THE SACRAMENT OF CONFIRMATION INTRODUCTION
Christ our Lord instituted confirmation as the sacrament which complements, perfects, or strengthens the divine life implanted in us through baptism. Indeed, the significance of confirmation would be missed entirely were it ever to be considered apart from the act of Christian regeneration, of which it is the noble fulfillment. It is no less great in dignity precisely because its purpose is to augment and bring to completion our initiation into the mystery which is Christ. Along with the Eucharist it is a continuation of the process by which the soul becomes fully made one with the divine head and His mystic bride, the Church. And since, like baptism, it imprints a character, it is the second step, the second "ordination" by which the soul is configured to the High Priest, Jesus Christ, imparting a higher consecration to the universal priesthood of the Christian body, along with fuller life and activity in this body and greater responsibility toward it.
When it was the practice to administer confirmation immediately after baptism, the relation between the two could more easily be perceived; so much so, in fact, that associating them thus closely in point of time led some to the erroneous conclusion that the act of baptizing and the consequent consignation or sealing with the Holy Spirit comprised but parts of one sacrament. It is still allowed to confirm immediately after baptism in the Oriental rites and in some localities of the Latin Church. However, in the main the discipline is to separate confirmation from infant baptism by a considerable interval, for the practical purpose of making it possible to instruct the candidate in the chief tenets of faith, that thus he derive fuller benefits from this sacrament. Yet it is the express mind of the Church that confirmation should not be deferred unduly, even in the case of children and despite the reasons for her present discipline. And so in her official pronouncements the Church indicates the age of discretion, approximately the seventh year, as the time when confirmation ought to be given, in order to bring down the Holy Spirit in increased strength upon the soul that is already His habitation through the sacrament of rebirth. She states, moreover, that the ideal is attained when confirmation precedes even admittance to the banquet table of the Holy Eucharist. Leo XIII commended the bishop of Marseilles for confirming children before first communion, as more in accord with ancient practice. This is the ideal because it is the logical order: baptism plants the seed of divine life; confirmation matures and perfects it; Holy Eucharist is the nourishment which sustains it.
Baptism effects in the soul the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with His sevenfold gifts, yet not in a measure altogether complete. For God in His bounty and love has ordained that confirmation make perfect what is still somehow imperfect, that the Person of the Holy Spirit, to whom especially is attributed the work of sanctifying, be poured out in fuller measure upon a Christian, so as to raise him to the adult state in the spiritual life. Accordingly, in the order of dignity, confirmation is more excellent than baptism, not because it confers absolutely new powers, but rather because it invigorates and ennobles those which are already existent. In baptism the Blessed Trinity comes to inhabit the soul; in confirmation the Father and the Son send to it the Holy Spirit in pentecostal mission to consecrate anew the edifice which the first sacrament has established. The one is the sacrament of birth; the other the sacrament of manhood. Baptism incorporates a man in Christ and His Church; confirmation elevates his being in Christ through the anointing which brings more abundant grace. The former fashions; the latter strengthens. The former initiates; the latter seals.
The Council of Trent defined that confirmation is a sacrament distinct from baptism and that it confers its own special grace. It left to the speculation of theologians what precisely the special grace or principal effect of confirmation is. For theologians of old, specifically the fathers of the Church, the purpose of confirmation is the completing or perfecting of baptism. This idea received fairly recent corroboration from the Congregation of the Holy Sacraments in 1935, in a pronouncement that "Confirmation is the complement of baptism and the sacrament in which the fullness of the Holy Spirit is imparted" (AAS 27  15). The statement was prompted by a desire to encourage the reception of this sacrament before the reception of the Eucharist. And it is in full accord with the mind of the early fathers. Sticking to the metaphor by which our Lord Himself likened our union with Him to a marriage, the fathers spoke of baptism as the ritual bath given in ancient times and cultures to a bride; of confirmation as the anointing of the bride with precious and fragrant ointments and perfumes; of the Eucharist as the act of leading the bride to the bridegroom for consummation of the marriage.
Furthermore, the fathers tell us that confirmation presupposes something already existing, to which confirmation adds firmness, strengthens, gives stability. In confirmation the bishop comes to seal and confirm what the priest has already done in baptism. Confirmation produces in the baptized a higher ontological union with Christ through the sacramental character it imprints. And since the character is the foundation of union and elevation, it is likewise the consecration to a more intensive mode of sharing in His priesthood. This general priesthood of the laity, first conferred by the character of baptism, is now given greater extension in confirmation, of which the essential outward sign now is the anointing with chrism along with the words: "I seal you with the sign of the cross, and I confirm you with the chrism that sanctifies; in the name of the Father, and of the Son. and of the Holy Spirit." An anointing has always been associated with the conferring of priestly power and dignity; and on Maundy Thursday when chrism is consecrated by the bishop, the consecratory preface tells that "Chrism, which has its name from the holy name of Christ, is destined to be poured out in regal, sacerdotal, and prophetical honor upon the faithful, and to envelop them with the garment of incorruptible grace."
The fathers, moreover, find a basis for comparing baptism with confirmation in Sacred Scripture. Isaia foretold that the Christ, Yahweh's anointed, would have the sevenfold gift of the Spirit in Him. "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him: the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the Spirit of knowledge and of godliness. And He shall be filled with the Spirit of the fear of the Lord." This prophecy is surely fulfilled in first instance in the incarnation. Yet the fathers conceive of another outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the sacred humanity of Christ in the instance of His baptism by John in the Jordan. As Christ is to inaugurate the public ministry of preaching the glad tidings of salvation to mankind, the Spirit descends on Him anew and imparts to Him anew His sevenfold gifts. In other words, the fathers distinguish phases in the mode of the gifts' operation. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in particular sees a propriety in having Isaia's words accomplished a second time in the Messiah, for starting with His baptism Jesus actively undertakes the task of the new and final prophet of God, and God endows Him with the gifts empowering Him to act as the definitive witness of divine revelation and the inaugurator of the New Covenant.
The same Holy Spirit and the same gifts flow from the head onto the members. Since we are Christ's brethren the prophecy of Isaia is similarly accomplished in us, the first time in baptism but a second time in confirmation, when the sevenfold gifts descend as a second anointing from heaven upon us, that we may be a finished product in the supernatural order, perfectly molded in the image of our Lord. Among these gifts conferred, fortitude is particularly predominant, since it is the one required above all others to seal the virtue of faith infused in baptism and to make it better operative in Christian living, even to the point of absolute heroism.
Endowed with the grace of confirmation, the grace of completion and perfection, a Christian is equipped to share in Christ's public ministry, to assist Christ and the Church in the work of proclaiming the good news of salvation to all men, by word and more especially by our manner of life. The catechism has taught us that confirmation enlists us as soldiers or knights of Jesus Christ. Our Lord Himself had a better word for it. He spoke of our being a witness, which word in Greek is martyr. He guarantees us this power in the words: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth." A witness of Christ should ever be ready to confess Him, by an unreserved acceptance in mind of the complete deposit of faith that he reveals to His Church, by profession in word for all to hear of the faith that is in him, by keeping without stint the commandments that He has imposed, by suffering himself to be mocked, despised, reviled, persecuted, and even if necessary to run the gamut--being a blood witness of Him, a martyr in the strict sense. The consecration to martyrdom, so conspicuously evidenced in the early Christians, is an effect of confirmation residing in potency in ourselves, and an attendant obligation which the confirmed must be prepared to assume if called upon.
St. Thomas dwells at length on another effect of confirmation, stressing that baptism through its sacramental seal and confirmation more nobly through its seal constitute the Christian in a priestly relation to Christ the High Priest. From our union with Him and as sharers in the priesthood of our head, we obtain the right to participate in the worship of God according to the Christian dispensation. This comprises the seven sacraments, above all the Eucharist, and also the sacramentals, blessings, and other prayers. According to the New Covenant dispensation the liturgy is the chief means for all members of the mystic body of Christ to offer praise and thanksgiving and satisfaction and impetration to God. When it is a question of other external activities, such as the various works in the apostolate of Catholic action, their source and inspiration can be found in confirmation too, but they are directly a special deputation from the hierarchy to the laity, and flow only indirectly from the priestly consecration of sacramental character. There can be no doubt, of course, that confirmation is in a singular way the sacrament from which Christians derive grace for exercising works of the apostolate, in accordance with their capacity and under the supervision of their spiritual leaders. For the closer they become identified with Christ, the greater is their dignity and mission as His disciples to let their light shine before men.
So excellent a sacrament as confirmation must normally be conferred by a bishop, a procedure indicating that confirmation perfects and completes the sacrament of baptism. The bishop enjoys the plenitude of the priestly unction of Jesus Christ, and for this reason he is the ordinary minister. Besides, he can add much to the external magnificence and solemnity when he himself administers it, rather than an ordinary priest. Or should it happen that the latter does administer it on occasion, by special delegation of the Holy See, even in this instance the element of chrism must have been consecrated by a bishop. Chrism is composed of olive oil and fragrant balsam or other perfumes. The olive tree which is always green is a symbol of life, fruitfulness, peace. St. Paul tells us that we, as wild olives, have been grafted on and have become a partaker of the stem and fatness of the olive tree that is Christ. Balsam which is aromatic and preserving is a symbol of the fragrance and incorruption of the grace of the Holy Spirit. The oriental churches do not spare the highly scented perfumes in preparing chrism, and this is as it should be precisely because the sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, and outward signs are meant to appeal to the senses, including the olfactory sense. Holy chrism, says St. Cyril of Jerusalem, is no longer mere oil; but just as the element of bread becomes by the epiclesis the body of Christ, so likewise by the invocation of the Holy Spirit this oil becomes "Christ's charism productive of the Holy Spirit, through the presence of His divinity." He is in the chrism as He is in the baptismal water. "It contains Him, and constitutes the element under which He exercises and conceals His action." --TRANSLATOR
1. Isa 11.2-3 in the Septuagint. 2. Acts 1.8.
3. Rom 11.17
4. "Catechesis XXI," in Tixeront, "History of Dogmas," II, p. 169.
SECTION: Confirmation - General Rules
Blessing of baptismal water
Rituale Romanum Index