Today more than a few baptized Catholics, for various reasons that include indifference, have not received the sacrament of confirmation. This is not the first time in history that growing numbers of Catholics have lived without being confirmed in the Catholic faith. In the medieval era, visits by the local bishop to rural villages were few and far between, and hard-working farmers were not always able to put aside their plows when the bishop came. Then, just as now, some faithful had to be convinced of the necessity of receiving this second sacrament of initiation into the Catholic Church.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read that after converts were baptized, the apostles imposed hands upon them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. This practice of laying hands on the baptized was continued by bishops, successors of the apostles, and it became the matter of the sacrament of confirmation that symbolized the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by God. As Pope Paul VI wrote (and is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), “The imposition of hands is rightly recognized by the Catholic tradition as the origin of the sacrament of confirmation, which in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.”
That confirmation “perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church” points to its purpose, effects, and meaning in the Church today. Confirmation is frequently defined as a strengthening and perfection of the graces received at baptism. While this is undoubtedly true, confirmation’s special association with Pentecost, God’s final salvific intervention into the world before the second coming of Christ, illustrates the sacrament’s unique status and power.
Father Liam Walsh develops this idea beautifully in his book The Sacraments of Initiation. On the first Pentecost, the apostles were transformed by God’s power from cowards to fearless proclaimers of the Gospel. But the Holy Spirit made them more than simple charismatic preachers: they received the power to complete the mission of salvation that God has entrusted to the Church. In Walsh’s summary, confirmation is the sacrament that makes visible the salvific quality of the Holy Spirit, who gives recipients both “the inner experience of ultimate salvation enjoyed by the first Christians” and the power to bring this salvation to others.
As with baptism, the inner experience of the Holy Spirit in confirmation leaves a permanent mark on the soul of recipients. This mark is symbolized by the anointing of recipients with chrism as the bishop says, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” Thus recipients sacramentally receive the Holy Spirit as the apostles did on Pentecost. By confirmation they have become more closely united to Christ and his Church, and they have received the grace to defend and to proclaim the faith courageously to the ends of the earth.
As beautiful as the theology of confirmation is, what does it have to do with adults who were confirmed decades ago, who may only remember the bishop’s slap and the name they chose? In a secular world that increasingly assails religious belief, Catholics of all ages need the sacrament of confirmation more than ever to defend their beliefs. Since confirmation has imposed a permanent mark, recipients can call upon the grace they received from the conferral of the sacrament at any moment. Although we may not realize it, when Catholics somehow find the courage to defend Church teaching among hostile co-workers, to write a letter to the editor in response to a derogatory news article, to make the sign of the cross in public, to display a rosary or religious symbol in a car or front yard, to explain the faith to the curious or the confused, we are acting at the behest of the Holy Spirit, who was given in confirmation for strength in instances such as these.
If the effects of confirmation work so well unwittingly, they surely can work even better when consciously called upon. The inner gift of grace from the Holy Spirit is nourished through the Eucharist and deepened through prayer. Thus the effects of confirmation can increase over time, and provide recipients with more power to witness to the faith and withstand onslaughts of temptation.
In confirmation preparation programs for children, it is often said that through confirmation Catholics become adults in the Church. This is only partially true; after all, in eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches confirmation is conferred upon infants in the same ceremony as baptism. The Catechism explains that confirmation brings about “adult faith,” which should not be confused “with the adult age of natural growth.” The lives of the saints powerfully attest that children can witness to the Gospel with a faith that astounds Christians of any age.
As encroachments against the faith occur more frequently from every sector of society, from the government to the workplace, the graces received in confirmation are needed more than ever to stand firm against the tide and to bring the faith to those who do not yet know it or appreciate it. Young or old, newly confirmed or confirmed long ago, we can all call upon these graces through prayer. Actively doing so may well make the difference in maintaining Christian life and the rights of the Church in America today.