“You do this often?” I was asked the other night. “About 70 times a year,” I replied to the astonishment of my interlocutor. The subject of the conversation was the Sacrament of Confirmation. Actually, in any given year, there may well be in excess of a hundred Confirmations across the Diocese. I am grateful to Archbishop Daniel Cronin, Archbishop Emeritus of Hartford, who generously assists me in confirming throughout the Fairfield County. I also remain grateful to Bishop William McCormick and to the late Bishop Daniel Hart, as well as to a number of priests, who have administered Confirmation in the Diocese of Bridgeport, through the years.
Opportunities for the Bishop
And what a joy and privilege it is to share such a great sacrament with so many young people. At the purely social level, Confirmation provides an opportunity to visit with brother priests, deacons, and lay leaders. It is also enables me to be with a large number of parishioners and visitors. As I enter churches filled with so many people – parents, grandparents, godparents, and friends – I am in the company of many who are seeking what is best for the young people I am about to confirm.
It is also an opportunity for me to share the Gospel not only with the confirmandi (Latin for “about to be confirmed”) but also with those already confirmed, perhaps many years ago. Following Mass and Confirmation, I visit with the newly confirmed as well as their parents and godparents. On those occasions, young people ask me to bless religious objects and tell me (at my prompting) whether they are rooting for the Mets, the Yankees, the Red Sox, or some other team. Many tell me about their schools or about special talents in music, drama, and sports. Often I am asked to pray for a loved one who is sick and dying or for some other special intention. Once in a while, parishioners will remind me of some exchange of correspondence, compliment their priests, or ask me a question – all while the cameras are clicking away. It’s organized chaos and it’s fun!
Confirmation also gives me the chance to thank the Directors of Religious Education, School Principals, catechists, youth ministers, and others who work so diligently to form our young people in the faith and in the truths and values that flow from faith. Theirs is not an easy task. We are blessed with wonderful, talented, and idealistic young people. At the same time, they tend to lead extremely busy lives, often with little time allotted for religious education and for Sunday Mass. Like it or not, at increasingly earlier ages, they also face a lot of pressure to engage in destructive behaviors such as premarital sex, drinking, and illicit drugs. These behaviors are contrary both to the Gospel and to good common sense. Our catechists and youth ministers are on the front lines in trying to help young people learn and embrace the faith so as to overcome these challenges both to their friendship with God and to their human dignity as well as to keep them on the path of integrity and discipleship.
Often, prior to Confirmation, I have a Q & A session with the confirmandi to ensure that they have a good grasp of the sacraments, especially Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Thankfully, many parishes have highly developed Confirmation programs that include systematic instruction in the faith, prayer and retreat opportunities, service projects, and personal interviews of the Confirmation candidates. When I visit a parish for Confirmation, I am delighted to express not only my personal thanks but also the gratitude we all should feel toward those who give of themselves so generously to our young people.
The Heart of the Sacrament
The “social side” of Confirmation leads us into the very heart of this Sacrament of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Holy Spirit plays a pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation and thus in the life of the whole Church. In the Old Testament, the prophets proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon the expected Messiah (Anointed One) and upon the people he would redeem. Even a rapid survey of the New Testament shows us that Jesus’ whole life and mission was carried out in union with and under the power of the Holy Spirit. On the Feast of Pentecost we celebrate the day when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, shed their fear, and began proclaiming the Name of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for the world’s salvation. From Pentecost forward, the Holy Spirit has continued to build, animate, and sanctify the Church.
As we see in the Easter liturgical readings from the Acts of the Apostles, on more than occasion the Apostles gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to the newly baptized by the laying on of hands (see Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 145 and 265). Through the centuries, despite the many and varied crises of a 2000 year history, the Church has continued the mission of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. And, just as the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles at Pentecost, so too the fullness of the Holy Spirit is given to God’s People, through their successors, the Bishops, in the sacrament of Confirmation.
The Fullness of the Holy Spirit
In a very real sense, this is what gives me the greatest joy in confirming so many young people through the course of the year. As a successor to the Apostles, I am both humbled and privileged to impart to them the fullness of the Holy Spirit by the prayer of the Church, the laying on of hands, and, most especially, anointing them with Chrism (olive oil mixed with balsam which I consecrate during Holy Week). Through the sacramental signs of Confirmation, our young people share in a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, like that of Pentecost. This effusion of the Holy Spirit impresses on the soul an indelible character or “seal” (thus, the essential words of Confirmation, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit”). This sign or seal remains, at least until death, even if a confirmed person should fall into mortal sin. It permanently signifies a special relationship to Christ who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, seeks to transform our inmost being and our personalities, our character, so that we may live as active and fruitful members of His Body, the Church.
Through Confirmation, the grace of Baptism is perfected. Via Baptism and the frequent reception of the Eucharist, those being confirmed are already initiated into the Church. Thus, Confirmation seals and completes one’s initiation.
But here we should be clear. The Sacrament of Confirmation is not merely an occasion for young people to “ratify” their Baptism, to claim it as their own. Confirmation is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit leading them, throughout their lives, to become “more like Christ”. It thus binds them more firmly to Christ and to the Church as it awakens in their hearts the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Tools for Discipleship
These gifts are enumerated in the prayer the bishop prays over those being confirmed: “wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, wonder and awe.” They are the Spirit’s tools for discipleship, practical gifts that can prompt the confirmed to continue studying their faith, to live every stage of their lives as true followers of Christ and witnesses to his love, and to respect and depend on the grace of the Church’s sacramental life, especially Sunday Eucharist and Penance.
These gifts, if accepted and lived, lead to what we call the “fruits of the Holy Spirit” – the effects of welcoming the Holy Spirit in our lives. Based on St. Paul’s enumeration at Galatians 5:22-23, these gifts include: “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.” As young minds and hearts are opened to the working of the Holy Spirit, not only are they to sense the grace of belonging to the Church but also their special calling or vocation to live and serve as members of the Church. Even though our young people tend mostly to be confirmed in the 8th grade or 1st year high school, it is not too early for them to consider how Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is calling them to spend their lives, whether that be the priesthood, consecrated life, marriage and family, or a single person in the world. Everyone has a vocation that can only be discovered with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Prayers, Invitations and Challenges
Confirmation is a joy and a grace but also a challenge. As noted above, the grace of one’s Confirmation can be stirred up even after years of alienation from God and the Church, by accepting the grace of repentance and by opening our hearts afresh to the living Word of God as it comes to us through the Church. As I confirm our young people, I pray that their faith will not fail; that they will not face the immense challenges of growing toward maturity alone, cut off from the sacraments and the support of a community of faith; that parents and godparents will model for them what it means to be a true practicing Catholic. And I pray that they will have both the insight and the freedom, both gifts of the Holy Spirit, to know God’s will for their lives and to find happiness in doing it. And so I offer three challenges, which are also invitations:
First, I invite the newly confirmed to join youth groups in you parishes and otherwise to seek ways of remaining involved in your parishes. Inasmuch as you allow the Holy Spirit to work in your hearts, you will find your way to the Sacraments: Mass every Sunday and the regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance.
Second, I invite and encourage parents to lead by example, by daily prayer, continued reflection on the Church’s faith, and above all, fidelity to Sunday Mass and the sacrament of Penance.
Third, even if you were confirmed years ago but have lapsed in the practice of the faith, allow the Spirit to stir up his gifts in your hearts so that you may find your way to the company of believers, the Church, and grow in holiness as a follower of Christ.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful!
This article first appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and appears here by kind permission of the Editor.
This article is originally found on pages 5-6 of the printed edition.