Confirmation: 7 Symbols in 1 Sacrament

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., Th.D.

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes it’s not enough just to tell your mom, "I’m sorry." It may take a hug as well. Sometimes it’s not enough to say, Thank you or I love you.

You might give a gift. Such a special gift can become more than just the object given. It can become a reminder of the one who gave the gift. It can become even more than a reminder: It can become a symbol. It can evoke the presence of the giver, the occasion when it was given, the feelings that came with the gift.

Sacraments are like that, too. Sacramental symbols can say more than words alone because, while words speak to our mind, symbols speak to our whole body.

Words may be able to explain what happens at Confirmation and what it means to be confirmed. But we really don’t know what Confirmation is until we experience the ritual symbols of the sacrament. In this Youth Update we will examine the principal symbols of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

1. Community

The primary symbol of Confirmation is the community itself. Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist are sacraments of initiation, initiation into a community.

The community that gathers to celebrate your Confirmation is not there merely to watch; it is the community into which you are being initiated. The community is the sign of Christ’s presence for you.

2. Baptism

Every Confirmation begins with Baptism. This is true whether the Baptism was celebrated only a few moments before Confirmation (as in many Eastern rites and in our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), whether the Baptism was celebrated six years before (as in those dioceses where Confirmation is celebrated before first holy Communion), 14 years before Confirmation, or even 50 years before Confirmation.

Confirmation complements the symbols of Baptism. Confirmation means all that Baptism means.

The historical origins of the symbols of Confirmation are many and diverse. One source of the rituals for the Sacrament of Confirmation can be found in the bathing customs of the Roman Empire. After a bath, Romans applied bath oil.

In our times, when you take a shower, you wash up and dry off. In Roman times, oil was a part of the bathing ritual. A bath included both water and oil.

Today, if a friend asked you to go to a movie and you said, "Sure. But don’t come by until 6 p.m. because I want to take a shower first," I suspect that by shower you include not only the washing up but also the drying off. Drying off is understood to be part of the total shower. In the same way, the early Church saw Confirmation as a part of the Baptism experience.

The water ritual (Baptism) came to mean the washing away of sin, and the oil ritual (Confirmation) was interpreted to mean the sweet fragrance of God’s presence: sanctifying grace.

We know that sin cannot be removed except by grace just as, for example, a vacuum cannot be removed from a container without replacing it (the emptiness) with something. The two go together.

In the same way God’s grace fills us with redemption and salvation. This grace, this presence of God in us, is the Holy Spirit. Confirmation is the Sacrament of the Holy Spirit.

3. Anointing

What memories do you have of oil being applied to your body? I remember my mother rubbing Vick’s Vapo-Rub on my chest when I was little and had a cold.

I remember the sensation of applying suntan lotion and lying on the beach in the Florida sun. And I remember the soothing ointment a doctor applied to my shoulder after a sports injury. (Also, I like my popcorn "anointed" with butter.) What are your memories of anointing?

Anointing can mean many things. From ancient times, oil has been a symbol of strength, healing and agility. For Jews, our ancestors in the faith, oil is the sign of God appointing someone to be a priest, prophet and king.

Many Jews look forward to the time when a very special anointed one, a Hebrew messiah, will come to announce God’s reign. The Hebrew wordmessiah means "anointed." It’s a strong and important word.

Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was this anointed one. Our Christian Scriptures were written in the Greek language and "the Anointed One" is translated as "Christ" in Greek. Some of us are so used to speaking of "Jesus Christ" that "Christ" almost seems like Jesus’ last name. We forget that it means Jesus, the Anointed One, the Messiah.

As "Christ" means "anointed," we call ourselves "Christians" because we are the anointed ones, the "Oiled People," so to speak. The Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist initiate us into that "oiled" community, the community anointed to continue the vocation of the Messiah, the Christ.

4. Touch

From ancient times, to impose hands on someone or to extend one’s hand over the person’s head was the sign of calling down the Holy Spirit. All seven sacraments employ this symbol. We call the prayer which accompanies the imposition of hands an epiclesis, which is an invocation.

At Baptism, the priest lays his hand on those to be baptized and marks them with the sign of the cross. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest lays his hands on the head of the penitent and proclaims the words of absolution. During the Anointing of the Sick, the priest imposes hands on the person to be anointed.

In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the bishop imposes hands on the one to be ordained priest. During the Sacrament of Matrimony (Catholic marriage), the presider extends hands over the couple who have pronounced their wedding vows and calls the Holy Spirit upon them so that they may remain faithful in the marriage covenant.

In the Sacrament of Eucharist, the priest invokes the Holy Spirit upon the gifts, extends his hands over the bread and wine and prays that the Holy Spirit change them into the Body and Blood of Christ so that we who receive them may be changed into that Body.

In Confirmation, the presider places his hand on the head of each one to be confirmed and prays that the Holy Spirit descend upon them. You will hear this prayer: "All powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their Helper and Guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence" (Rite of Confirmation, #25).

This prayer asks for the graces which we have come to call the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The number seven is itself a symbol of completeness, of boldness, of abundance. When we say that there are seven sacraments, we mean more than their number is one plus six. Seven sacraments implies the abundance of God’s love for us and the all-sufficient nature of grace.

5. Words

The words used in the rite are another symbol of Confirmation. The words of the ceremony, the readings from Scripture, the homily, the invitation of the presider, the prayer for the sevenfold Spirit: All of these can help us learn the meaning of the sacrament.

When you are anointed, the presider first says your name and then says, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." Think about the significance of each of these words.

Your name: What does it mean to be called by name? In Confirmation we hear again the name we were given in Baptism. Confirmation begins with Baptism. (Some people take a new name at Confirmation in order to have an additional heavenly patron.)

Seal: This word has a rich meaning in our religion. In earlier times a document was shown to be authentic by the author putting his seal on the document (often with a signet ring) in a spot of hot wax. This distinctive mark or seal was like the person’s signature. In Confirmation we receive God’s mark, God’s seal. God permanently and eternally seals us as God’s Anointed Ones.

We receive the Sacrament of Confirmation only once. What happens to us in Confirmation so conforms us to Christ that the sacrament can never be repeated. We speak of this special conformity to Christ as the sacramental character of Confirmation.

Gift: This is a key word in the Sacrament of Confirmation. It reminds us that we are celebrating God’s work. Sometimes we prepare for Confirmation by years of study and service and it may seem that Confirmation is a reward, something we have earned.

But Confirmation is not our work. It is God’s gift. And what is that gift? The Holy Spirit is God’s first gift to those who believe.

When you think of the word "spirit," what comes to mind? School spirit? Team spirit? When we speak of "team spirit," for example, we are referring to something which the members of the team possess and also something that is "beyond" the individual members. It is something that they all share, something that energizes them, something that gives them a common goal and vision.

That is what God’s Spirit does to us. The Holy Spirit is God’s breath in us. God’s breath gives our bodies a special (divine) life, energy and enthusiasm. The Spirit makes us not only like the members of a team, but also makes us much more. We become the members of one body, Christ’s body. The Holy Spirit unites us in the Body of Christ so that, with him, we can call God our Father, actually "Abba," which is more like daddy. It is this Holy Spirit that gives us our identity, that tells us who we are: the Body of Christ.

St. Paul uses this analogy with the human body to describe our relation with Christ. St. John uses a different analogy, that of a vine and its branches. At the Last Supper Jesus says to the disciples, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). In this analogy, the Holy Spirit can be compared to the sap of the plant, giving life to both vine and branches.

6. The Minister

Liturgical celebrations are the prayer of the Body of Christ, head and members. Sacraments are the prayer of Christ and the prayer of the Church. When we celebrate the sacraments, there is always someone who leads the prayer, a minister who speaks in the name of us all. In the early Church, this ministry of leadership was gradually assumed by the one whom we now call a bishop. The bishop was the one who presided at Confirmation, for the bishop was the one who presided at all the sacraments. As the Church grew, the bishop’s assistants, then called presbyters (we would call them priests), began to preside at many liturgical functions. In your parish, it is probably the priest whom you ordinarily see leading the prayers at Mass and the other sacraments.

Today the minister of Confirmation (for those Catholics who were baptized as infants) is ordinarily the bishop. In some dioceses the bishop has delegated the pastor of the parish or another priest to confirm. When you are confirmed by the pastor of your parish, this symbol reminds us of the unity of the Sacraments of Initiation: We see the same minister leading us at Baptisms, Confirmation and celebrations of the Eucharist. When the bishop is the minister of Confirmation, this symbol reminds us that the bishop is the original minister of all the sacraments. The bishop presiding is also a symbol of the fact that we are initiated into a Church which is much larger than our parish.

7. Eucharist

The final and most important symbol of Confirmation is Eucharist. Eucharist is the fullness of Confirmation and the completion of Christian initiation. In Baptism our sins are washed away; in Confirmation we are filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit empowers us to continue Christ’s messianic (anointed) vocation. The life of Christ was first and foremost a life praising God.

Our praise of God culminates in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the repeatable part of Confirmation. In each Eucharist the Holy Spirit comes upon us anew to strengthen us for service.

At the Eucharist we ask God to send the Spirit upon our gifts of bread and wine to change them into the Body and Blood of Christ in order that we who receive these gifts from the Father might become the Body of his Son. For example, in Eucharistic Prayer III we pray over the gifts, "...make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become for us the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ....Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ."

Filled with Christ’s Spirit and united in his Body we can fulfill in our lives the command of Christ: Do this in memory of me. We can live our lives as Christ lived his. As St. Paul wrote in his second Letter to the Corinthians (5:18), we continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and serve as agents of healing in this broken world. This is the ministry of Confirmation; this is the ministry of Christianity.

Thomas Richstatter is a Franciscan friar who has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. This is his second Youth Update. Father Richstatter’s newest book is The Sacraments: How Catholics Pray, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.


The 3 Holy Oils

The Church has three holy oils. They are distinguished by their blessing. The most solemn of the three blessings is the one for the oil called Holy Chrism. Holy Chrism is the oil used in the Sacrament of Confirmation; it is also used in the Sacrament of Holy Orders to ordain priests (presbyters and bishops), and in the dedication of church buildings and other solemn blessings.

The other two holy oils are the Oil of the Sick which is used in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to bring healing and strength, and the Oil of Catechumens which is used to strengthen and purify those preparing for Baptism. The three oils are often kept in the baptismal area of the parish church in a case or cabinet called an ambry.

The Mass during which these oils are solemnly blessed by the bishop is called the "Chrism Mass." It is usually celebrated during the final days of Lent so that the oils are available and fresh for the Sacraments of Initiation during the Solemn Easter Vigil.


Jonathon Bollinger (15), Erika Creech (15) and Thomas M. Tyler, Jr. (15) of St. Boniface Parish in Piqua, Ohio, and Zach Guillozet (15) of St. Mary Parish, also in Piqua, were convened by Angie Tyler, volunteer parish youth minister, to read and critique this issue before publication.



What is the meaning of the clothes the bishop wears for Confirmation?


The "special" clothes (called liturgical vestments) worn for Confirmation were originally "ordinary" clothes. The white garment (alb) that priests and bishops wear under their other vestments was the garment that ordinary Romans in the first and second century wore around the house during the day. When they went out in public, they put on a tent-like colored garment (chasuble) over the alb just as you might put on a jacket over your shirt when going out. The tall, pointed hat (miter) the bishop wears was originally just a hat. Little by little (in the 13th and 14th centuries), it became a sign that the one wearing it is a "high priest." In early days, priests and bishops got a special haircut (tonsure) and a round spot was shaved off on the top of their heads. The little round hat (zucchetto) kept their shaved head warm in the winter. Eventually, it too became a religious sign. The pope wears a white one; the cardinals, red; bishops, violet. When other priests wear one, it is black.



Why do we need to be confirmed? Why isn't Baptism enough?


Why isn't vanilla ice cream enough? Why do we need chocolate? The sacraments are God's gifts to us. When someone gives me two gifts, I don't ask why one gift wasn't enough. Baptism is enough for salvation, but Confirmation is an additional gift which tells us more about God, ourselves and about Baptism itself.



How does our patron saint help us?


One of the prayers at Mass answers this question. It says that the saints "inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayers."