The Sacrament of Confirmation is often referred to as “a sacrament in search of a theology” or “a sacrament in search of meaning” among pastoral ministers. Even though the catechetical documents present a consistent theology of confirmation, the diversity in pastoral practice from diocese to diocese, and even from parish to parish within the same diocese, would suggest that the Sacrament of Confirmation has different meanings and even different theologies. Instead, I propose that the diversity in praxis is not the result of a variant theology, but rather of different pastoral approaches. In his book, Confirmation: The Baby in Solomon's Court, Fr. Paul Turner, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, describes seven models of praxis in the Christian tradition.[i] Using his work as a framework for my reflections, I have distinguished three distinct models of pastoral practice for confirmation employed today.
- Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults: For adult catechumens, confirmation is celebrated immediately following baptism, at the same liturgy. Children older than seven years old should be included in this model. For adult candidates, confirmation is celebrated with adults who were either baptized Catholic but did not continue in their faith formation, or who were baptized in other Christian traditions and wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
- Restored Order: Some dioceses[ii] celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation before Eucharist. This model restores the order of celebration of initiatory sacraments to that of the universal Church until 1910.[iii] While the age of celebration varies according to each diocese, generally ranging from 8 to 10 years old, the order of celebration is Confirmation before Eucharist.
- Confirmation of Adolescent Candidates: The Sacrament of Confirmation is celebrated after First Eucharist, at some point during adolescence; there is great variance in the age for this practice, ranging from 13-17 years old.
On account of the diversity in the candidates’ ages and circumstances, many different approaches are employed today. This presents unique challenges, among which is a confusion in the sacrament’s theology.
The theology of confirmation is articulated clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1285-1321) and expressed in the actual Rite of Confirmation. The regulations for its celebration are presented in the Code of Canon Law.[iv] These resources offer us the best guidelines for understanding the four essential aspects of the theology of confirmation.
- Confirmation is sacrament of Christian initiation. As such, its effects are necessary for our on-going conversion as Christians. Confirmation, along with the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, initiate us into the Christian life. It is true that the sacrament is only celebrated once, but its effects are palpable throughout the life of the believer who is disposed to responding to the graces it confers.
- Confirmation completes baptismal graces[v] but not initiation. A common misconception is that one needs confirmation to be fully initiated. In a sense, confirmation “completes” the set of three sacraments of initiation for someone who has already been baptized and received First Eucharist. Nevertheless, it is imperative to understand that Eucharist, not confirmation, completes initiation. The initiatory process is ordered to the Eucharist, the Sacrament that is the source and summit of the life and mission of the Christian and the Church.[vi] The completion of baptismal graces does not mean that the graces received in baptism are insufficient or partial; rather, the effects of confirmation complete the effects of the baptismal graces. In baptism, we are born again of water and the Spirit,[vii] receive the Spirit of adoption, are forgiven of original and actual sin, receive the call to discipleship and holiness, and are incorporated into the visible body of Christ; whereas in confirmation, we are strengthened to live the life of discipleship to which we are called in baptism.
- Confirmation is a seal with the Gift of the Spirit. During the Rite of Confirmation, the bishop (or designated priest) anoints the forehead of the candidate, with the words, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” With the confirmation anointing, what is being confirmed, or being sealed, is our baptismal calling.[viii] While it is true that the candidate needs to be willing to enter into this sacramental relationship and thus confirm the creed received at baptism, it is important not to center the theological meaning of confirmation on the candidate’s profession of faith. Doing so would inadvertently distort the understanding of who is confirming whom in the sacrament. A similar misunderstanding would happen if we were to teach that the theology of the Eucharist consists of our acceptance of all the teachings, expressed in our “Amen.” Although our stating, “Amen,” prior to receiving the Eucharist signifies that we believe all that the Church teaches, this is not the theology of the Eucharist.
- Confirmation is not a sacrament of maturity.[ix] At times, pastoral practices inadvertently communicate that this sacrament is about being a mature adult in the faith. The perception that an adolescent is capable of better “understanding” than a younger child has contributed to the belief that this is a sacrament of maturity. Although adolescents have a greater capacity for abstract thought than a younger child, their psychological development is such that it is not a time consistent with “maturity.” Using the language of “sacrament of maturity” additionally perpetuates the misconception that the formation in the faith ends with confirmation, as though it were a sacrament to be equated with graduation from religious study.
Having summarized the four principles of the theology of confirmation, now we direct our attention to considering elements of pastoral practices that are applicable to all age groups as well as elements which require adaptation according to the candidate’s age.
Pastoral Approaches for all Confirmation Candidates
The following points should be included in the pastoral approach for all Confirmation candidates, regardless of their age.
- Preparation emphasizes the four key theological principles of confirmation: 1) it is a sacrament of initiation; 2) it completes baptismal graces, not initiation; 3) it is a seal with the Gift of the Holy Spirit; and 4) it is not a sacrament of maturity.
- Preparation emphasizes and explains the connection between the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. This connection is expressed with the renewal of baptismal promises at the celebration of the sacrament.
- Preparation includes opportunities for reflection on the meaning of the symbols and the sacrament.
- Preparation and sacramental formation are presented as a process, not a program, thus emphasizing the need for on-going formation, on-going conversion, on-going commitment to discipleship.
- Celebration of confirmation during Mass allows for a fuller expression of the unity of the sacraments of initiation.
Pastoral Approaches for Different Groups of Candidates
Adaptations for different age groups can be best accomplished by offering age-appropriate explanations and reflections, attentive to:
- Diverse explanation of gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
- Use of Scripture readings with different applications.
- A recognition that the understanding and acceptance of commitment to the faith journey is dependent on the level of affective maturity (not chronological age) of the candidate.
Despite different pastoral practices, which certainly address the needs of different groups, it is fundamental to remember that the Sacrament of the Eucharist completes and renews our life of Christian discipleship.[x] The essential guidelines for confirmation preparation are summarized in the National Directory for Catechesis.[xi] These guidelines for catechesis do not include mastery of doctrine or requirements of service hours. The points that are central to the preparation include: 1) connection between baptism and confirmation; 2) role of the Holy Spirit with explanation and reflection on the Spirit’s gifts (Is 11:1-2) and fruits (Gal.5:22-23); and explanation of the symbols of the Rite of Confirmation.
Confirmation is a sacrament with one theology, but diverse pastoral approaches. As with any of the sacraments, right disposition and willingness to cooperate with the grace received are integral to the fruitfulness of the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Dr. Ximena DeBroeck is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. Prior to this appointment, she was the Director of the Archdiocese of Baltimore Office for Worship and Sacramental Formation. She also taught at St. Vincent Seminary and Seton Hill University. She earned a Theology MA, with a concentration in Scripture, from Saint Vincent Seminary and completed her doctoral studies at Duquesne University. Her research focused on the biblical theology of sacrifice, sacraments, and discipleship. She authored the study guide for Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples, as well as articles on sacramental formation.
[i] Paul Turner, Confirmation: The Baby in Solomon's Court Revised & Updated © 1993 (Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 2006). The seven models described are: Christian initiation of adults, chrismation, Protestant-Anglican Churches, Catholic initiation, confirmation of children, adolescent confirmation, and persons in danger of death.
[ii] https://zenit.org/articles/denver-becomes-10th-us-diocese-to-restore-order-of-sacraments-of-initiation/ In an article published by ZENIT, as of 2015, ten dioceses in the United States use this model: Saginaw, MI (1995); Great Falls-Billings, MT (1996); Portland, ME (1997); Spokane, WA (1998); Fargo, ND(2002); Gaylord, MI (2003); Tyler, TX (2005); Phoenix, AZ (2005); Honolulu, HI (2015); and Denver, CO (2015).
[iii] See Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s Pastoral Letter, Saints Among Us, for a brief historical background to the restored order at https://archden.org/saints/.
[iv] Code of Canon Law, Canons 879–896.
[v] Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1285. See also Code of Canon Law, Canon 879.
[vi] CCC, par. 1324, Lumen Gentium, art. 11.
[vii] John 3:5.
[viii] CCC, par. 1305.
[ix] CCC, par. 1308: Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need “ratification” to become effective.
[x] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, art. 18.
[xi] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2005), 122-123.
This article appeared on pages 28-29 of the printed edition.