The Sacrament of Confirmation

Issue: What is the sacrament of Confirmation? How is it significant today?

Response: As explained by the Fathers of Vatican II in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium), “Bound more intimately to the Church by the sacrament of confirmation, [the baptized] are endowed by the Holy Spirit with special strength. Hence they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith both by word and by deed as true witnesses of Christ” (no. 11).[1] Confirmation completes baptismal grace by strengthening the individual with power of the Holy Spirit, and enlivens the graces of the other sacraments (cf. Catechism, no. 1285). In the Eastern Catholic Churches, Confirmation is known as “Chrismation.”

Discussion: A sacrament is a physical sign of invisible grace instituted by Jesus Christ as a means of giving sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is the greatest personal encounter with Him in this life, and it prepares us for eternal union with God.

“Wait for the promise of the Father”

The scriptural foundations for the sacrament of Confirmation are largely found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. However, the Holy Spirit was at work all through the Old Testament. God’s breath brought about creation (Gen. 1:2). God breathed life into Adam and, therefore, us (Gen. 2:7). God’s Spirit rested on the prophets. Joel in particular prophesied the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost (Joel 2:28-29) and was quoted by Peter in his testimony on that day (Acts 2:17-18).

Before Pentecost, in Acts 1:8, Jesus responds to a question about the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. The apostles are thinking of an “earthly kingdom” and Jesus counters with “heavenly kingdom”: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” This new power is from Confirmation. Recall that the Gospels tell of the apostles performing miracles by the power of the Lord. The apostles were already baptized and had faith—however weak—in Jesus. Also, the apostles already knew of
the Holy Spirit. They knew that He spoke through the prophets (cf. Acts 1:16) and that He would help them choose an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:26).

This power Jesus describes in Acts 1:8 must be based on something additional to their current walk with Christ.

The second chapter of Acts is the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, when the Apostles gain a zeal to proclaim the “mighty works of God.” Their boldness sharply contrasts their weakness manifested at the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. While Baptism is the sacrament of new life, Confirmation gives birth to that life. Baptism makes us adopted sons of God and Christ’s brothers, whereas Confirmation constitutes us adopted sons in power and unites us more fully to the active messianic mission of Christ in the world.

The Apostles in turn went out and confirmed others, showing Confirmation to be an individual and separate sacrament: Peter and John at Samaria (Acts 8:5-6, 14-17) and Paul at Ephesus (Acts 19:5-6). Also the Holy Spirit came down on Jews and Gentiles alike in Caesarea, prior to their baptisms. Recognizing this as a confirmation by the Holy Spirit, Peter commanded that they be baptized (cf. Acts 10:47).

Sacrament of Power

While Baptism is the gateway to all sacraments, Confirmation enlivens the graces of Baptism to make the other sacraments more efficacious in our lives. As at Baptism, Confirmation places an indelible mark on the soul of the confirmand. This “character” is the seal of the Holy Spirit Who clothes the confirmand with power to be a witness of Christ (Catechism, no. 1304). In completion of baptismal grace, Confirmation strengthens our bonds of unity with the Father as His adopted sons, with the Son as He has redeemed us, with the Holy Spirit as He gives us His gifts, and with the Church as we all belong to the family of God (cf. Catechism no. 1303). Furthermore, Confirmation “gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross (Catechism, no. 1303).”

This increase and deepening of baptismal grace through Confirmation in turn better disposes us to receive the graces of the other sacraments and makes their graces more efficacious in our lives. It is the second sacrament of initiation, and is traditionally received before First Communion. As noted by the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments on 30 June 1932,

[T]he same Sacred Congregation declared it was truly opportune and even more conformable to the nature and effects of the sacrament of confirmation, that children should not approach the sacred table for the first time unless after the reception of the sacrament of confirmation, which is, as it were, the complement of baptism and in which is given the fullness of the Holy Spirit.[2]

Confirmation strengthens the graces of the other sacraments in various ways. Recall that Baptism makes us priests, prophets and kings. Confirmation perfects our priestly consecration, anointing us for an active role in Christian worship, of which the celebration of Mass is the most important. In this way, Confirmation is oriented toward the celebration of the Eucharist (cf. Catechism, no. 1285). Hence, in the rite of Christian initiation for adults, Confirmation is administered before First Communion. Furthermore, the spiritual maturity made possible by Confirmation is required for ordination into the priesthood.[3] While Baptism is necessary for valid ordination, in addition the Church requires that the candidate be entered deeply into the mysteries of Eucharistic worship. This is made possible through the sacrament of Confirmation.

The Church strongly recommends Confirmation before the reception of Marriage (cf. canon 1065§1). In our age of divorce and family destruction, this sacrament provides the necessary grace to help the couple persevere in trials. Also, a priest will confirm someone gravely ill, who has not yet received the sacrament, before administering last rites. Finally, the Holy Spirit causes in the confirmed Christian a deepening or intensification of those gifts of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, which make our mind docile and amenable to what God asks of us. Thus the penitent is better disposed to the graces of
the sacrament of Penance.

Minister, Matter and Form

Anointing with oil was done to make someone or something sacred, set apart for God, and is a sign of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, kings, prophets and priests were anointed—they were people set apart for God and given the power of the Holy Spirit—to carry out their offices. Within the sacrament of Confirmation, this symbolism is evident.

“[Bishops] are the original ministers of confirmation” (LG 26). Priests participate as ministers dependent on the bishop. In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the priest who baptizes also confirms during the same celebration. However, he does so with sacred chrism consecrated by the lawful authority of his ritual Church (Catechism, no. 1312). In the Latin Rite, the priest may confer Confirmation only if the law allows him or if the bishop grants him the necessary faculty to do so (cf. canon 882; Catechism, no. 1313). Canon law allows Latin priests to confirm under the following circumstances:

1º within the limits of their territory, those who are equivalent in law to the diocesan bishop (ie: apostolic administrator or diocesan administrator);

2º with regard to the person in question, the presbyter who by reason of office or mandate of the diocesan bishop baptizes one who is no longer an infant or one already baptized whom he admits into the full communion of the Catholic Church (ie: During Easter Vigil Mass when converts are received into the Church);

3º with regard to those in danger of death, the pastor or indeed any presbyter.

Anyone who has been baptized may be confirmed (cf. canon 889§1). The matter for the sacrament of Confirmation is chrism (known as “myron” in the Eastern Catholic Churches) properly consecrated by a bishop (cf. canon 880). In the Latin Rite, “[t]he matter suitable for a sacrament is olive oil or, according to local conditions, another oil extracted from plants. The chrism is made of oil and some aromatic substance.”[4] In the Eastern Catholic Churches, “The holy myron…is a mixture of olive oil and other herbs and aromatics, sometimes up to forty.”[5]

The form of Confirmation is anointing and the laying on of hands. Pope Paul VI provided the Latin Rite with the current formulary in his apostolic constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation. He decreed:

The sacrament of confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of the hand, and through the words: Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.[6]

‘In the Eastern Churches…the more significant parts of the body are anointed with myron: forehead, eyes, nose, ears, lips, breast, back, hands, and feet. Each anointing is accompanied by the formula: “The seal of the gift that is the Holy Spirit” (Catechism, no. 1300).’

A Life of Power

The traditional order of receiving the sacraments of initiation is Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist. As various documents of local councils attest, the accepted age of Confirmation in the Latin Rite churches was the age of reason, which is presumed at age seven. Despite this well documented and ancient practice, by the turn of the twentieth century it was common for children in the Latin Rite churches to receive Confirmation and First Communion after the age of ten, at times in the same celebration. When Pope St. Pius X advanced the age of First Communion to the age of reason, most dioceses did not advance the age of Confirmation. As a result, in most Latin Rite dioceses of the United States, Confirmation is deferred until after First Communion, usually until a person is in the teenage years. Neglecting the historical reasons for the practice, proponents of this practice claim that Confirmation is a sacrament of Christian maturity, and is a kind of “rite of passage” into adulthood. Some will also point out that deferring the sacrament until the teenage years keeps the students coming back to religious education classes until they are adults. This reasoning is not consistent with the ancient traditions, teaching and
theology of Confirmation.

As explained in the Catechism,

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. St. Thomas reminds us of this:

Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: “For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.” Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood (no. 1308, footnote omitted).

On July 3, 1998, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington issued a letter, policy statement and historical overview with questions and answers on the sacrament of Confirmation.[7] In his policy statement, he decreed that by the close of the Jubilee Year 2000, “all the baptized are to receive the laying on of hands and the anointing with sacred chrism before participating in the eucharistic life of the church.” He pointed out the historical development of the practice as we know it today, and stated,

As a bishop, I feel that the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist may have suffered because of this. For this reason, I am deeply committed to this renewal of the order of celebration of the sacraments for all without exceptions. It is a pastoral practice that is clear, unambiguous and faithful to an enduring understanding of the sacraments.

While there are many who support this return to the “traditional order” of the sacraments of initiation, including Pope Benedict XVI, this remains a decision left by the Magisterium to each individual bishop.

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Précis of Official Catholic Teaching on the Sacraments

Faith Facts, Answers to Catholic Questions; Suprenant and Gray

Catholic for a Reason; Hahn, Scott, et al.

Courageous Love; Mitch, Stacy

Mission of the Messiah; Gray, Timothy

To order, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

• Signs of the Christ: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church • Reception of Holy Communion • First Confession / First Communion • What Must be Done for a Valid Baptism? • “Let the Children Come to Me”: Why the Church Baptizes Babies • Anglican-Catholic Relations

© 1999 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Last edited 10/2014

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[1] Translation found in Walter Abbott, S.J., The Documents of Vatican II, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” (New York, Herder and Herder) 1966, 28.

[2] Translation in: T. Lincoln Bouscaren, S.J., The Canon Law Digest (CLD) (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co. 1934) vol. 1, 349.

[3] Code of Canon Law, canon 1033.

[4] Rite for the Blessing of Oils and Rite of Consecrating the Chrism, nos. 3,4; as cited in William Woestman, OMI, Sacraments: Initiation, Penance, Anointing of the Sick (Ottawa, Canada: St. Paul University, 1992), 76.

[5] Victor J. Pospishil, Eastern Catholic Church Law (New York, St. Maron Publications 1996), 392.

[6] As cited in The Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. 1 (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press 1990), 477. (original emphasis)

[7] For a free copy of Bishop Skylstad’s statements, call Catholic Responses toll-free: (800) MY-FAITH (693-2484).

Date created:
2/24/2005
Date edited:
10/10/2007

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