Confirmation: Sacrament of the Spirit

by Rev. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

When were you confirmed? Do you remember the ceremony? I was a 10-year-old fourth-grader at St. Anthony School in Wichita, Kansas. Today, Catholics often associate Confirmation with high school, or even junior high. In fact, in a small but increasing number of parishes, children are being confirmed at a much younger age, before they receive first Holy Communion. Each year at the Easter Vigil we see adult converts receiving Confirmation immediately after their Baptism. Catholics of the Roman Rite may be surprised to learn that in most Eastern Rites even infants are confirmed at Baptism.

The sacrament of Confirmation gives the Holy Spirit; but with so many different ways in which Confirmation is celebrated, we might well ask why the wide variety. What is Confirmation? Is it a sacrament of "Christian maturity" when given to infants? How does it make children "soldiers of Christ"? Is the Spirit given at Confirmation somehow "different" from the Holy Spirit given at Baptism? Are these even the right questions to ask?

Sacrament of initiation

The best way to understand Confirmation is to see it standing between Baptism and Eucharist as part of the Rites of Christian Initiation. This is the approach taken by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which treats Confirmation under the heading "Sacraments of Christian Initiation," and insists that the unity of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist "must be safeguarded."

For those Catholics who are not accustomed to thinking of Confirmation, together with Baptism and Eucharist, as part of the initiation process, perhaps this analogy will be helpful: What do we do when invited out to eat? In most cases there would be three steps: When the time comes (1) we take off our old clothes and wash up by taking a shower or bath. Then (2) we dry off and put on our good clothes. Finally (3) we go to the place where we have been invited and there we join with our friends to talk, eat, drink, celebrate.

Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist exist in a similar relationship: In Baptism (1) we take off the old, sinful person and wash away Original Sin. In Confirmation (2) we are anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit and filled with his sevenfold gifts. Finally, (3) we are led to the Eucharistic banquet.

Confirmation is like the "drying off" part of the above analogy. To understand this analogy, it is helpful to remember that our liturgical ceremonies for initiation are influenced by Roman customs at the time our rites were being formed. In second-century Rome, after bathing, people rubbed their bodies with oil to moisturize the skin and dry off. Similarly, the bath of Baptism was followed by an anointing: Confirmation.

In early Church documents we do not find much written about Confirmation because it was considered part of Baptism. In these documents the authors, when writing about Baptism, often meant both Baptism and Confirmation, both the water bath and the anointing with oil. Likewise today, if I said, "I am going to take a bath," I would mean both the "washing" and the "drying off."

Another aspect of this "bath" analogy might be helpful in understanding Confirmation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we take a bath, we get clean by washing off the dirt. We can speak of "getting clean" and we can speak of "washing off dirt" but, in fact, removing "dirtiness" and receiving "cleanness" go together. In the Sacraments of Initiation, we wash away Original Sin and receive the Holy Spirit. Taking away sin, and being filled with the grace (presence) of the Holy Spirit, are something like the "washing off" and "getting clean." The two actions go together and are understood in relation to each other.

We can call one action Baptism and the other Confirmation. We can even celebrate them at two different times in a person's faith journey, but to understand them correctly we must view them together. It is one and the same Holy Spirit celebrated at Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

Each sacrament is both sign and words. To understand Confirmation, the Sacrament of the Spirit, we examine the words that accompany the anointing and compare them with the prayers which speak of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Eucharist.

Confirmation and the Holy Spirit

At Baptism, we hear of the role of the Holy Spirit in the prayer over the baptismal water:

Father, look now with love on your Church, 
and unseal for her the fountain of baptism. 
By the power of the Spirit 
give to the water of this font 
the grace of your Son...
cleanse [those to be baptized] from sin in a new birth of innocence 
by water and the Spirit. 

(Roman Sacramentary)

At Confirmation, we learn the implications of this new life in the Holy Spirit: 

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 [1] wisdom and [2] understanding,
the spirit of [3] right judgment and [4] courage, 
the spirit of [5] knowledge and [6] reverence. 
Fill them with the spirit of [7] wonder and awe in your presence.

(Rite of Confirmation)

This prayer names the traditional "Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit." The biblical origin of these seven gifts is found in Isaiah (11:1-3) where he is foretelling the qualities of the Messiah. 

But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, 
and from his roots a bud shall blossom. 
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: 
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, 
a spirit of counsel and of strength, 
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.

[The ancient Greek and Latin translations of this passage read "piety" for "fear of the Lord" in line six; this gives us our traditional seven gifts.]

These seven gifts are the signs that the Messiah will be guided by the Spirit. The relation of these gifts to the sacrament of Confirmation becomes clear when we remember that the word "Messiah" (Christos in Greek) means "anointed." Jesus was "anointed," filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. At Confirmation we are anointed with the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Gospels we see how these seven gifts form Jesus' personality. They are characteristic of his activity. Consider the wisdom expressed in his parables; his understanding of the poor and the sick; his right judgment when tested by the Pharisees; his courage to continue the journey to Jerusalem where he surmised what fate awaited him; his knowledge of God's will; his reverence for his heavenly Father; his awe before the wonders of creation—the lilies of the field, the birds of the air....The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are the manifestation of the Divine Power active in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In Baptism, our sins are washed away and we come up from the water bath to be clothed in a new garment. Putting on the baptismal garment is a visible symbol of the invisible reality of "putting on Christ." When we are anointed with oil in Confirmation, it is a visible symbol of the invisible reality of being anointed with the Spirit, being "Christ-ed" or "messiah-ed." We put on Christ, and the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit become our gifts. We pray that the qualities of the Messiah take root in us and become our qualities so that we may become signs of God's presence in the world.

At the actual anointing during Confirmation we hear the words: "(Name), be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." Here the gift referred to is the Holy Spirit himself. We are sealed with the gift of (that is, the gift which is) the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God's "first gift to those who believe" (Eucharistic Prayer IV).

Confirmation leads to Eucharist

"The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation" (Catechism). With our sins washed away and clothed in the Spirit, we are led to the banquet table of the Eucharist. The eucharistic prayers given us following Vatican II express the role of the Holy Spirit even more clearly than the traditional Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I). Although the words vary according to the prayer, at each Eucharist we ask God: "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and the blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ... [so that] ... all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ may be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit" (Eucharistic Prayer II).

At each Eucharist we ask the Holy Spirit to do two things: first, to change the bread and wine into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ; and, second, to change us—those who eat and drink the sacred bread and wine—into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ. The saying, "You are what you eat," certainly holds true here. As St. Augustine reminded his fourth-century audience: "If then you are the body of Christ and his members, it is your sacrament that reposes on the altar of the Lord....Be what you see and receive what you are" and "There you are on the table, and there you are in the chalice."

As Catholics, we are proud of our tradition of reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ, which by faith we perceive really present in the action of the Spirit changing the bread and wine. This same Spirit challenges us to the often more difficult reverence for the Body of Christ which, by faith, we perceive really present in the action of the Spirit who changes our faith community. "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" (Eucharistic Prayer III). This call of the Spirit to unity is, no doubt, the reason why Pope John Paul Il has designated Christian unity as the ecumenical goal for 1998, this year of the Holy Spirit.

Unity and the Holy Spirit

On the Coming of the Third Millennium states that the Jubilee is to demonstrate that "the disciples of Christ are fully resolved to reach full unity as soon as possible in the certainty that 'nothing is impossible with God."' The Holy Father continues: "Among the most fervent petitions which the Church makes to the Lord during this important that unity among all Christians...will increase until they reach full communion. I pray that the Jubilee will be a promising opportunity for fruitful cooperation in the many areas which unite us; these are unquestionably more numerous than those which divide us."

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to ultimately fulfill the high priestly prayer of Jesus: "I pray...that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one" (John 17:20-23). The courage and vision to strive for this ultimate unity are the promise and grace of Confirmation: Sacrament of the Spirit.

Thomas Richstatter, O.FM., S.T.D., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris. He teaches courses on the sacraments at Saint Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology. His latest book is Liturgy and Worship: Faith and Witness, A Course on Catholic Living (William H. Sadlier)