Due to the pandemic earlier this year, the confirmations in our parish were postponed.
As a result, I have recently had to serve at several confirmation Masses, and have heard many theories among the assembled families as to what confirmation, as a sacrament, actually signifies.
Many of these theories are interesting – some are simply mistaken.
When I asked certain children and their parents how they would describe confirmation, many responded with the words, “it is the sacrament of maturity or commitment”.
It appears that this understanding is related to the fact that confirmation is, in many places, the last sacrament of initiation received.
It is also often the last time we see those confirmed ever darken the door of a church.
Moreover, there is an express period of catechesis and examination that proceeds the administration of the sacrament, placing much emphasis on the “readiness” of the candidate to be confirmed, as well as their now “adult choice” to take up their Christian calling.
And this is precisely where the understanding of confirmation goes astray.
As a note, it is worth pointing out that when Pope St Pius X lowered the age at which children could receive Holy Communion in 1910, he had no intention of otherwise interfering with the order in which the sacraments were received.
Yet the unforeseen consequence was to leave children experiencing full participation in the Eucharist without having received the sacrament which is necessarily prior to it in the very grammar and logic of the three sacraments of initiation themselves; baptism and confirmation being “ordered to the Eucharist […] the centre and goal of all sacramental life”. (Benedict XVI)
Having acknowledged this fact, we can move to an examination of the distinct theological character of confirmation.
Thomas Aquinas certainly states that the grace received in the sacrament is directed towards “growing and maturing in holiness”. (ST IIIa, q. 72, art. 7, ad.1)
However, he also explicitly links the sacrament to the event of Pentecost, strengthening those to be confirmed just as the apostles were once strengthened. (ST IIIa, q. 72, art. 8)
Thus, as our young confirmandi were so ready to relate, it is true that the sacrament concerns the gift of “spiritual strength which is proper to maturity”. (ST IIIa, q. 72, art. 2)
The Second Vatican Council also took up the same language and theme of Pentecost when it spoke of those confirmed as being endowed “with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ”. (Lumen Gentium, 11)
Thus confirmation, as a visible sign of invisible grace, is clearly intended to be the sacramental manifestation of the propulsive force of Pentecost upon the lives of the apostles and those who follow in the apostolic faith.
And as a direct result of this conclusion, confirmation clearly has nothing to do with the learned readiness, “maturity” or “choice” of the person to be confirmed.
The scriptural witness of Pentecost testifies to the apostles being a huddled group of terrified, unreceptive individuals who are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into fearless evangelists and martyrs for Christ. (Acts 2; John 20)
They were demonstrably unsuited and unready for the lives and task before them; the grace necessary was given to them by God as a gift.
If confirmation is the sacramental manifestation of that reality, then the readiness – whether through catechesis, personal choice or otherwise – of the human person to receive the grace on offer is not ultimately the issue.
Confirmation is a sacramental sign of the transformative power of God which is overshadowed whenever emphasis is placed on the “maturity” or “choice” of the candidate.
As Monsignor Paul McPartlan quite rightly says, all of the sacraments are “free, unmerited gifts to us”.
Pentecost was not a sign that mankind had suddenly become more receptive to the workings of God but that, in Christ, mankind is now made receptive to grace in a degree previously unimagined.
What happened on that day – and what thus happens with each sacramental celebration of that reality – is a proclamation of the fact that, as Dominican Father Liam Walsh puts it, “the time for pedagogues and being led by the hand and childish religion is ended. The régime of grace has come of age.”
It is in that regard that confirmation is a sacrament of Christian maturity – in grace.
It has demonstrably little to do with the readiness of the person to choose to receive it, a theological reality that is evidenced by the fact that an infant in danger of death can be confirmed. (CIC, c. 889, § 2)
Confirmation certainly concerns our maturity and identity as Christians, but it is our identity as new creatures of grace, not our identity as we choose it or confect it.
It is a sacramental “confirmation” of the fact that existence as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ necessarily entails a proclamation of the Gospel in whatever form that may take, as the words of Lumen Gentium imply.
Moreover, there is an inherent danger that conceiving confirmation as a “mature choice” or an elected “commitment” places more emphasis on the candidate and his or her ability to once more engage in the modern penchant for a chronic consumerist reinvention of the self, rather than the mysterious workings of God in grace.
In reviewing the inherent theology of confirmation, it is apparent – in the words of Dominican Father Austin P. Milner– that “confirmation is not and has never been a sacrament of commitment: it is the sacrament of the mystery of Pentecost”.
Overlooking this fact raises the danger of conveying a distorted idea of Christianity and of confirmation, precisely because framing confirmation as a “choice” made in Christian “maturity” seems to emphasise a sense of pelagian self-perfectibility over the mysterious workings of grace.
If that is the final catechetical message children receive, it is little wonder that they thereafter abandon the Church.