Confirmation: A Deepening of Our Christian Identity

by Carol Luebering

My father, Leo, didn't get a middle name at Baptism. We kids teased that his parents had simply run out of names. He was the last of a very large family. (More likely, the lack had to do with the custom of their immigrant community.) The middle initial he used throughout his adult life stood for his Confirmation name, Peter. Using the initial as part of his name was very fitting, for the Sacrament of Confirmation is as much a part of our Christian identity as Baptism. It was fitting, too, that he bore the names of two popes. Confirmation, administered by the bishop or his delegate, is a personal experience of belonging to a large family of believers.

Older Catholics remember Confirmation as the moment when their identity was changed: They "received the Holy Spirit" and became "soldiers of Christ." Today Confirmation is often defined as a sacrament of mature Christian commitment. It is the occasion when young people baptized as infants put their "personal signature" on their parents' decision.

But the bishops have fixed the age for Confirmation in the United States at "between seven and 17." Can "commitment" mean the same thing to a second-grader and a high school senior? This Update will explore the rich meaning of the Sacrament of Confirmation by looking at it in terms of our Christian identity.

Acquiring Christian identity

Our earliest ancestors in faith did not distinguish Confirmation from Baptism. The apostle presiding over the little community baptized new members, anointed them with oil and offered them the Eucharist for the first time in one rite of initiation. (The same thing happens today at the Easter Vigil when catechumens are initiated.)

As the Church grew and spread throughout the world, the apostles' successors, the bishops, could no longer personally baptize every new Christian. They delegated the rite to priests. Still, the bishops made regular visits to local communities to confirm the priests' Baptisms with a second anointing. Thus a separate sacrament was born.

Confirmation is still, with Baptism and Eucharist, a sacrament of initiation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that the unity of the three sacraments "must be safeguarded" (#1255), even though children do not receive them at the same time.

The Catechism describes Confirmation as a deepening of baptismal gifts. It says that the sacrament roots us more deeply in our identity as God's children; unites us more firmly with Christ; increases in us the gifts of the Holy Spirit; binds us more closely to the Church; and gives us special strength to bear witness to our faith (see #1303).

With Baptism and Eucharist, Confirmation shapes us as Catholic Christians. Each of these sacraments focuses on a different aspect of our life as believers: birth, breath and nourishment.

Baptism is birth into the family of the Church. In the baptismal font we die and rise to new life in Christ. Parents bring an infant to the font because they want more for the child than physical life. They come to ask the fullness of life that only Christ can give. When infant baptismal symbolism is at its best, a baby is lowered beneath the water into the death of Jesus and rises again, gasping with eternal life.

Inhale, exhale: That's the essential rhythm of life; it's the first thing a newborn must do to survive. The breath of Christian life is the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God dwelling within us. First received at Baptism, the gift of the Spirit is celebrated more fully in Confirmation. It's like taking a more grown-up breath.

Besides breath, a newborn needs nourishment in order to survive. Living and breathing, once established, continue without conscious thought. But the need for food demands our attention frequently. The food we eat is the very stuff of which our bodies are made. Without it babies can't grow and grown-ups can't maintain healthy bodies. Just so, we need the nourishment of Eucharist frequently. We became members of Christ's Body when we were baptized, but the Eucharist nourishes our growth and keeps us healthy members of Christ.

Discovering Christian identity

Adults adopt many names besides those given by their parents at Baptism. We define ourselves by citing the relationships, jobs and interests that are important to us. We identify ourselves as Jeff's Dad, Mrs. Luebering, Jill's or Greg's friend. We say we are a New Yorker or an Iowan, a Republican or a Democrat, a union member, stockbroker, homemaker, pro-lifer, Big Brother, Pink Lady.

An infant, on the other hand, begins first to grow into an identity given by others. In a matter of months—about the time parents have stopped saying "the baby" and started speaking of Chris or George or Maria—a little one responds to the sound of his or her name. A family name is a greater hurdle. It takes much more than a few months for a child to learn it, much less to come to some understanding of what it means to be a Sanchez or a Shea or a Sekitei.

It takes time, too, for a youngster to grasp the realities of larger identities. A sense of racial, ethnic or national belonging comes slowly. It is absorbed over the years from celebrations and stories: Fourth of July fireworks and Thanksgiving pageants, ethnic foods and festivals, tales of immigrant struggles and the pain of discrimination.

A child born into the Church undergoes a similar learning process. Slowly the child discovers what it means to be Catholic from shared stories and customs. The Christmas creche and the crucifix on the bedroom wall, family prayer and Sunday Mass, Jesus' name on a parent's lips and attending more formal religion classes: All these things and more teach children who they are in God's sight, as members of God's family.

Preparation for Confirmation includes learning to articulate what it means to be a Catholic Christian: the faith we express in Creed and lifestyle. Confirmation has long been delayed until a baptized infant could reach some understanding of these things—at least until the age of reason (about seven) and often until the approach of adolescence.

The Church to which parents brought an infant for Baptism is, of course, larger than anyone's personal experience. It is larger than a circle of believing friends, larger than the parish community in which a youngster has been growing up. It reaches not only to Rome, but also to the interior of Africa, the scattered Philippine Islands, the remote villages of Central America.

Modern communications have shrunk the world beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations. All through a child's life come images of the Church from around the world: the Church's efforts to feed starving children in distant countries, papal travels, debates between bishops and government bodies.

Today's Confirmation candidates, even the youngest ones, probably have a better sense of Christian identity than any recent generation. Young people are ready to stand before a representative of the larger Church—the bishop or his delegate—and be anointed with the perfumed oil (chrism) blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. They can say with knowledge they lacked as newly baptized infants, "Yes, this is my Church. I accept the faith of this Church as my faith. This is who I am."

"Who are you?" is a question we first answer with our name. Catholics have traditionally chosen a Confirmation name. It may be the name of a canonized saint or a hero whose life inspires a youngster. Or it may be a personal affirmation of the name given at Baptism.

Affirming Christian identity

Sooner or later, every youngster has to come to personal terms with his or her birthright identity. It's one thing to know the traditions of a family, a people or a Church. It's another to choose them, to claim that identity.

"Owning" the identity conferred at birth doesn't always come easily. For example, most young children cherish an "adoption fantasy," a conviction that they were really born to better parents. (Adopted children idealize their birth parents.) All kids at some time wish they'd been born into a different family—into the household down the street where fewer rules are imposed or to a friend's more understanding parents. And adolescence begins the new and difficult (for parents and child alike!) task of establishing an identity as a separate and independent adult.

Sometimes the heritage gets dumped. Most often, the next generation follows in the footsteps of the generations before. At the same time, few people accept their heritage without reshaping it to fit their own personality and experience, to fit the reality of the world they know. That's especially true with religious belief. The Church into which your child was baptized has undergone enormous change in the last few decades.

Vatican II may be ancient history to today's children—even to their parents—but its effects are still rippling through Catholic life and theology. The world is changing, too. Today's kids learn to use a computer as early as they wield a pencil; they cruise the information highway with enviable ease. What does it mean to affirm the baptismal commitment in a fast-changing world?

Human commitment is always a signature on a blank check. The vows made on a wedding day have to be rethought and remade many times over the years. Our faith commitment undergoes similar stress and change. Every time we brush against mystery—the wonder of birth, the pain of loss, the frustrations of everyday life—our concept of God changes a bit. We have to choose belief all over again.

Like the rest of us, today's Confirmation candidate will continue to search for a better sense of divine reality until the day when eternal light explodes on newly opened eyes on the other side of the grave. Pledging faith to God is more a lifetime effort than a one-time action. It is therefore very difficult to speak of Confirmation as a sacrament of "mature" commitment. As theCatechism warns, maturity in faith cannot be measured by age (see #1308).

Life is strewn with broken promises, a fact every child learns early and every adult acknowledges sadly. But we keep on making and receiving promises because we believe that commitment is possible. And that belief rests on our faith that one promise, at least, will never be broken: God's commitment to us. Confirmation is the "seal" of God's promise. It marks us as God's property, a people set apart.

Church law requires, when possible, Confirmation before the sacraments of commitment—Marriage and Orders—because we believe in a God who keeps promises, whose faithful promises provide the security from which we can promise fidelity.

In Catholic tradition Confirmation is indeed a sacrament of commitment, but the commitment we celebrate was God's before it was ours. It is much less a sacrament of human commitment than a sacrament of faith in God's fidelity to us.

Living Christian identity

Believers have the Spirit, our God-breath, from Baptism. But the Spirit who was a soft, life-sustaining breath in an infant is, at Confirmation, the breath behind speech. The Spirit is the power to raise our voices in witness.

Witness in the early Church often meant putting life on the line. From "witness" in Greek comes our word martyr. Believers are still dying for their faith in our world. But today witness frequently refers to vocalized faith and evangelistic fervor, in the best, most positive sense of these words. Witnessimplies enthusiastic testimony to what the Lord has done in each of our lives.

Witness was first (and still is) a legal term, a description of someone who testifies to what he or she knows from personal experience. And that is the reality of Christian witness in every generation. Whether expressed by a martyr's death, in enthusiastic words or in quiet, everyday concern for others' needs, Christian witness is believers' testimony to what they know: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is life and hope for all the world.

Children learn from infancy how people of faith take the stand in today's world. They hear quiet prayers and stories of Jesus; they see consolation offered for a child's skinned knee and a neighbor's loss. They watch adults give themselves in service to the community and to the needy. TV brings far-flung witness into the living room: papal visits and famine relief efforts, missionaries slain in distant lands and hometown residents putting their lives at risk to save a child from a burning building.

Formal religious training acquaints them with the Church's heroes, the saints. This, in turn, demands from older children some form of service as a sign of readiness for Confirmation.

In a court of law, giving witness is an end, not a beginning. No one expects the observer to learn more about the facts to which he or she testifies; no one expects the witness to offer fresh testimony once the case is closed. Christian witness is different. The case of Jesus Christ is far from closed; the strength of his witness and evidence that his followers offer have been mounting for 2,000 years.

Confirmation, like the other sacraments of initiation, marks the beginning of a journey toward deeper knowledge of God. Our Confirmation candidates join us in claiming our heritage. For years to come, they will bear witness to what loving and believing people have handed on to them—all in the Spirit of God.

Carol Luebering is a book editor with St. Anthony Messenger Press and a freelance writer. Her books include Your Child's Confirmation (St. Anthony Messenger Press), from which this Update is drawn.