by Father Gerard Austin, O.P.
In light of confirmation’s complex historical development,
we might well ask how the tangled knot of present pastoral practice
can be unraveled. In the context of all that has been said so far,
I will attempt to set forth seven guidelines toward a solution.
First, the theology of baptism must be viewed not
only under the aspect of dying (Rom 6), but under the aspect
of birth event (Jn 3) as well. In this regard the richness
of the Eastern tradition should be tapped. In the East the baptismal
liturgy, at least in its earliest ritualization, kept its eyes on
the Jordan event as the prime analogue and expressed itself as birth
event into the eschatological reality....
This tradition both enriches baptismal theology and stresses the
intimate relationship between baptism and confirmation. The fact
that the anointing precedes the water-bath highlights the oneness
of the water-Spirit event.
Second, renewal in initiatory practices presupposes a rethinking
of the fate of unbaptized children. While theologians today generally
reject any notion of limbo as in no way demonstrable from the New
Testament and as contradictory to the general divine will of redemption,
nevertheless, this thinking has yet to trickle down to the popular
level. Catechesis and preaching must face up to this problem.
Third, it is more important to preserve the unity
of the paschal mystery symbolized by the initiation sacraments than
to insist on the physical presence of a bishop at confirmation.
The East has preserved the presence of the bishop at confirmation
by the insistence that he bless the chrism and thus be vicariously
present in the chrism used. The West, on the other hand, has sacrificed
the unity of the paschal mystery to hang on to the presence of the
bishop. It is physically impossible for the bishop to be present
at all baptisms. It must be asked—has not a higher value been
sacrificed to maintain a lesser one?
Fourth, both theory and practice concerning confirmation
must begin by the firm conviction that the two premier sacraments
are baptism and Eucharist. This was so in New Testament times; it
is still so today. Baptism incorporates one into the Body of Christ,
and Eucharist builds up the unity of that Body. These two sacraments
of baptism and Eucharist mold all life in the Church and determine
the roles of the other sacraments. The sacrament of confirmation
must not be an exception to this. Presently, the Church pays more
attention to confirmation than to baptism, and more is demanded by
way of preparation for confirmation than for Eucharist. We have forgotten
the important statement of Thomas Aquinas, “The Eucharist is
the summit of the spiritual life, and the goal of all the sacraments.”
Fifth, any discussion of the character of confirmation
as grounds for its unrepeatability must not be limited to a personal,
individual level, but must be placed within an ecclesial context.
This is true for all three sacraments that involve sacramental
character: baptism, confirmation, and [ordination.] Character is
rooted not just in the branding or marking of an individual, but
in a relationship between the recipient and Christ in which it
is established that the Church, the Body of Christ, might come
into existence, and continue in existence. The unrepeatability
of confirmation must be viewed in this context of ecclesiology;
it is part of the once-and-for-all rite of becoming a Christian.
Sixth, confirmation should not be analyzed in its relation
to baptism under the sole viewpoint of infant baptism, any more than
one theologizes about baptism itself using infant baptism as the
norm. A key question must be asked—are we using confirmation
to make up for the deficiencies of infant baptism, which one scholar
calls “a deficient form of baptism, a borderline version of
the classical model of baptism”? This does not mean that we
should stop baptizing infants, but that we should stop the indiscriminate
baptism of infants and intelligently consider, at least in certain
cases, such options as enrolling infants in the catechumenate with
appropriate catechesis and baptism and confirmation at a later age.
Seventh, when infants of committed Christian parents are baptized
it would seem that all the sacraments of initiation should be given
at that time, that is, the infants should be baptized, confirmed, and
given first Eucharist—as was done for over a thousand years in
many places in the West and as is still done in the East. This approach
would respect the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation:
baptism, confirmation, Eucharist. Such a practice would, of course,
demand a change in the law as to who can confirm. If it were argued
that this modification would lessen the contacts that a bishop has
with his people, it should be honestly asked if the present situation
is not in reality keeping bishops from more profitable visitations
with the parishes in their dioceses.
Such a practice would underscore the reality that God takes the initiative,
that baptism confirmation Eucharist form an essential unity, and that
admission to Eucharist is built on incorporation into Christ and not
upon something extrinsic such as knowledge or age. If this path of
total initiation at infancy is not followed, at least the children
baptized in infancy should be confirmed prior to first Eucharist.
In such a case the ideal would be confirmation and first Eucharist
at one and the same time. Such an approach would not destroy programs
of religious catechesis; rather it would base such programs on personal
development and needs and would be ongoing, rather than coming to a
halt after the reception of confirmation.
All other views, and there are many, fail to place confirmation where
it truly belongs, as part of the initiation process. They fail to
take seriously the mandate of the Constitution on the Sacred
“The rite of confirmation is to be revised and the intimate
connection which this sacrament has with the whole of Christian
initiation is to be more clearly set forth.” All other possibilities
continue to place extraneous tasks on the shoulders of confirmation.
In the history of sacramental theology, we often meet a practice
in search of a theory. Confirmation is a good example...
The problem is that the new theory built upon confirmation practice,
although concerned with important matters, ends up with something
other than confirmation.
Confirmation is not a reaffirmation of a previous baptism; it is
not the ritualization of a key moment in the human life cycle. It
is, rather, the gift of the Spirit tied intimately to the water-bath
that prepares one for the reception of the body and blood of Christ
as a full member of the Church.