 1946.[19]  The 1983 Code of Canon Law gave presbyters the right and responsibilty to confirm those they baptized, if they were no longer infants, and those whom they received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.[20]  Since these permissions for presbyteral administration of the sacrament have multiplied in the West, the link between chrismation in the East and confirmation in the West can be more clearly seen.

Throughout history, the Eastern rites have maintained the same basic interpretation of chrismation, while the West has gone through considerable turmoil over the occasion of confirmation, its minister, and the significance of its sequence with baptism and eucharist.  The Eastern rites present confirmation as initiation, gift of the Spirit, consecration of the baptized for the eucharist, and symbol of unity with the patriarch.  The West has been pulled in two directions throughout the twentieth century--the occasions have grown for a presbyter to administer the sacrament as he does in the East, but the common interpretation of confirmation has been moving away from initiation and toward commitment, a reaffirmation of baptism.  The reintegration of the meaning of confirmation in the universal church would cause some traditions to experience loss.  But it would afford the church an opportunity to proclaim this aspect of its faith with one voice.  The Eastern voice should aid that reintegration.

This article first appeared in Ephrem’s Theological Journal, March 1998 (2/1):3-7.

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[1]Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City MO.  A priest of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, he holds a doctorate in sacred theology from Sant' Anselmo in Rome.  His books include Confirmation: The Baby in Solomon's Court (Paulist Press, 1993).  He writes "Bulletin Inserts" for Modern Liturgy, "Storytelling" for Christian Initiation, and anchors a scripture column for his diocesan paper, The Catholic Key.  He serves as a team member for the North American Forum on the Catechumenate and as advisor to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.  As organist, he has recorded several releases for Credence Cassettes.  His e-mail address is PaulTu@aol.com.

[2]Cf. Paul Turner, Confirmation: The Baby in Solomon's Court (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1993), pp. 31-33.

[3]Arthur Vööbus, ed. and trans., Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Scriptores Syri, vol. 401: The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac (Louvain: 1979), pp. 156f.

[4]Jacques-Paul Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Graeca (PG), vol. 1 (Paris: J.-P. Migne), col. 1311f.

[5]William Wright, ed. and trans., The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968), pp. 166f; 188f; 258f; 267f; 289f.

[6]Ibid., pp. 52-55.

[7]Ioannes Parisot, ed., Patrologia Syriaca, vol. 1: Aphraatis demonstrationes, (Paris: Firmin-Didot et Socii, 1894), p. 538.

[8]Kathleen E. McVey, trans., Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 295.

[9]R. H. Connolly, trans., Texts and Studies: Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature, vol. 8, no. 1 (Cambridge: University Press, 1909), p. xliv.

[10]Paul W. Harkins, trans., Ancient Christian Writers vol. 31 (London: Longmans, Green and Co.), p. 51f.

[11]Charles Joseph Hefele, Histoire des Conciles, vol. 1/2 (Paris: Letouzey et Anè, Editeurs, 1907), p. 1021.

[12]Francis Xavier Funk, ed., Didascalia et constitutiones apostolorum, (Paderborn: Libraria Ferdinandi Schoeningh, 1905), pp. 210f; 406f; 450f.

[13]Les Homélies Catéchétiques, Studi e Testi, vol. 145 (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1949), pp. 396f; 457.

[14]Johannes Quasten, ed. Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, Florilegium Patristicum tam veteris quam medii aevi auctores complectens, Monumenta eucharistica et liturgica vetustissima (Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1936), pp. 270ff.

[15]PG 3:395f.

[16]Connolly, p. xlv.

[17]Paul Turner, The Meaning and Practice of Confirmation: Perspectives from a Sixteenth Century Controvery (Bern: Peter Lang, 1987).

[18]Pius XI, 30 April 1929, Acta apostolicae sedis, Commentarium officiale (AAS), vol. 21 (Rome: Typographia Polyglotta, 1929), p. 555.

[19]Sacra Congregatio de Disciplina Sacramentorum, "Spiritus Sancti munera," 14 September 1946, AAS, vol. 38 (1946), p. 352.

[20]Canons 883/2; 885/2.

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