This Thursday, a friend of mine received the Sacrament of Confirmation at a parish here in San Diego…
“Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” – Acts 8:14-17
“You have anointed my head with oil, my cup it overflows…” – Psalm 23
For those of you who don’t know much about the Sacrament of Confirmation, it’s when the bishop extends his hands over those wishing to be confirmed and prays for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He then makes the sign of a cross on the candidate’s forehead with “chrism”, a mixture of olive oil and balm blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. The bishop then offers the candidate a sign of peace.
Witnessing this Confirmation, it got me to thinking back to my own Confirmation. Like most, I was confirmed as a teenager, but unlike most, I was not confirmed by a bishop. Instead, I was confirmed by the Abbot of the monastery where I went to Mass each week:
Don’t worry though, it’s allowed by Canon Law – I checked
Solid As A Rock, Thick As A Brick
It is usual to take the name of a Saint at Confirmation. You are meant to choose a Saint whose life you particularly admire. Unfortunately, there are often less-than-saintly reasons for the selection of a particular Saint. When I was confirmed, many of my classmates chose a particular Saint simply because they liked the name. Also, I know for a fact that a good few of them just chose the most outrageous name they thought could get away with
I personally took the Confirmation name of “Peter”. In the months leading up to my Confirmation, my Mum worked her way through a “The Dictionary of Saints” and then shared with me her favourites. I can’t clearly remember why I chose “Peter”, but it certainly turned out to be an appropriate choice for me…
As my faith was reborn in my early twenties I quickly identified with Peter’s enthusiasm (“Tell me to step out onto the water…”), zeal (“I will never leave you…”), his failings (“I swear to you I don’t know the man!”), as well as his hope of restoration (“Do you love me? Feed my lambs…”). When I moved to Cheltenham I was called “Peter” by people with a rather spooky regularity – I once even had two people who, while praying over me, one called me “David”, the other called me “Peter”, even though neither of them knew it was my Confirmation name…
“You will receive power from on high…” – Acts 1:18
Catechists who lead the preparation classes often explain that Confirmation is the Sacrament in which the candidate “confirms” their choice to be a Christian. Most Confirmation candidates were baptised as children and, as such, had very little say in the matter. Even when they received their First Holy Communion they were still very young and still very much under their parents’ authority. Confirmation is therefore seen as their own declaration of faith as an adult in their own right, almost like a Christian Bar Mitzvah.
Unfortunately, although this is a very nice idea, it isn’t really what the Sacrament is about. In fact, in the Early Church, baptism and confirmation were often given together. Even today, Eastern Rite Catholic parishes Confirm infants immediately after Baptism. So if it isn’t a Christian Bar Mitzvah, what is it?
“You armed me with strength for battle…” – Psalm 18
One aspect of Confirmation is preparing the candidate as a soldier of Christ and to prepare him to suffer for the name of Jesus. For a long time this was shown in the Rite of Confirmation by the Bishop giving the candidate a (hopefully light) slap on the cheek. This doesn’t really happen any more – it didn’t happen to me, although this Thursday the Bishop did lightly touch each candidate’s cheek before offering the sign of peace.
“…you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth” – Acts 1:8
As the podcast explains, the essence of the Sacrament of Confirmation is the strengthening of Christians, to prepare them for the journey ahead and to be a witnesses to Christ in the world. As the Catechism explains:
“For by the sacrament of Confirmation, the baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed” - CCC 11285
…and the Catechism is, of course, taking its cue from Sacred Scripture and the promise of Jesus:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8