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Part Two:  Channels of Grace


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Don't You Know that You Yourselves are God's Temple and that God's Spirit Lives in You? “If there was ever a time when the Sacrament of Confirmation needed to be explained carefully, that time is now. All too many members of the Church neglect it altogether; and those who have received it or who plan to receive it, see it as something minor in their lives. There is need, then, for instruction on the nature, power, and dignity of this sacrament. Far from being neglected or received in a mere perfunctory way, Confirmation must be restored to the reverence and devotion it deserves.”

These words introduced The Roman Catechism published by Pope St. Pius V in 1566. They might just as appropriately have been written today.

Institution by Christ

There is no direct evidence in Scripture that Christ actually instituted the sacrament of Confirmation. Yet the Church has formally defined that Christ personally instituted this sacrament. Indeed the Council of Trent went out of its way to teach as irreversible Catholic doctrine that “the Confirmation of baptized persons is… a true and proper sacrament.” It simply rejected the notion that Confirmation “meant nothing more than a certain catechesis by which those nearing adolescence gave an account of their faith before the Church” (Decree on the Sacraments, March 3, 1547).

Already in the Old Covenant the prophets foretold that outpouring of the Spirit of God over the whole of humanity as one of the distinctive signs of the messianic age.

Jesus plainly promised to send the Holy Spirit, and went on to describe the effect this would have on His followers.

I shall ask the Father and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever, that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive since it neither sees nor knows Him (John 14:16-17).
I have said these things to you while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and bring all things to your mind that I have said to you (John 14:25-26).

On the way to His ascension, Christ finally promised to send the Holy Spirit soon. He told the disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to “wait there for what the Father had promised.” He reminded them: “It is what you have heard me speak about. John baptized with water but you, not many days from now, will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then still more clearly, He predicted what the Holy Spirit would do in their lives. “You will receive power,” Christ assured them, “when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria and indeed to the ends of the earth: (Acts 1:4-5, 8). Note that the Greek word for “witnesses” in the inspired text of the Acts of the Apostles is martures which means “martyrs.” The kind of witnessing that Christ’s followers will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to give is to martyrdom.

What the apostles themselves received on Pentecost Sunday, they soon began to communicate to others. The rite they used was the imposition of hands on the newly baptized.

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. And they went down there, and prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet He had not come down on any of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).

Later on in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that St. Paul imposed his hands on some twelve converts who had been baptized and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6).

So the practice continued through the apostolic age into the early Christian centuries. And always the understanding was that Confirmation was a sacrament distinct from Baptism; that it consisted in the imposition of hands by the apostles and their successors; that the effect of the outward rite was a special communication of the Holy Spirit, the divine source of interior sanctification.

What is Confirmation?

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit As we did for the sacrament of Baptism, we will examine the meaning of Confirmation in the words of the new Code of Canon Law. It contains all the essential elements of this second of the seven sacraments.

The sacrament of Confirmation confers a character. By it the baptized continue their path of Christian initiation. They are enriched with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and are more closely linked to the Church. They are made strong and more firmly obliged by word and deed to witness to Christ and to spread and defend the faith.

Immediately we see that Confirmation is exactly what its name implies. It is the sacrament which makes firm or strengthens the gifts of grace that are first received in Baptism.

Sacramental Character.  The Church stresses that the indelible seal received in Confirmation is really a new character. It is not merely a deepening of the baptismal character. The Church’s tradition teaches that the confirmation character gives the power and the right to perform actions which are necessary in the spiritual battle against the enemies of the faith. These enemies are the world, our own proud intellect and will, and the evil spirit.

Moreover, the Church does not hesitate to say that Confirmation changes the simple members of the kingdom of Christ into soldiers of Christ. St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, expresses this idea forcefully in the invitation that Christ extends to His chosen followers.

My will is to conquer the whole world and all enemies and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Whoever, therefore, desires to come with me must labor with me in order that following me in pain, he may likewise follow me in glory (The Kingdom of Christ).

The character of Confirmation confers on the baptized the strength they need to live up to Christ’s expectations of the Mystical Body on earth, which is the Church Militant.

Sacramental Graces.  Consistent with the distinctive character of Confirmation, a variety of special graces is assured for a lifetime loyalty to Christ and His Church.

Along with Baptism, Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation. It lays the foundation, after Baptism, for living up to the hard demands of the gospel.

Confirmation binds the one baptized more intimately to the Church, which means more closely to Christ, and enables us to be more devoted to His divine Person and to serve Him more faithfully.

Three words in the Church’s definition of Confirmation bring out the unique effects of this sacrament. They are to “witness to Christ,” and “spread and defend the faith.” On each of these three levels, Confirmation strengthens a Christian and imposes the obligation to witness, spread, and defend. Let us now examine them in detail.

  1. In order to be able to witness to Christ, Confirmation deepens a person’s faith by making Christ better understood, more clearly perceived, and more firmly believed in as the Son of the living God who became man to redeem the world. In a word, Confirmation strengthens our conviction of mind by enabling us to say with St. Paul: “I have not lost confidence, because I know who it is that I have put my trust in, and I have no doubt at all that He is able to take care of all that I have entrusted to Him until that Day” (II Timothy 1:12).

    Conviction is the bedrock of courage: A convinced mind is the foundation for a courageous will. Every courageous witness to Christ was, in effect, a martyr for Christ, either by shedding his blood for the Savior in dying a martyr’s death, or certainly testifying to his deathless love for Christ by living a martyr’s life.

  2. In order to be able to spread the faith, Confirmation develops our sense of mission and deepens our desire to share with others what others have so zealously passed on to us.

    St. John Chrysostom is warrant for the statement that, on the last day, we shall be judged mainly on our practice of charity in sharing our Catholic faith. The Second Vatican Council expressed the same idea in its Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People.

    From the fact of their union with Christ the Head, flows the laymen’s right and duty to be apostles. Inserted as they are in the Mystical Body by Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, it is by the Lord Himself that they are assigned to the apostolate (I, 3).

    The council goes so far as to say that a Catholic “who does not work at the growth of the body [of Christ] to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless both to the Church and himself” (I, 2). The apostolate is therefore no option but a grave obligation.

  3. In order to be able to defend the faith, Confirmation does two things: It enlightens the mind of the believer to know how the true faith should be protected from danger or against assault, and it fortifies the will to want to come to the defense of the faith at no matter what cost to one’s self-love or ease.

This defense of Catholic truth should always, of course, be done with prudence and charity. That is why our zeal must be tempered by wisdom and love. But the basic obligation remains.

One final observation. The faithful are told that Confirmation deepens their duty “to witness to Christ and to spread and defend the faith.” They are also told how to fulfill this triple responsibility: They are to do so “by word and deed.”

These two, word and deed, go together. No less than Christ Himself, during His visible stay on earth, proclaimed the gospel by what He said and what He did, so those who have been confirmed by His Spirit are to follow His example. Both verbal communication and the practice of Christian virtue are the means of testifying to the Savior, of extending His kingdom on earth, and of safeguarding the treasures of revealed truth which God became man to share with the human family.

Ritual and Administration

Six years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI determined by his pontifical authority that the essence of Confirmation consists in both the imposition of hands and the anointing with chrism. He also determined that the words of Confirmation should be almost identical with those used by the Catholic Church in the Eastern or Byzantine rite:

By our supreme apostolic authority, we decree and lay down that in the Latin Church the following should be observed in the future: The sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of the hand and through the words, “Receive the seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit” (Apostolic Constitution, August 15, 1971).

The ordinary minister of Confirmation is the bishop. Priests can also administer Confirmation provided they have the faculty by the Church’s common law or have been duly authorized to confirm. One of the new provisions of Canon Law gives priests the power to confirm those whom they have instructed in the faith and received into the Church. In danger of death the pastor and, in fact, any priest can confer the sacrament of Confirmation.

Absolutely speaking, “All baptized persons who have not been confirmed, and only they, are capable of receiving Confirmation.” However, to be lawfully confirmed a person should have the use of reason, be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises (canon 889). The Church’s general law is that “the sacrament of Confirmation is to be conferred at about the age of discretion.” The conference of bishops may determine another age. The age for Confirmation may be further qualified by the judgment of the one who is to confer the sacrament or when there is danger of death (Canon 891).

We should add, however, that Confirmation can be received by any baptized person before reaching the age of reason. This is clear from the practice of confirming infants in the west up to the thirteenth century and today in the Eastern Church. Corresponding to its purpose of enabling a baptized person to be a miles Christi, “soldier of Christ,” the Latin Rite has decided that Confirmation should be delayed until after infancy. However, as noted before, exceptions are admissible, especially in danger of death. It should always be kept in mind that Confirmation provides a person with a higher state of grace on earth and, as a result, a higher state of glory in eternity.

Jesus Sends Forth the 12

Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism

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The pictures “The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Sends Forth the 12” at the bottom of the page is from the book Christian Symbols, drawn by Rudolf Koch (1876 – 1934) with the collaboration of Fritz Kredel (1900 – 1973) (trans. Kevin Ahern; San Francisco: Arion Press, 1996) courtesy of Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

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