In this chapter we shall examine the history and liturgy of a sacrament which we all have received, and which is of special interest because, unlike Baptism, we can remember when we received it. Confirmation was administered to us when we had come to the age of reason, and after a long and thorough preparation. The ceremonies and prayers which the Church uses in conferring it are not long nor numerous; but they express very clearly the meaning of the sacrament and the nature of the special graces given through its administration.
The Nature of the Sacrament. Confirmation is a sacrament of the Church through which grace is conferred on baptized persons, strengthening them for the duty of professing the Christian faith. As the Catechism tells us, by it we are made “strong and perfect” in our Christianity; we become “soldiers of Jesus Christ,” earnest and loyal in His service, willing to wage war against His enemies and ours. It is administered ordinarily by a bishop, who makes the sign of the cross with chrism on the forehead of the recipient, while he pronounces a certain formula of words.
This sacrament not only gives us special graces to help us to live up to our faith, but also, like Baptism and Holy Orders, imprints a seal or character upon the soul —an indelible spiritual mark which remains forever, and which renders the repetition of the sacrament at any future time impossible.
A Catholic Sacrament. Confirmation is a Catholic sacrament. It is true that it exists in the schismatic churches of the East, which were originally members of the true Church and have preserved most of her teaching; but the Protestant sects have always denied the sacramental nature of Confirmation. Some reject it altogether; others, such as the Episcopalians, retain animitation of it —a ceremony which they call Confirmation, but which they hold to be merely a rite and not a sacrament. With them it consists in the public renewing and confirming of the promises made for them by their sponsors at Baptism. But the Catholic Church has always held that Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments, the God-given channels by which His grace is brought to our souls through the ministry of His Church. In it we have all the requisites for a true sacrament —the outward sign, the giving of grace, and the divine institution.
Confirmation in the Scriptures. The sacrament was instituted by our Blessed Lord, for it is a doctrine of our holy faith that each of the seven sacraments owes its origin not to the Church nor to the Apostles, but to Christ Himself. There is no mention in the Gospels of such institution; but according to tradition and the general opinion of the Doctors of the Church, it took place during the forty days after the Resurrection of our Saviour.
The first account of it is found in the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. St. Philip, a deacon, had converted and baptized certain Samaritans, and when he announced this fact to Peter and John, these Apostles went down from Jerusalem and “laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost.” In St. Paul’s Epistles allusion is also made to the same sacrament, by which Christians are made “partakers of the Holy Ghost” and are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.”
In the works of the early writers of the Christian Church we find Confirmation mentioned repeatedly. In the first centuries it was generally conferred immediately after Baptism. Tertullian speaks of “the imposition of hands on the baptized, which calls and invites the Holy Ghost.”
The Minister of Confirmation. Who can give this sacrament? In our Catechism we are taught that “the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation.” In our part of the world, and, in fact, in the whole Western Church, this sacrament is always administered by a bishop, except in very special cases; for example, if a missionary were going into the middle of Africa or to the remoter parts of China, he might receive permission from the Pope to carry holy chrism and to give the sacrament of Confirmation to his converts, who otherwise would never be able to receive it, since they could never have access to a bishop. In the Eastern Churches Confirmation has been for many centuries administered by priests, and in the Churches which are united to the Roman See this custom is tacitly permitted.
The Matter of Confirmation. What is strictly required in the administration of this sacrament? There has been much dispute about this. Some ancient writers held that the essence of Confirmation was the laying on of hands —that the anointing with oil is not necessary; but the great majority of authorities as well as the wording of the Church’s ritual support the teaching that the real “matter” of this sacrament is the anointing with the consecrated oil which we call chrism.
This is olive oil with which balm or balsam of a certain kind has been mixed. This balm is a species of perfumed resin which exudes from a tree called the terebinth, which grows abundantly in Eastern lands, especially in Arabia. Similar substances are produced in the West Indies and in the tropical parts of America.
Probably in the first ages of the Church pure oil without admixture was used; but we find mention of the use of balm from about the sixth century. In many Eastern churches the chrism is highly perfumed, and rare spices of many kinds are dissolved in it; but the uniform practice of the Roman Church has been to prepare the chrism simply with olive oil and balm. The oil is symbolic of strength, for it was used by the athletes and gymnasts of classic times as an ointment, to promote bodily vigor; of light, because it can be used in lamps, to dispel darkness; of health, because it is taken internally as a food and a medicine. The balm denotes freedom from corruption and the “sweet odor of virtue.”
The chrism is blessed on Holy Thursday in every cathedral church. This is an ancient custom, going back before the year 500. The beautiful ceremonies which accompany this solemn blessing are described elsewhere in this work.
The Words of Confirmation. To administer Confirmation validly, what form of words must be used? Here again there is a great diversity of opinion and of practice. Among the Greeks the form is: “The seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost,” and this has been in use among them from very early times. The words used in our Latin ceremonial are: “I sign thee with the sign of the cross and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” These date back only to the twelfth century.
Before that time a very common form was: “I confirm thee in the name of the Father,” etc. In some parts of the world these words were used: “The sign of the cross with eternal life”; and elsewhere the following very expressive formula was commonly employed: “Receive the sign of the holy cross with the chrism of salvation in Christ Jesus unto eternal life.”
We see from this variety of forms that it was evidently the intention of our Lord and the practice of His Church that the sacrament of Confirmation could be validly administered with any words which sufficiently indicate the graces given; but, of course, for us at the present day the form prescribed by the Church’s ritual is the one to be followed.
The Age of Confirmation. This sacrament is generally administered among us when the candidate is about twelve or thirteen years of age; but this is by no means an ancient or universal practice. In the Oriental churches it is usually conferred immediately after Baptism, and this was the rule in all parts of the world until about the thirteenth century. In fact, the prompt confirming of newly baptized children was strictly enjoined, and penalties were prescribed for parents who neglected it. But gradually it was seen to be preferable to defer this sacrament (which is not necessary for salvation) to an age when it could be received “with knowledge and free will.”
Bishops are required, by the new code of Canon law, to provide for the administration of Confirmation in every part of their dioceses at least every five years. In the more populous parts of our country it has become customary to have this done at intervals of two years.
The Sponsor at Confirmation. At the administration of this sacrament the Church requires a sponsor, as at Baptism. The person chosen for this office must be a Catholic, and must have received Confirmation. The new code of Canon Law has removed the matrimonial impediment which formerly existed from this sponsorship, and there is, therefore (after Pentecost, 1918), no obstacle whatever to a marriage between a sponsor at Confirmation and the person confirmed, or the parent of that person.
It is usual to have in Confirmation one sponsor only, of the same sex as the person confirmed. In many parts of the world each candidate has his or her own sponsor; this is the custom in our Italian parishes in this country; but generally in our churches one man acts as sponsor for all the males confirmed and one woman for all the females. The sponsor has no duty at the ceremony except to place his or her hand on the shoulder of the person while the sacrament is being administered.
A peculiar detail of the ceremony, no longer in vogue, was that the candidate placed his or her foot upon the right foot of the sponsor while being confirmed. Another, which has also fallen into disuse, was the binding of a white cloth around the head of the person who had received Confirmation; this was worn for seven days, to preserve, as it were, the sign of the holy chrism. In ancient times the sacrament was always received fasting, but this also is no longer deemed necessary, and is not now observed.
The Ceremonies. The bishop who confirms is vested in amice, stole and white cope, and wears his mitre. He goes to a seat before the middle of the altar, facing the people; and, after washing his hands, he begins the ceremonies of the Confirmation. He first says aloud, in Latin, “May the Holy Spirit come upon you, and may the virtue of the Most High guard you from sin. Amen.” Then, after making the sign of the cross, he extends his hands over those who are to be confirmed, and prays as follows :
“Almighty and eternal God, Who hast deigned to regenerate these Thy servants with water and the Holy Spirit, and Who hast given them the remission of all their sins, send upon them from heaven Thy sevenfold Spirit, the Paraclete. Amen. The Spirit of wisdom and understanding. Amen. The Spirit of counsel and fortitude. Amen. The Spirit of knowledge and piety. Amen. Fill them with the Spirit of Thy fear, and sign them with the sign of the cross of Christ unto everlasting life. Through the same Lord Jesus Christ,” etc.
The candidates are arranged before the bishop, generally at the altar-rail; and it is customary with us for each to hold a card bearing his baptismal name and the new name which he wishes to take at his Confirmation. This taking of a new name is not necessary, but is sanctioned by long usage.
The bishop goes to each and administers the sacrament as follows: Dipping his right thumb into the vessel containing the holy chrism, he makes the sign of the cross with the consecrated oil on the candidate’s forehead, and says at the same time (addressing him by his Christian name or names), “N—, I sign thee with the sign of the cross and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
He then strikes the cheek of the person lightly, saying, “Peace be with thee.” This ceremony is not found in ancient rituals. It symbolizes the persecutions to which we may possibly be exposed on account of our faith, and reminds us that as soldiers of Jesus Christ we may have to suffer for Him.
The chrism on the forehead of each is wiped off with cotton by one of the assisting clergy. The bishop then washes his hands, to remove all traces of the chrism, and the choir or clergy chant or recite the following words: “Confirm this, O God, which Thou hast wrought in us, from Thy holy temple which is in Jerusalem. Glory be to the Father,” etc.
The Closing Prayer. The bishop then offers a prayer, preceded by certain versicles — “Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy and give us Thy salvation. . . . O God, Who hast given Thy Holy Spirit to Thy Apostles, and hast willed that He should be given to the other faithful by them and their successors, regard benignantly the service of our lowliness; and grant that the same Holy Spirit, coming upon those whose foreheads we have anointed with holy chrism and marked with the sign of the cross, may make their hearts a temple of His glory. ... So will every man be blessed who hears the Lord.”
Finally the bishop gives his solemn blessing to those confirmed, making the sign of the cross over them, with the words: “May the Lord bless you from Sion, that you may see the good things of Jerusalem all the days of your life, and may have life everlasting. Amen.”
It is customary for the bishop to deliver an instruction appropriate to the occasion, teaching the newly confirmed the greatness of the sacrament they have received, urging them to be “strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ,” steadfast in faith, loyal to their Leader; and warning them against the dangers to morals and faith to which they will be exposed through life.
At the bidding of the bishop, those who have been confirmed recite aloud (as a kind of penance) the Creed, the Our Father and the Hail Mary; and this concludes the ceremonies of Confirmation.