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Sacraments Part 4: Confirmation

Sacraments Part 4: Confirmation

What we do is what we believe

What you need to know about this often misunderstood sacrament

Confirmation may be the most misunderstood of all our seven sacraments. Perhaps this is because its ritual practices have had such a rich and varied history. Are we made soldiers of Christ?  Are we more ‘completely’ baptized? Is it simply a rite of passage for Catholic teenagers?

Even in the early Church, rituals occurred before and after the baptismal bath and before the Eucharistic meal.   These included anointing(s), the laying on of hands, and consignation (signing with the cross). Eventually, these actions were reserved to the bishop and, in the West, were separated from baptism and Eucharist. With changes in praxis came changes in theological understanding. For example, a slight slap on the cheek was added to remind the candidate that he/she was to be strong so as to defend and promote the faith. That gesture is no longer used. The laying on of hands and the anointing with chrism continue to serve as signs of the strengthening of baptismal grace and the conferral of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of confirmation is conferred through the anointing of the forehead with sacred chrism, which is done with the laying on of hands and through the words ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation, Pope Paul VI, 1972).

1 increase and deepening of baptismal grace

2 unites us more firmly to Christ

3 increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us

4 gives us special strength to spread and defend the faith by word and action.

Like baptism, confirmation is given only once, for it imparts a special indelible ‘spiritual mark’ or ‘character.’

The bishop is the usual minister of confirmation, though priests may also confer the sacrament. For instance, your pastor may administer all three sacraments of initiation – baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist – to the Elect at the Easter Vigil. Just as the Church did nearly two thousand years ago!


The Holy Oils

On Holy Thursday at the Mass of Chrism, the bishopblesses and consecrates these three oils used during the year in ourparishes. We use holy oils in four sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation,Anointing of the Sick,  Holy Orders and in the dedication of a churchand altar.

1 Oil of the Sick is used to anoint the head and hands of a sick person.

2 Oil of Catechumens is used to anoint infants on the chest during baptisms and catechumens during their period of preparation

3 Chrism is used to anoint the crown of an infant’s head after baptism;the forehead of a confirmation candidate; the hands during a priest’sordination or the head during a bishop’s; and the new altar of a church


Timeline: 7 major developments in the practice of confirmation

Old Testament

Ritual anointing of king or prophet (1 Samuel 16: 12-13)

New Testament

Holy Spirit is present at Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3: 13-17; Jn 1:33-34)

Jesus promises Paraclete (Jn 16: 7-16; Acts 1:5)

Descent of Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)

Disciples lay hands on new Christians, baptize with the Spirit (Acts 10:44-48, John 3, 2 Cor 3; Eph 1:13, Acts 8:17)

3 to 6th Century

No uniform practice

Post-baptismal anointing by the priest is followed by the bishop laying on hands, anointing and signing on forehead. (Apostolic Const., 360 A.D.)

Irenaeus of Lyons emphasized charismatic gifts

Augustine centered more on Holy Spirit at baptism

Ambrose of Milan stressed laying on of hands

Eastern churches – baptism, chrismation, Communion

The anointings before and after Baptism took on different meanings – exorcistic to prepare for baptism vs. sealing or marking for Christ

416 Innocent I – bishop alone may ‘seal’ (relied on Acts – Peter and John came after a baptism); priest may anoint with oil consecrated by the bishop, but may not sign on forehead

The word ‘confirmation’ is first used at the Council of Orange in 441. Notes that chrism should be used only once.

The first doctrinal explanation of a separate confirmation ceremony is given by Bishop Faustus of Riez in 458: “In baptism we are regenerated to life; after baptism we are confirmed for battle. In baptism we are washed; after baptism we are strengthened.”

5th century

“seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” appears in reconciliation liturgy for heretics – most  notably by Leo the Great

6-13th centuries

Dissolution of rites of initiation in West.

Dioceses become larger, bishop visits less frequently, yet infants need to  be baptized soon after birth (quamprimum)

Communion becomes separate from confirmation – danger of infants spitting up host; then cup is removed in 1200s

In East, practice of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist continues

9th century Rabanus Maurus – “presbyteral (priestly) unction gives Holy Spirit for habitation of God; Episcopal unction gives the grace of the seven-fold spirit – with all the fullness of sanctity and of knowledge and of power.”

Infrequency of sacrament; parents reminded to have child confirmed

Alcuin (730-804) notes, one is confirmed “so that the person may be strengthened to preach to others”

Confirmation named as one of seven sacraments at Council of Lyons, 1274

Aquinas sees analogy with bodily growth and spiritual growth; confirmation seen as sacrament of maturity; the grace of confirmation is an increase of grace already present at baptism, which causes grace initially. “For in baptism power is received for performing those things which pertain to one’s own salvation in so far as one lives for oneself. In confirmation a person receives power for engaging in the spiritual battle against the enemies of the faith” (Summa Theologiae III).

15th to 17th Century

1439 Council of Florence uses these scholastic ideas of ‘strengthening’ and bishop as ordinary minister; adds imposition of hands

Changes to Roman Pontificals (books used by bishops) include chrismation, laying on of hands, kiss of peace, and alapa (slap on cheek)

Trent Confirmation defended as sacrament; defends use of chrism; affirms bishop as ordinary minister

18 to 19th Century

Benedict XIV reintroduces individual imposition of hand(s) with simultaneous signing on forehead; bishop’s thumb moistened with chrism

1897 Leo XIII Confirmation before first Communion

20th Century

1910 Pius X Communion at age of reason, Confirmation after

Vatican II

Places confirmation again in context of fullness of initiation rather than ritualizing a rite of passage or maturity.

Sacraments are a sign of God’s grace

Called for reform of rite

Connection to bishop, apostolic origins of Church (CCC 1292).

1971 Pope Paul VI promulgates new Rite of Confirmation; writes  Apostolic Constitution – Divinae Consortium Naturae