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Understanding the sacrament of confirmation

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Every sacrament confers sanctifying grace, but each sacrament also confers its own proper sacramental grace. In addition to sanctifying grace, the sacrament of confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace, roots us more deeply in divine sonship, unites us more firmly to Christ, increases in us the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit, renders our bond with the church more perfect, gives us a special strength to witness, spread, and defend the faith boldly and without shame, and imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark with the seal of the Holy Spirit (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 1303).

For centuries, the sacrament of confirmation has been associated with themes of maturity and combat. The 1566 Roman Catechism taught that by confirmation one “becomes stronger with the strength of a new power and thus begins to be a perfect soldier of Christ.” Generations of American Catholics memorized the following from the Baltimore Catechism: “Confirmation is a Sacrament through which we receive the Holy Ghost to make us strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.” In the first half of the 20th century, increased lay involvement in the life and mission of the church was encouraged by ecclesiastical leadership, especially by Popes Leo XIII, Pius X and Pius XI, becoming the movement known as Catholic Action. On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the sacrament of confirmation was seen by many as the sacrament of Catholic action and responsibility. Becoming a soldier for Christ meant active participation in the external mission of the church. Thus, Vatican II interprets for us what it means to be enrolled as a soldier of Christ: “The lay apostolate … is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself” (“Lumen gentium,” 33).

The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is the primary scriptural scene used analogously to teach and understand confirmation’s effect on the soul. Just as the disciples’ fear in the wake of the Passion of Christ kept them in hiding but the fire of the Holy Spirit compelled them to begin their apostolic mission, so too the recipient of confirmation receives the Holy Spirit for the strength necessary for the lay apostolate. Pope Paul VI taught that confirmation “in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.”

What other scriptural scene may be used to augment our understanding of confirmation insofar as it perfects, or completes, baptismal grace and also “roots us more deeply in the divine filiation”? The account of the baptism of Jesus contains all the spiritual imagery to provide a robust understanding of confirmation. As Jesus emerges from the water, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice of God says of him, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Catechists preparing young people for confirmation may find in this account a means of overcoming certain modern misconceptions about the sacrament. The young person, baptized years ago and now bearing a new name, has the Spirit descend upon him and the voice of God, through the church, say to him, “You are my beloved son or daughter in whom I am well pleased.” It is God himself who both affirms and supernaturally confirms —  strengthens —  the young person to be whom he or she is as a child of God. It is not something the teenager does for God, nor is it taking classes, doing service projects and attending retreats that somehow makes one “worthy” to be confirmed; rather, like all the sacraments, confirmation is a great gift from God to be received freely, albeit with preparation, for one must know how to use a gift wisely. This scriptural analogy also ties in the confirmation motif of spiritual battle, for it was after his baptism that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1:12) where Jesus was tempted and was with the wild beasts. One preparing for confirmation must then understand that he or she, upon being confirmed, will likewise head out into the wilderness of life for combat, where there will be the temptations of the world and the wild beasts of the passions against which to struggle, but having received the Spirit, he or she must take to heart the consoling words of God: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa 43:1).

Wallace is an adjunct professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020