The Sacrament of Confirmation may be one of the least understood sacraments in the Church. Let’s look at its history and theology to get a better idea of what it really is.
What Confirmation is not
Some say that Confirmation is a pledge of sorts to God and a sign of adulthood in the Church. In this view, confirmation is the sacrament where someone decides to take the faith for him or her self as an adult. The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes the sacrament something that we do for God. In fact, sacraments are God’s gifts to us. Sacraments are not what we do for God, but what God does for us. Confirmation is about what God does and how we respond to God.
Confirmation was once a part of the baptismal ritual; it took place immediately after baptism, sealing in the Holy Spirit and anointing the new Christian with a threefold ministry as priest, prophet, and king. The specific oil that is used is called chrism. It is only used in two sacraments: Confirmation and Holy Orders; both are sacraments in which the person is anointed for ministry. In Holy Orders, a man is anointed for the ministry of ordained priesthood. Confirmation is an anointing that completes baptismal graces and gives someone the supernatural grace necessary to live out the mission given to all believers. Therefore, Confirmation is an anointing for ministry, for work to build the kingdom of God. It is not graduation from church.
Bishops and Priests in the early Church
As we have seen, in the early Church Confirmation was given to a person immediately after Baptism. This was the case whether the baptized person was a baby or an adult. In the Eastern Churches, Confirmation still immediately follows baptism.
Confirmation became separated from Baptism because of a change in the structure of the early Church. In the earliest days of the Church the bishop performed all the duties that you might see a parish priest do today. This still holds true today, as the bishop is the “ordinary minister” of the sacraments of a geographical area. The priests of a diocese share in the bishop’s sacramental power, but they are not on the same level of bishops. This is why bishops can perform the sacrament of ordination but priests cannot.
Although having the bishop perform most sacraments in the early Church worked initially, eventually the Church grew beyond this. The individual Churches (basically equivalent to modern dioceses) became so spread out that it would make it difficult for the bishop to lead the entire community in one celebration, especially in areas with a large Christian population.
Gradually bishops appointed presbyters (priests) to go live in the villages, preside over Eucharist, preach, and to keep in touch with the bishop so that he knew what was happening in the outlying communities. However, not all parts of the Church had the same idea as to how initiation should be carried out.
East and West
The Eastern Church was primarily concerned with maintaining the integrity of the rites of initiation. They reasoned that it was preferable for a priest to anoint the new Christians rather than doing each part a different time, as might be necessary if they had to wait for the bishop.
The Western Church, however, wanted to preserve the idea of initiation into a whole community, with recognition by its visible head. Therefore, the bishop was the only one who could perform the anointing. (In some cases today priests are allowed to perform Confirmation, usually with converts to the Church. Still, the vast majority of Confirmations are performed by the bishop.) Sometimes this meant people would have to wait a few years to be confirmed because the bishop could not come out to the town regularly. This is how Confirmation became a separate sacrament from Baptism in the Western Church.
As you can imagine there was debate among the communities as to which was most important. Did it matter more to preserve the ancient rite of performing the sacraments? Or was it more important that Confirmation be reserved to the bishop, the visible head of an individual diocese? Both sides are recognized as valid perspectives by the Catholic Church. However, in the Latin rite (or the Roman Catholic Church), most often Confirmation is not celebrated at the same time as Baptism.
Development of Confirmation in the Roman Church
Ratramnus of Corbie, a ninth century monk French monk argued in favor of the position of the Western Church. He said that it has to be the bishop that confirms. The bishop ordains priests and Confirmation is in some sense the ordination of the laity. He also said that it is the sacramental celebration of the priesthood of the people of God and the universal priesthood of the faithful.
In the Western, or Latin Church at the Papacy of Pope Pius XII, (1939-1958) some priests, by special indult (permission), were given authority to confirm under special circumstances. In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, priests were allowed from the early 1600s to confirm infants at the time of baptism. The Pope permitted this due to the long distances that the priests would have to travel in order to serve the people. Because of high infant mortality, if Confirmation were delayed, the priest might not be able to return, or have a bishop visit before children died. The Church always wants to assure that we all are able to receive any and all graces we need on our journey to heaven. Therefore, the Church sometimes has provided exceptions when the needs of souls were different due to unusual circumstances.
Preserving the Order of the Sacraments
Theologically, the Eucharist is the completion of a Christian’s initiation. In the early Church and in the Eastern Churches today, a baby is baptized, confirmed, and then receives first communion. In the Western Church, converts to the Church also receive the Eucharist after Confirmation. This is the proper theological order of the sacraments.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the sacraments of Christian initiation — baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist — lay the foundations of every Christian life. … The faithful are born anew by baptism, strengthened by the Sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life” (No. 1212). The Catechism goes on to say that “The holy Eucharist completes our Christian initiation” (No. 1322).
So why did Confirmation end up being celebrated after first communion in the Western Church? At one time, the Church delayed both confirmation and first communion until later in a child’s life. Young adolescents received Confirmation and then their first Eucharist. Then, in 1910, Pope Pius X issued the decree Quam Singulari Christus Amore (How Special Christ’s Love). This decree said that Communion should not be delayed beyond when a child reaches the age of reason. The age of reason, when a child can understand right and wrong and take responsibility for his or her actions, is usually considered to be around age six. While the Church followed Pius’s decree and moved the sacrament of first Eucharist to much earlier in a child’s life, in the US, Confirmation still remained a sacrament for adolescents.
Today, some dioceses are working to restore the proper order of the sacraments. These dioceses perform the sacrament of Confirmation when children are younger before they receive first communion around age six or seven. It is a growing trend, but most Catholics still receive their first Eucharist years before they are confirmed.
Towards a developed theology of Confirmation
Confirmation is a sacrament that is misunderstood and underestimated. The Catholic Church would benefit from a more developed theology of Confirmation that helps young people understand the importance of this sacrament and not to look at it as an end to religious education, but the end of the beginning of a life in service to God.