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The Sacrament of Confirmation: What it is and What it Ain\’t

May 8, AD2014 12 Comments


In many dioceses in the United States, we\’re getting right into the thick of Confirmation season, and as there tends to be a lot of confusion and misinformation and misunderstanding on the subject, it seems an appropriate time for a little primer on this sacrament.

First, let\’s be clear about what this sacrament is not.

Because in most dioceses in this country, Confirmation is received in the early teen years, the sacrament often has the feel of an ecclesiastical eighth-grade graduation ceremony: you\’ve attended your classes, done your service project, and now you are receiving the mark of your accomplishments–except in this case, your head is bedecked with sacred oil rather than the graduate\’s cap, and your gown is replaced by that shirt you usually only wear for weddings and funerals that has sleeves that are just a little too short. And now you\’re done and can move on to other things, right? Clearly this picture is missing something.

Sometimes people speak of Confirmation as a time during which young people choose to accept their faith for themselves. They may have been baptized as infants, but this is when, you know, they really become Catholics. It\’s when they \”confirm\” their presence in the Church. This makes it seem as though the non-confirmed are merely probationary members who are giving the whole thing a trial run–\”if you\’re not satisfied after 13 years, you can cancel your membership!\” Problems here, too.

The sacrament is also occasionally treated as \”the point at which you become a grown-up in the Church,\” a rite of passage into spiritual adulthood, like a Christian bar mitzvah, so that you can now become an usher or something. With this conception we\’re getting a little closer to the truth, but only a little.

Each of these is lacking, but each also has a hint of truth to it, because each conveys the sense of taking a further step in being initiated into the Church.

Confirmation, along with Baptism and the Eucharist, is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation. By these sacraments one is inducted into the mysteries of the Christian faith and becomes a member of the Church–not as a member of a club, but as your arm or your leg are your \”members,\” since in the Church we are the Body of Christ, and thus are members of Him. Each sacrament deepens this membership.

Baptism incorporates us into Christ–that is the perfect word for it, too; we enter into His Body, we are \”in-corpor-ated\”–giving us new life and a spiritual rebirth. The Eucharist feeds us with Christ\’s own Body and Blood, nourishing us and allowing us to grow in the Faith. In what way does Confirmation initiate us?

St. Thomas presents us with a beautiful model for this. Baptism is our spiritual rebirth, putting us into relationship with God and giving us the power to do things that involve our own salvation, but Confirmation is our spiritual growth and maturation, giving us power to do things that involve the salvation of others. This means spiritual combat, or \”combating the enemies of the Faith,\” as St. Thomas puts it.

Confirmation strengthens us for spiritual warfare not just for defending our own faith, but for defending the Faith — for answering critics who would attack the Faith with words, for acting with charity toward those who would hate us and ours, for maintaining trust and bolstering the trust of others when some would try to rob us of our hope. Confirmation instills us with the grace needed to live and preserve the Faith in a hostile world. It arms us against our spiritual enemies.

The spiritual mark of Confirmation is \”indelible,\” meaning it can never be destroyed or wiped away. Once confirmed, always confirmed. In Confirmation, we are branded as belonging to God. The Greek term for this mark is \”character,\” which was the name for the mark made on soldiers to show they belonged to the army. St. Augustine used this term to describe the spiritual mark of Confirmation, which is why older books will speak of Confirmation as \”making us soldiers for Christ.\” It\’s why the bishop would give each of the confirmandi a little smack on the cheek. We are under attack, and we are being prepared for battle.

Confirmation is our commission. Stand to post!

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Nicholas Senz is a husband and father who tries every day to live Galatians 2:20: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." He is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA, a managing editor at Catholic Stand, and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His work has appeared at Catholic Exchange, Crisis Magazine, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and his own blog, Two Old Books. Nicholas is a science fiction afficianado, Tolkien devotee, avid Anglophile, and consumer of both police procedurals and popcorn in large quantities, usually together.

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