What Confirmation is not
Some say that the sacrament is a confirmation of faith, a pledge of sorts to God, and a sign of adulthood in the Church. The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes the sacrament something that we do to God where, in fact, sacraments are God’s actions to us. Confirmation is not a celebration of what we do and God responds and it is not an event at which we confirm anything to God; it 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. Therefore, Confirmation can be seen as an anointing for ministry, for work to build the kingdom of God, not graduation from church.
How did Confirmation become separated from Baptism?
Confirmation became separated from Baptism through a change in the social structure of ancient society. In the ancient world it was the bishop who performed all the duties that you might see a parish priest do today. The bishop was the one who celebrated Mass for the Christian community and led other rituals. This still holds true today, as the bishop is the “ordinary minister” of the sacraments of a geographical area, but people are 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. In the ancient world, the bishop led the only celebration of the Eucharist for that week. Ancient people did not have a choice of which Mass to attend.
Much like American society in the 1950s and 1960s, the ancient world experienced suburbanization. People from other lands started moving in to the cities and the locals left the city to the rural areas because it was safer. This was a major change as the ancient Roman Empire was an urban culture. This left the Church with some new challenges in how to minister to the community.
Gradually bishops appointed presbyters 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.
The Eastern Church was concerned with maintaining the integrity of the rites of initiation. Their philosophy was that it was okay if the presbyter anointed the new Christians so that the whole ritual would be performed at once rather than doing each part a different time.
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. Sometimes this meant people would have to wait a few years to be anointed so that the bishop could come out to the town. 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: preservation of the rite or the importance of initiation into a community and recognition by its visible head. Both sides are legitimate and are both recognized as valid 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.
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 because the bishop ordains (Holy Orders) and Confirmation is 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, and in what are now former Spanish and Portuguese colonies, priests were allowed from the early 1600s to confirm infants at the time of baptism due to the long distances that they would have to travel in order to serve the people, and may not be able to return, or have an episcopal (bishop) visit before children died, due to high infant mortality. The Church always wanting to have assure that we all are able to recieve any and all graces we need on our journey to heaven has provided exceptions to some places when the needs of the souls were different due to unusual circumstances.
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.