Unlike Baptism, which virtually all Christian communities practice (albeit with often incompatible intents), Confirmation is not a universally practiced Christian custom. There is a good chance that many Christians outside of the Church don’t know what Confirmation even is. There is an even higher chance that Catholics within the Church don’t even know what it is.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Confirmation is the third Sacrament of the three Sacraments of Christian Initiation and is necessary for the completion of Baptismal grace (CCC 1285).
The Old Testament prophets spoke of the day when the Spirit of the Lord would rest upon the anticipated Messiah. Upon the Baptism of Jesus, it is made clear that he is the Messiah, and that the Spirit of the Lord rests upon him. The Prophets Ezekiel and Joel also wrote that the fullness of the Spirit would not be the Messiah’s alone, but would be shared with the Messianic people. This became evident both at the Resurrection and at Pentecost with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews (often assumed to be St. Paul) lists the laying on of hands as one of the basic instructions of the Christian faith. This laying on of hands on the Baptized was an action that imparted the Holy Spirit on the recipient in a more full way than was done at Baptism. This laying on of hands is the origin of the rite of Confirmation which the Church imparts to this day. Early in the development of the rites, chrism oil was infused with the laying of the hands to better highlight the name “Christian” which means “anointed” since the kings and prophets of old were anointed with oil. For this reason the Church in the East calls the Sacrament Chrismation while the Church in the West calls it Confirmation to emphasize the fact that it is an act which confirms and completes the graces of Baptism.
So what exactly are the signs and rites of the Sacrament?
- Oil is a sign of abundance and joy
- Oil cleanses (anointing before and after a bath)
- Oil limbers (anointing of athletes and wrestlers)
- Oil is a sign of healing as it soothes bruises and wounds
- Oil makes radiant beauty
Oil is a sign of all of these things present in this Sacrament.
The anointing we receive in Confirmation places these things as a seal upon our soul. A seal being something that marks personal ownership, such as cattle being marked with the seal of the ranch. Christ himself declared that he was marked with his Father’s seal in John 6, and so as Christians receiving God’s grace, we too, are marked with a seal in Christ. When we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, we are marked as belonging totally to Christ, to be enrolled in his service forever, and we receive the promise of divine protection in the eschatological trial (CCC 1296).
In the Roman rite, when Confirmation is not celebrated at the same time as Baptism, the confirmands renew their Baptismal promises and profess the faith. The Bishop or priest will extend his hands over the entire group, which signifies the gift of the Spirit and invokes the outpouring of the Spirit. Upon doing this, the actual rite of the sacrament follows in which two types of matter are used on the forehead of the confirmand:
- Chrism (the remote matter)
- Imposition of hands (the proximal matter)
And the following words (the form of the sacrament) are used: Accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti (Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit).
Once this is done, the Sacrament is complete, and the confirmands have received, by the power of the Church borne from the blood of Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The results are the following effects:
- A deeper root in the divine filiation (child relationship with God the Father)
- A firmer unity to Christ
- An increase in the gifts of the Holy Spirit
- A more perfect bond with the Mystical Body of Christ (the Church)
- A special strength in the Spirit to spread and defend the Faith
Confirmation can only be received once as it leaves an indelible mark on the soul.
Who is eligible to receive Confirmation?
Any baptized person not yet confirmed (valid Confirmation must be imparted by a validly ordained apostolic minister) can and should receive the Sacrament. In the Roman rite, the Sacrament has been deferred to reception at the age of discretion (about 7 years old) and sometimes even later in middle or high school. Sometimes the sacrament is confused and considered to be something that somebody does as they age, but age of body does not determine age of soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Many young souls are capable of great spiritual strength and many old souls are not.
To receive the Sacrament, one must also be in a state of grace, meaning that they have no unabsolved mortal sins on their soul. One should definitely receive the Sacrament of Penance prior to receiving Confirmation, unless, like myself, you are confirmed a few minutes after having your sins washed away in Baptism.
Finally the minister of Confirmation in the Roman rite is ordinarily the local Bishop. Out of necessity, the Bishop may grant this faculty to priests. However, as the Bishops are the successors to the Apostles it is more fitting, when possible, that the Bishop himself administers the Sacrament.
So there you have it, the Sacrament of Confirmation. The Catechism is a great place to read some more of the details of the rite itself and its foundations in Scripture.