American Catholic Press
16565 S. State Street, South Holland, Illinois 60473
by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
Since becoming a bishop nineteen years ago I have confirmed something like 40,000 candidates, so one might confidently expect that I would have crystal clear ideas concerning what I am doing. Sadly, this is not the case. The problem lies with the sacrament itself. A number of years ago confirmation was called “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Later it was said that the problem is not that confirmation has no theology, but rather that it has two theologies, one of christian initiation and the other of adult commitment and mission, and that they are mutually exclusive. Choosing either of the two theologies also has its problems, for each of the two appears to borrow parts of the opposing theology in order to sustain itself. I approach this problem from the pragmatic viewpoint that I shall probably confirm many more thousands of young people and I have to say something to them, so I cannot afford to write a learned treatise that leaves the question up in the air. If theology gives me no clear answers, then I shall have to give pragmatic ones.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Eastern half of the Church authorized its priests to celebrate baptism and
kept the link with the bishop only by insisting that the bishop should consecrate
the oil the priests used. The Western half of the Church wanted a fuller sign
of the unity of the church, so it divided the ceremony: the priest performed
the washing with water but the anointing with oil was reserved to the bishop.
All later problems began from here and all could be solved by going back to the
original practice and reuniting the ceremonies.The new ceremony was given.the
name of confirmation, i.e., that which confirms, perfects; or consummates baptism.
This created a heavy burden on many bishops; it gave too much importance to this one ceremony in the life of the bishop, Confirmation came to have a disproportionate role in expressing the unity of the diocese. Speaking as a working bishop, I would argue that these facts are still true. The custom would eventually be hardened into a law which said that priests of the Latin Rite could not validly confirm without a special faculty to do so (see canon 882 CIC). I confess that I do not understand how the church can place this limit on the power of orders to confirm which priests undoubtedly possess. The practice ran into difficulties because people could not later remember their own confirmation as small children and no one had any record of who had been confirmed and who had not. It wa, therefore, decided that, if confirmation was to be separated from baptism, the gap between them should be used more creatively and a period of serious catechesis for confirmation should be introduced. The age of about seven was established for confirmation, though the order of baptism-confirmation-Eucharist was still preserved.
Originally, the washing with water by the priest and the anointing by the bishop had been two parts of the one act of receiving a new candidate into the church. From this point on any link with a first reception into the church had been lost. In this process confirmation became the carrier of many different values, some of them close to the idea of an anointing in the Spirit, but others having only a distant connection (e.g., the idea of a sacrament of adult commitment). “The West, as it focused more and more on the separability of confirmation, needed to discover and develop meanings that in a sense justify its existence and make one more comfortable about two rites now separated by the passage of years and presumably distinguishable in their scope and significance.” 3
The crisis for this practice did not come until the early l900s
when Pope Pius X introduced the idea of Eucharist for children from
the time they reached the age of seven, for this meant that
THE SACRAMENTS OF INITIATION
I find the answers given to these questions by the official documents of the church less than satisfying. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace. (Why, what is incomplete in baptismal grace? What does it mean that Maria has received a complete baptismal grace while Andrew has received an incomplete baptismal grace?)4
The Catechism then quotes the Second Vatican Council's document, Lumen Gentium, “For by the sacrament of Confirmation [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church” (In what way is Maria more perfectly bound to the Church while Andrew is less perfectly bound? What is lacking in his binding to the Church?) “and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit” (Did Andrew receive an ordinary strength of the Holy Spirit while Maria received a special strength? What meaning can such words have?) The quote from Lumen Gentium then concludes," Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by work and deed.5 (Even if we put aside the fact that both Andrew and Maria are still babies, what can it possibly mean that Maria is more strictly bound to spread and defend the faith than Andrew is?)
It is not clear that at this point, in speaking of spreading and defending the faith, even the Vatican Council is borrowing from the other theology of commitment and mission in order to bolster its own position? It insists that confirmation is the middle sacrament of initiation but, after some less than convincing arguments about what confirmation adds to baptism, it feels a need to call on the theology of commitment and mission, even though this theology is rather meaningless for four-week-old babies.
A number of authors appear to be aware of the weakness of these arguments,and they move in a different direction. "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 on for the reception of the body and blood of Christ as a full member of the Church."6 Nevertheless, for all of the Churches today, the goal is not simply the liturgical-sacramental rejoining of what has been separated, although this is a crucial and important liturgical step. The primary goal, rather, is to take with the utmost seriousness that Christian baptism is full initiation in water and the Spirit, and that, theologically, confirmation, or whatever we might call it, is but the ritualizing or sacramentalizing of the Spirit gift inseparably connected to the water bath itself. Such a unitive realization of initiation has vast implications for our spirituality, for our life in the Spirit.7
The second writer, a member of a Reformation Church, appears to come very close to saying that confirmation is not a separate sacrament at all, but the ritualizing, within the ceremony of baptism, of the gift of the Spirit. In this understanding there is only one sacrament, baptism. In this sacrament, one is both washed clean of sin and filled with the gifts of the Spirit. Within the one sacrament, the pouring of water ritualizes the washing clean of sin, while the anointing with chrism ritualizes the giving of the gifts of the Spirit. This idea does away with all the problems mentioned above about “completing” baptismal grace, being more perfectly bound to the Church and receiving a special strength of the Spirit. In this understanding both Andrew and Maria received one and the same sacrament, and in both ceremonies there was both a pouring of water and an anointing with chrism. The only difference was the minor one that there were some more formalities about the second ritual element in the case of Maria. This would resolve the difficulties currently encountered in the idea of confirmation as a sacrament of initiation, but it would leave us with the obvious problem that we had done away with a sacrament and were left with only six, not seven. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. It can, however, be added that, as long as the two ceremonies are reunited, the number of sacraments involved would be a theoretical rather than a practical problem.
THE SACRAMENTS OF MATURITY, COMMITMENT AND MISSION
All official documents coming from the Vatican speak of the theology of initiation in relation to confirmation. In his speeches, however, Pope John Paul II has not always echoed this line. On May, 17 1985, while visiting Belgium, he said, “confirmation is the sacrament of believers who become adults in their faith and who take on their active role in the Church.8 And on April, 1, 1992 the Vatican Information Service reports him in this manner, "Lastly the Pope referred to the different pastoral guideline on the most suitable age to receive confirmation. The important thing in order not to limit this sacrament to a pure formality or external rite is to impart a solid careful preparation to candidates which may enable them to seriously renew their baptismal promises, fully aware of the gift they are receiving and of the obligations they assume.9
It is obvious that both these statements reflect the second theology. When one adds to this the ambivalence found even in Lumen Gentium, it cannot be said that the argument from authority settles the question once and for all in favor of the idea of initiation. The second theology must be considered on its merits.
This theology bases itself on the fact that most people are baptized as infants, when they are quite incapable of understanding the baptismal promises; and so their parent make these promises in place of the infants. Confirmation is then the moment when the growing person “confirms” the promises made at baptism and makes them his or her own. Within this theology confirmation is also called the sacrament of maturity, the sacrament of personal commitment and the sacrament of mission, that is, the moment when the person.is sent out by God and the community to bear witness to the message of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, this is also where the difficulties start. If people
are baptized as infants, then they certainly need to make a later
personal act of faith, but is it necessary or good that this should
be identified with the moment of confirmation? Will it not rather
be a gradual process that continues for many years? When does a person
become mature? Is that not a process that lasts as long as life itself?
When is the moment of commitment? Do we not need to commit ourselves
each day and at all important moments of change in our lives? When
is the moment of mission? Can a child not become an apostle to other
children? Are there not many moments of mission in our lives? Are
we ever too old to be sent out again by God on a mission?
ATTEMPTS TO COMBINE THE TWO THEOLOGIES
The age of six or seven is a compromise, for it contains a long separation
between the washing with water and the anointing with the Spirit and
yet cannot be called a sacrament of maturity and only with difficulty
a sacrament of personal commitment. The age of eleven is a compromise,
for the desires of parents and community pressures are still powerful.
The candidates have not yet entered the time when their faith will
be put to the test, and much will happen in their lives before they
can speak of an adult
Many supporters of the theology of initiation are adamant that confirmation should be received together with baptism; and this is, in practice, the only way to avoid compromise. “Confirmation should be placed back where it belongs — as the inseparable concluding seal of the baptismal rite itself whenever baptism takes place. As a consequence, all the debates about knowledge, preparation, and age for confirmation should be terminated.”11
THE SACRAMENT OF PENTECOST
(Reprinted from Worship 78 , no. 1 (January, 2004), pp. 50-60.
2 St. Hugh of Lincoln was popular because he used to dismount in order to confirm, while most bishops confirmed from the saddle.
4 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1285.
5 Lumen Gentium, no.11.
6 Gerard Austin, The Rite of Confirmation: Anointing with the Spirit (New York: Pueblo 1985) 146.
7 Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999) 372—73.