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Anointing with the Spirit

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 Liturgy:
“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.


Reprinted with permission from Pueblo Publishing Title, Anointing with the Spirit. Copyright 1985 by Pueblo Publishing Company, Inc., and The Liturgical Press, St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, MN 56321. All rights reserved.


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