For most Catholics today, the Sacrament of Confirmation is a mystery, a ritual that we celebrate simply as a formality without really understanding what it’s about. If anything, it is usually seen as a chance to personally choose to follow Jesus after our parents made that choice for us at our baptism. That’s unfortunate, because the sacrament contains a wealth of meaning that goes well beyond a chance to profess our faith. In this article, I want to delve deeper into Confirmation and see what really happens when we receive it. We’re going to look at what the Church teaches about this sacrament, and then see how those teachings are firmly rooted in Scripture.
Not Quite There
While the common understanding of Confirmation as a chance to personally choose our faith is not entirely wrong, it’s woefully inadequate. Yes, people usually have a chance to make a personal decision to follow Jesus when they get confirmed, but that is not what the sacrament is really about. Rather, that’s simply a consequence of the way we usually celebrate it in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church today. However, in the ancient Church, Confirmation was administered to infants right after they were baptized, and that practice continues to this day in the Eastern Catholic rites. Moreover, when adults are baptized and received into the Church, they also receive Confirmation at the same time.
These examples from both ancient and modern times show that Confirmation has to be more than just a chance to make a personal choice for Jesus. Infants can’t make that choice when they are confirmed, and adult converts don’t have to because they do it when they are baptized. Consequently, there has be more to this sacrament than simply choosing our faith for ourselves.
An Act of God
The first step towards understanding Confirmation is to understand the sacraments in general. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines them as “efficacious signs of grace…by which divine life is dispensed to us” and which “signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament” (CCC 1131). Simply put, they are first and foremost works of God; they are “actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church” (CCC 1116).
As a result, the primary significance of Confirmation has to lie in what God does for us, not what we do for God. It is first and foremost about the graces we receive rather than our personal profession of faith.
What are the graces we receive in confirmation? The Catechism describes them for us. In this sacrament, we receive “the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (CCC 1302). In other words, when we are confirmed, we receive the Holy Spirit just like the Apostles did, and we get the same graces they were given 2,000 years ago.
More specifically, this sacrament “brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace” (CCC 1303). It completes our initiation into the Body of Christ and unites us more closely to Jesus and his Church (CCC 1303). Finally, just as the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit empowered the Apostles to preach the Gospel to the whole world, so too does Confirmation empower us today “to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC 1303).
The Biblical Basis
While the Bible doesn’t say much about Confirmation, it gives us a glimpse into its importance in the Christian life. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about a special rite in which people receive the Holy Spirit after they are baptized: “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all.” (Acts 19:5-7)
The Church understands this rite to be the Sacrament of Confirmation, and while the text doesn’t say much about it (and the only other time it appears, Acts 8:14-17, doesn’t really add much), it tells us everything we need to know if we read it closely.
First and foremost, this short passage teaches us that Confirmation is like a little Pentecost. Everything it says about the sacrament has a parallel in the book’s earlier description of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and their companions. Most obviously, just as “about twelve” people received the Spirit here, so too did “about a hundred and twenty” people receive the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:15).
The Twelve Tribes
The number 120 is highly symbolic, as it’s twelve times ten. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was composed of twelve tribes, but by the first century, ten of them had been exiled away from their land and assimilated into the Gentiles. Only two tribes remained, and Jews at the time of Jesus were anxiously awaiting the restoration of those ten lost tribes.
This restoration was part of Jesus’ mission, as signified by his choice of twelve Apostles. By calling twelve of them, he symbolized that he was going to restore and reunite all the tribes of Israel. As a result, when we read that 120 people (ten from each tribe) were present at Pentecost, the beginning of the Church, it’s a clear sign that the Church is the new Israel, the restoration of all twelve tribes.
Similarly, when Paul laid his hands on twelve people and they received the Holy Spirit, they also symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. This is confirmed for us by the fact that in both instances, the text only gives an approximation of the number of people present. At Pentecost, there were “about a hundred and twenty” people (Acts 1:15), and Paul laid his hands on “about twelve of them” (Acts 19:7).
In other words, there weren’t exactly 120 people at Pentecost, and Paul didn’t lay his hands on exactly twelve people. Instead, Acts rounds to these numbers because of their symbolism. As a result, since they both symbolize the same thing (the restoration of all twelve tribes of Israel), there is a clear parallel between them.
Speaking in Tongues and Biblical Prophecy
However, that similarity by itself is not enough to show that these twelve people received the same graces that the Apostles received at Pentecost. We need to look at what else happened. When Paul laid his hands on them, “the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). How do the effects of this reception of the Holy Spirit compare to the effects of Pentecost?
First, both events involved people speaking “with tongues.” Acts tells us that when the Holy Spirit fell on the Apostles, they “began to speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:4). They preached the Gospel to whomever was listening, and everybody “heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6).
Secondly, the people’s prophesying parallels what the Apostles did at Pentecost as well, but this similarity is a bit harder to see. For us, a prophet is someone who can accurately foretell things that are going to happen. However, the biblical understanding of prophecy is a bit different. In the Bible, prophecy is speaking on behalf of God, relaying God’s message. Sometimes that involves predicting future events, but that’s not always the case. For example, the prophetic book of Haggai begins with a command to rebuild the Temple after it had been destroyed (Haggai 1:1-11), and as the Jews did so, God spoke to them again through the prophet and assured them that he was with them (Haggai 1:13). These are clearly not predictions of the future, but they are instances of biblical prophecy. When we understand prophecy this way, we can see that the Apostles did in fact prophesy at Pentecost.
The Effects of the Sacrament
We can see the parallels with Pentecost. The numbers of people who received the Spirit in both events symbolically represent the restoration of Israel. Just as the Apostles began to speak in tongues and prophesy after Pentecost, so too did the people after they had received the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit empowered the Apostles to be Jesus’ “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), so too did these people receive the power to witness to Christ. When Paul laid his hands on them, it was like a little Pentecost.
This passage also teaches us that Confirmation completes and strengthens the grace we received at Baptism. Right after they are baptized, the text reads, “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them,” as if this were a known part of the baptismal rite. It’s as if I said, “I went to a baseball game, and when the home team took the field….” I can say that because everyone expects the home team to take the field at the beginning of play; it’s a known part of the game.
However, if I said, “I went to a baseball game, and when my mother called me…,” that wouldn’t make much sense unless it were already expected that my mother would call me. Otherwise, I would have to say something like, “I went to a baseball game, and during the game my mother called me.” Similarly, when Acts says, “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them,” it implies that the laying on of hands was an expected part of the rite of baptism. The book’s original readers were expected to know that it was the completion of baptism and the finalization of one’s initiation into the Church.
Our Personal Pentecost
In sum, yes, Confirmation usually gives us a chance to choose for ourselves to follow Christ, but it gives us so much more as well. Like all the sacraments, it is first and foremost an act of God, and in this sacrament God deepens our union with the Church and strengthens the gifts we received at Baptism. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Confirmation, but the little it does say is packed with meaning. The sacrament is like a little Pentecost, a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit that completes our initiation into the body of Christ and empowers us to witness to the faith, just like the Apostles were empowered to do all those years ago.