It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace (Roman Ritual, Rite of Confirmation (OC), Introduction 1). For “by the Sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed” (LG 11; cf. OC, Introduction 2). (Catechism #1285)
So what is the Sacrament of Confirmation all about? Is it just a nice maturity ritual within the Catholic Church? Is it simply your own adult decision to be Catholic? Is it your graduation ceremony from religious education classes?!? No, it’s not any of these.
Confirmation can be confusing at times. Perhaps the name itself can be misleading. It is thought, at times, that Confirmation is your opportunity to “confirm” your faith. Well, yes, you certainly must do this as you receive this sacrament. But this does not get at the heart of Confirmation. Confirmation is not so much about you confirming your choice to be Catholic; rather, it’s about God the Holy Spirit confirming you! It’s much more something that God does to you and your eternal soul than something you do for God or even yourself.
Like Baptism, Confirmation changes your soul. You receive a spiritual character (an indelible mark) on your soul. And this marking becomes a permanent source of grace for you throughout eternity. It’s God’s way of making a permanent commitment to you by deepening His covenant commitment made to you at Baptism. In other words, at Baptism, God said to you, “You are my son”; “You are my daughter.” Now that you have grown and matured in your faith, God says, “I am deepening my bond with you and empowering you to live out your baptismal calling to a greater degree.” God knows we need help to live out our baptismal dignity and calling. He knows we cannot do it by ourselves. Therefore, He gives us the fullness of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation so as to provide all we need to live as we are called. What a grace!
To understand this precious and life-changing gift from God, let’s begin with an understanding of the promise of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures as well as the institution of this Sacrament in those same Scriptures. Don’t skip this section! A good scriptural understanding of the Holy Spirit will add much insight into the living out of your Christian faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What Scripture Reveals
Scripture reveals this wondrous gift of Confirmation in many ways. It’s seen in a veiled way in the Old Testament, promised by Jesus in the Gospels, and made fully manifest in the Acts of the Apostles. Below are some Scriptural references to Confirmation. They help set a good foundation for our understanding of this sacrament.
Isaiah: Isaiah 11:2 speaks of the Holy Spirit resting upon the promised Messiah. This is Jesus, the Son of God. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit and, as a result, will manifest in His very person all the glorious gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD…
Isaiah 61:1–3 says the following:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God; To comfort all who mourn; to place on those who mourn in Zion, a diadem instead of ashes, to give them oil of gladness instead of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a faint spirit.
Both of these passages reveal that the Messiah will be filled with the Holy Spirit. These passages also reveal the effects of the Holy Spirit. Jesus certainly lived these perfectly, since He was perfectly one with the Holy Spirit. But for our purposes in reflecting upon the Sacrament of Confirmation, we should see these gifts and effects of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Messiah as invitations to each of us to also receive these same gifts and these same effects. We are to be Christ to the world and, thus, allow the Holy Spirit to act in us in the same way the Spirit acted in Jesus. This fact is seen in the following passage from the prophet Ezekiel:
I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them. (Ez 36:27)
Gospels: Matthew 3:16 and John 1:32–33, both speak of the baptism of Jesus. At that baptism, we read that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. It’s true that the Holy Spirit was already fully alive in Jesus’ life; so, truth be told, Jesus did not receive the Holy Spirit at this moment. He was already one with the Spirit and the Father. This manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at His baptism took place so that all of us would witness the manifestation of this unity through the eyes of faith. It was a physical and historical manifestation of what was already there.
This episode took place, in part, to reveal to us that there is a Holy Spirit waiting to descend upon us also. Such an outpouring takes place in Baptism, but it also takes place through the unique and total outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Jesus’ witness reveals our own calling in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
The fact that we are all called to receive the Holy Spirit is also made clear in the Gospels. Here are a few passages that reveal this sacred fact:
For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say. (Lk 12:12)
Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: “Rivers of living water will flow from within him.” He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified. (Jn 7:38–39)
But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (Jn 16:7)
Acts of the Apostles: The Acts of the Apostles records the activity within the early Church, after Jesus ascended into Heaven. This is the KEY to understanding the actual Sacrament of Confirmation. Up until this point, we see many promises of the Holy Spirit; and we find, in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ own words, many insights into the effect of the Holy Spirit. But here, in the Acts, we see these promises being fulfilled. We actually see the Spirit descending upon humanity and working wonders in the lives of those receiving the Holy Spirit. This takes place at Pentecost and is recorded in Acts 2:1–4:
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Immediately after being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles went out into the streets and began to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus with boldness and confidence. And another amazing thing happened. They were also given the gift of tongues! With this gift they spoke the Gospel in their language; but, miraculously, all who were gathered heard them speak in their own native language. A close reading of this Scripture reveals that the Apostles were heard in at least fifteen different languages. Of course, everyone was confused and was wondering how this had happened.
At that, Peter stood up and revealed that it was a fulfillment of the Prophet Joel who said:
“It will come to pass in the last days,” God says, “that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. Indeed, upon my servants and my handmaids I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy. And I will work wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire, and a cloud of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the great and splendid day of the Lord, and it shall be that everyone shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 2:17–21)
Peter then went on to proclaim the truth about Jesus to all who were there. He spoke of the fact that Jesus was the Messiah who came into the world from the Father, suffered, died, was buried and rose on the third day. Peter then called everyone to repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And even though there were some who were deeply confused and even angered at Peter for speaking these truths, he did not back down, because he was now empowered by the Holy Spirit.
One of the best ways to understand the effects of the Holy Spirit as given in the Sacrament of Confirmation is to read the entire book of the Acts of the Apostles. Look especially at the fear and timidity the Apostles experienced before Pentecost. They were afraid of being arrested and persecuted and suffering the same fate as Jesus on the Cross. But after Pentecost (Confirmation), they were suddenly bold and filled with incredible gifts and charisms and became powerful instruments of the Gospel. They were now able to carry out the mission they were given by Jesus.
The same is true for us. We may want to fulfill our Christian calling, but all too often we are afraid. Let’s face it. We are often afraid to let our faith in Christ move from our heart to our mouths and actions. There is often a fear that paralyzes us and keeps us from confidently and openly allowing our faith to be made manifest for all to see.
Take, for example, the fact that so many are embarrassed to make the sign of the Cross and say grace before their meal in a restaurant or in any other public setting. Or the fact that it’s hard to post something about our faith on Facebook or other social media. We are often afraid to speak of our love of Christ and to practice our faith openly in our social circles. Why is this? It’s because the Gift of God, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, has not taken hold. Even if we have received the Sacrament of Confirmation, we can still be timid. This tells us that we must open ourselves up all the more to let the effects of the Holy Spirit become active in our lives. Fear must be cast out and confidence must take its place.
Perhaps the best way to start down this road is to understand, more fully, the actual effects of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. With a proper understanding of these effects, we can more easily allow the Holy Spirit to do what He wants to do. So let’s look at what He wants to do.
Effects of Confirmation
You could say that the Apostles didn’t see what hit them. They didn’t see it coming. But when it came, they ran with it. What is this “it?” “It” is the Person of the Holy Spirit made fully present in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Once the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost, they were totally changed. This is clearly seen in their actions. They were now bold, insightful, filled with wisdom and knowledge, charismatic, and focused upon fulfilling the mission given them by the Father. This was a new and exciting journey in their lives, made possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit fully alive within them.
To understand the way God wants to transform you by the Sacrament of Confirmation, let’s look at the effects of Confirmation as outlined in the Catechism #1303:
—it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!”; (Rom 8:15)
—it unites us more firmly to Christ;
—it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
—it renders our bond with the Church more perfect; (LG 11)
—it 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: (Council of Florence (1439): DS 1319; LG 11; 12)
Now before your eyes glaze over, let’s try to discover what these effects actually mean for you in your personal journey of faith. Let’s see how these effects are, in fact, extraordinarily exciting for your daily life!
It roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!”: This statement of faith may go right over your head at first, but let’s look at it this way. Do you want to belong? Do you want to be loved, accepted, cared for and cherished? Do you want to be part of a family that is exceptionally close and supportive? Do you want parents who love you unconditionally and are always there for you? Do you want to love and be loved? Do you want to know others and to be known? Do you want to understand others and to be understood?
Any honest person would recognize within themselves these desires. The answer would be a profound and sincere “yes” to all of the above. Why? Because this is what it means to be human! It’s what we are made for.
“Divine filiation” simply means that Confirmation deepens our bond with God the Father. At baptism, we are made sons and daughters of God. But Confirmation strengthens that bond in that it enables us to “cry, ‘Abba Father!’” This is interesting, and it takes a bit of insight to properly understand. Confirmation does not make God the Father love us any more than He already does. That would be impossible. It does not mean that we now become even more of a son or daughter of God. Rather, it has to do with our newfound ability to cry out that God is our Father! It means that Confirmation enables us to realize this gift, given at Baptism, all the more! It not only enables us to realize we are a son or daughter, it also enables us to profess this reality with our whole being. It gives a new strength and zeal to claim God as our Father.
By analogy, it would be like a teenager who has a bad attitude toward his parents and thinks they don’t understand him. This all-too-common feeling on the part of a teenager reveals that some teens do not yet understand the beautiful and profound gift of a parent. Now imagine that this same teen grows up, gets married and has a child of his own. In the act of becoming a parent, this onetime rebellious teen suddenly realizes what it means to also be a child. He starts to realize the love that a parent has, and he begins to realize the profound commitment made by a parent. As a result of being a parent himself, he begins to love his own parents all the more. His love and admiration for his own parents grow as his love for his own children increases.
Similarly, with Confirmation, we are given the grace to share the Gospel with others and, in a sense, nurture others in the faith as a parent nurtures a child. We are strengthened to be instruments of the divine love of the Father for others. And, in the exercise of this responsibility, we also begin to understand our own profound commitment and relationship to God as our Father. We discover more of what it means to be a son or daughter, and this enables us to more deeply “cry out” to God with a profound and all-consuming love.
It unites us more firmly to Christ: The Eucharist, as we will see in the next chapter, unites us profoundly with Christ. In that sacrament, we receive His very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity! But Confirmation also unites us more firmly to Christ Jesus. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one, and they are both united to the Father in a perfect unity. So, if we are more intimately united to the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and enabled to fully “cry out” that God is our Father, then the logical conclusion is that we are also more deeply united to God the Son. It’s impossible to be more united with the Holy Spirit and not, at the same time, be more deeply united to the Son, who is one with the Holy Spirit.
This is significant because the Son of God became man. He became a human in the person of Jesus. Jesus, therefore, is the perfection of human nature and is therefore the one who we are called to imitate as Christians. But we are called to do more than just imitate Jesus; we are called to be united with Him, to live in Him, to have Him live in us, and to be His very hands and feet, His mouth and heart, His entire body in the world. We are called to be Christ in this world, and it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we are uniquely able to do just that to a more perfect degree. The Holy Spirit enables us to live out our mission of being transformed in Christ Jesus.
Yes, this happens in Baptism, but it is firmed up and strengthened in Confirmation. As the Holy Spirit descends upon us, we are, in a sense, “supercharged” to be more like Christ. Jesus had the perfection of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Confirmation, we also are more fully perfected with these gifts, enabling us to be more like Christ.
It increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us: The Gifts of the Holy Spirit enable us to fully live the Christian life. There are seven of these gifts, which together offer us all we need to fully live the life of Christ. Below are these seven gifts. I’d encourage you to take them and reflect upon them prayerfully. They’d actually be a good source of prayer and meditation. They are also a good examination of conscience. As you ponder these Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, you are most certainly going to find that you have not perfected them. That’s OK! Discovering where you are lacking in the Holy Spirit is the first step in deepening your bond with the Holy Spirit so that these gifts may increase.
The Gifts are broken up into two sections:
Helping me know God’s will:
Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge
Helping me do God’s will:
Fortitude, Reverence, Fear of the Lord
Here is a summary of each gift. Again, read them slowly and perhaps take them to prayer. If you have been confirmed, you can be certain that God wants to increase these Gifts in your life.
Helps you see life from God’s point of view.
Helps you see the real value of persons, events, things.
Keeps you from foolishly judging by appearances.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Seeing things from God’s perspective brings harmony and peace!
Helps you comprehend all the truths of God you’ve learned since childhood. For example, Jesus “opened their minds” to understand the Scriptures! (Lk 24:45)
Helps you not only know what God says but also deeply understand its meaning.
Makes sense of the most difficult experiences of life, such as suffering.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” You see and understand!
Helps you seek advice and offer correct advice to others.
Helps you be open to the good advice of parents, teachers, peers, priests, friends, etc.
Shows that you need others in your life so as to make good decisions.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Helping others also helps you!
Helps you realize that truth is necessary and far more helpful than opinions.
Helps you know what God wants you to do in particular situations.
Helps you avoid the many temptations of the world by seeing them correctly.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Sorrow helps you learn from past mistakes!
Gives a “supernatural courage” in matters of faith and morality.
Gives firmness of mind and will to do good and avoid evil.
Gives well-founded hope of persevering through difficulties.
Gives a new depth of patience, peace and joy through difficult situations.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” You will press on when life is hard!
Gives a deep adoration for God, the Mass, the Scriptures and all things pertaining to God.
Gives a new respect for every person as an “imago dei” (image of God).
Helps you revere life from conception to natural death.
Gives a greater respect for elders, parents, country, legitimate authority.
Helps you love the sinner while despising sin.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” You love all that is good!
Fear of the Lord…
Begins with loving God because you dread loss of Him and the sadness this causes.
Moves deeper when your “fear” turns into a fear of offending God or others out of love for them.
Makes you keenly aware of anything that may harm your relationship with God or others.
Makes evident how attachments to earthly things can harm your relationships.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” You become detached from everything that is not important!
It renders our bond with the Church more perfect: The Church, as explained in detail in Book One of this series, is the Body of Christ. And if Confirmation more firmly unites us to Christ Jesus, then it is a logical conclusion that we are also more deeply united to the Church herself through the Sacrament of Confirmation. By becoming more like Christ, we become a fuller member of His Body, the Church. As a result, we are called to live out the mission of the Church in the unique way the Holy Spirit enables us.
In John’s Gospel, Chapter 20:21–22, Jesus appeared to His Apostles, inviting them to fulfill their unique mission by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This was a particular call to the Apostles to share in the mission of Jesus’ priesthood. But all of us should see in this Scripture Jesus’ universal call to continue His very mission by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Confirmation makes us full members of the Church, since we receive all we need to act as members of Christ’s Body. We are His hands and feet, and we have what we need to fulfill this high calling.
It 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: This last effect of Confirmation, spoken of in the Catechism, is seen in all of the above explanations. Specifically, it points out that our witnessing to the faith is done “by word and action” and that we are enabled to do this “boldly” and to “never be ashamed of the Cross.”
This goes to the heart of our temptation toward fear. The world can be tough on Christians. We can feel like we stand out. We experience many sorts of persecutions and humiliations when we live our faith. We experience even more persecution and humiliations by the world when we boldly profess the truth by our words and actions.
Take, for example, the truths about human sexuality, marriage, and abortion. These truths of our faith are not popular in the world. Unfortunately, when we speak them with compassion and love, they are not always received that way. Many will attack these truths and, in so doing, will attack us as their messengers. We do need to be careful that when speaking truths that are hard for people to receive, we do so only out of love and compassion. Nonetheless, we should not be surprised if the world challenges and even attacks as we act as instruments of the Gospel. For that reason, we need the Holy Spirit. We need the grace, courage, boldness and love God gives so as to be able to carry out this mission to the world that so desperately needs the truth.
Receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation
The Sacrament of Confirmation, being one of the Sacraments of Initiation, is intended to be given to every baptized Christian. In the Latin Rite of the Church, Confirmation can be given any time after the age of reason (about seven years old). Interestingly, the Eastern Catholic Church has the tradition of administering the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist together in infancy. This reveals the unity of these three Sacraments. The Latin Rite of the Church waits to offer Confirmation and Eucharist until the age of reason, which emphasizes the free choice to receive these sacraments as well as the free choice to live out the Christian faith. Often times, particular dioceses or parishes will set the age of Confirmation even later, such as middle school or high school. There are various reasons this is done, but what is important to know is that the universal law of the Latin Church allows for the reception of Confirmation any time after the age of reason and allows the various conferences of bishops in each country to decide on a more specific age. Many countries leave it up to the local bishop to decide the exact age of Confirmation in his diocese.
Another interesting fact is that, at least theologically speaking, it seems preferable to receive Confirmation prior to receiving the Eucharist. Though this does not always happen for more practical reasons, it is still the norm. The Catechism, for example, presents the teaching on Confirmation right after the section on Baptism and right before the section on the Eucharist.
Another practical thing to consider is the minister of Confirmation. Ideally, the bishop of the local diocese will be the one to administer this sacrament. Why? Because it symbolically emphasizes the bond that is established with the Church. The bishop is not only the chief shepherd of the local diocese, he is also the primary sign of the unity within that local church (diocese). Additionally, since the Sacrament of Confirmation offers the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it is appropriate that this Sacrament be given by the one who has the fullness of the priesthood in the local church. And that is the bishop. However, for practical reasons, there are times when another priest is entrusted with the responsibility of Confirmation. This is done by delegation from the bishop and imparts the same grace imparted by the bishop.
Confirmation, like Baptism, is given once and only once. After it is given, the grace is always there. Even if someone is not fully open to the grace of this Sacrament at the time of Confirmation, they can always open their hearts at a later time. It’s as if the grace of this Sacrament lays dormant in the soul waiting to be tapped into and experienced.
Signs and Symbols
Chrism: Chrism is a mixture of oil and fragrance. The oil is a sign of anointing, joy, healing, cleansing, beauty and strength. It symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit and, in fact, brings about this spiritual anointing. The fragrance symbolizes the sweetness of Christ, which must always permeate our lives. Others will come to know we are Christians simply by the fragrance of Christ’s love that flows from us as a result of Confirmation.
Chrism is mixed and blessed by the bishop every year during Holy Week at the Chrism Mass. This is significant in that, even if the bishop is not able to be the one conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parish, he is still present in that the oil used at Confirmation previously was consecrated by him.
Laying on of Hands: The bishop (or priest) who confers the Sacrament of Confirmation, places his hands on the head of the one to be confirmed. This action is a sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s a bestowing of this grace from person to person, from the ordained minister acting in the Person of Christ to the one receiving this full outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Character: It’s also important to understand that the Sacrament of Confirmation imparts a spiritual character, or seal, upon the one receiving this Sacrament. This is also referred to as an “indelible mark.” Though this marking or seal is not visible, it is symbolized by the anointing with the chrism upon the forehead with the sign of the Cross. During this anointing, the bishop (or priest) says, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The Bottom Line is the Upper Limit
Confirmation is the wondrous Gift that was promised in the Old Testament, reaffirmed by Jesus, and fulfilled after Jesus’ Resurrection. This grace is offered to all. And to the extent that we open our hearts to this grace, this Sacrament can change our lives!
The fact that God gave us this Sacrament is proof that He wants all of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit alive within each of us. The goal is not to allow only some of the gifts to take hold partially; rather, the goal is to allow all of the gifts to take hold in a complete and total way. This is done when we allow ourselves to be drawn into a deep and personal relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Yes, let’s not forget that the Holy Spirit is a Person! A divine Person. We are called to know and love the Holy Spirit. This can, at first, seem like a strange concept. It may seem strange because it’s hard to think of one who is a pure spirit as a person. But we have to overcome any difficulties we have with accepting and embracing this relationship in a personal way.
Entering into a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit is the fundamental “bottom line” of our Christian walk. It must be done! Embracing this essential relationship will also bring us to the “upper limit” of our Christian calling. The Holy Spirit has great plans for us and will give us all we need to fulfill those plans of God.
Let’s conclude with a beautiful prayer to the Holy Spirit. This is a prayer that could be said every day. It would especially be good to pray the first three words of this prayer over and over. You will be amazed at the effect this will have on your life if you commit yourself to this prayer every day and even throughout the day. Pray the entire prayer each morning, and then throughout the day, simply repeat the first three words: “Come, Holy Spirit.” Pray those words as you walk, as you drive, as you do chores and every time they come to mind. Saying them should become a regular habit of your soul. If you can establish this habit, you will be amazed at how close you become with God the Holy Spirit!
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the Earth.
O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
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