In Confirmation the gift of the Holy Spirit strengthens Christians that they may profess their faith in Christ with fervour and perseverance
At the General Audience of 1 April the Holy Father talked about the sacrament of Confirmation and its role in the Church's life. This talk is the 27th in the Pope's catechesis on the nature of the Church. Here is the Holy Father's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. On the basis of the Council's text which says: "The sacred nature and organic structure of the priestly community is brought into operation through the sacraments and the exercise of virtues" (Lumen gentium,n. 11), in today's catechesis we will continue to develop this truth about the Church, focusing our attention on the sacrament of Confirmation. We read in Lumen gentium: "By the sacrament of Confirmation they [the baptized faithful] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are endowed with the special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread the faith by word and deed" (Lumen gentium, n. 11).
2. Early evidence of this sacrament appears in the Acts of the Apostles. There it says that the deacon Philip (a different person from the Apostle Philip), one of the seven men "filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom" who were ordained by the Apostles, had gone down to a town in Samaria to preach the Good News. "With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.... Once they began to believe Philip as he preached the Good News about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, men and women alike were baptized.... Now when the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon 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 8:6-17).
This episode shows us the connection which existed from the Church's earliest days between Baptism and an "imposition of hands", a new sacramental act to receive and confer the gift of the Holy Spirit. This rite is considered to be a completion of Baptism. It is thought to be so important that Peter and John are sent expressly from Jerusalem to Samaria for this purpose.
3. The role the Apostles played in conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit is the origin of the role given to the Bishop in the Latin rite of the Church. The rite consists in the imposition of hands, performed by the Church since the second century, as attested to by the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (around the year 200), which speaks of a double rite: the anointing done by a presbyter before Baptism, followed by the imposition of the hand on the baptized, performed by a Bishop who pours holy chrism on their heads. This shows the difference between the anointing at Baptism and that at Confirmation.
4. Over the Christian centuries different practices in the administration of Confirmation obtained in the East and West.
In the Eastern Church Confirmation is conferred immediately after Baptism (Baptism is given without an anointing), while in the Western Church, in the case of Baptism in infancy, Confirmation is administered after the age of reason has been reached, or at a later time determined by the Episcopal Conference (CIC,Can. 891).
In the East the minister of Confirmation is the priest who baptizes; in the West the ordinary minister is the Bishop but there are also presbyters who receive the faculty to administer the sacrament.
Moreover, in the East the essential rite consists in the anointing alone; in the West the anointing is done with the imposition of the hand (can. 880).
In addition to these differences between the East and West there is also a variety of arrangements in the Western Church regarding the most appropriate age for Confirmation, depending on time, place, or spiritual and cultural conditions. This is based on the freedom the Church maintains in determining the particular conditions for celebrating the sacramental rite.
5. The essential effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is to bring to perfection the gift of the Holy Spirit received in Baptism, so that the person who receives it is able to give witness to Christ in speech and with his life.
Baptism achieves purification and liberation from sin, and confers new life. Confirmation highlights the positive aspect of sanctification and the strength which the Holy Spirit gives the Christian for an authentically Christian life and effective witness.
6. As with Baptism, a special character is also impressed on the soul by the sacrament of Confirmation. It brings to perfection the baptismal consecration and is conferred by two ritual acts, the imposition of hands and the anointing.
The ability to participate in worship, which was already received in Baptism, is strengthened by Confirmation. The universal priesthood is more deeply rooted in the person and can be exercised more effectively. The specific function of the character of Confirmation is to put into practice Christian witness and action, which St Peter already pointed out as originating in the universal priesthood (cf. I Pt 2:11 ff.). St Thomas Aquinas explains that the confirmed give witness to the name of Christ and perform the acts of good Christians in the defence and spread of the faith, in virtue of the character's "special power" (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 72, a. 5, in c. and ad 1), inasmuch as they are entrusted with a special function and mandate. It is a "participation in the priesthood of Christ on the part of the faithful who are called to the divine worship which in Christianity derives from Christ's priesthood" (ibid., q. 63, a. 3). Public witness to Christ is also included in the universal priesthood of the faithful, to which they are called "almost en officio" (ibid., q. 72, a. 5, ad 2).
7. The grace conferred by the sacrament of Confirmation is more specifically a gift of strength. The Council says that through Confirmation the baptized "are endowed with the special strength of the Holy Spirit" (Lumen gentium, n. 11). This gift corresponds to the need for greater zeal in facing the "spiritual battle" of faith and charity (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 72, a. 5), in order to resist temptation and give the witness of Christian word and deed to the world with courage, fervour and perseverance. This zeal is conferred in the sacrament by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus noted the danger of being ashamed to profess the faith: "Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Lk 9:26; cf. Mk 8:38). Being ashamed of Christ is often expressed in those forms of "human respect" by which one hides one's own faith and agrees to compromises which are unacceptable for someone who wants to be Christ's true disciple. How many people, even Christians, make compromises today!
Through the sacrament of Confirmation, the Holy Spirit fills the individual with the courage to profess his faith in Christ. Professing this faith, according to the Council text with which we began, means "to spread the faith by word and deed" as consistent and faithful witnesses.
8. Since the Middle Ages theology, which developed in a context of generous commitment to "spiritual combat" for Christ, has not hesitated to highlight the strength given by Confirmation to Christians who are called "to serve as soldiers for God". And theology continues to see in this sacrament the value of sacrifice and consecration which is included in its origin from the "fulness of Christ's grace" (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 72, a. I ad 4). The fact that Confirmation is distinguished from Baptism and comes after it is explained this way by St Thomas Aquinas: "The sacrament of Confirmation is, as it were, the final completion of the sacrament of Baptism, in the sense that by Baptism (according to St Paul) the Christian is built up into a spiritual dwelling (cf. I Cor 3:9), and is written like a spiritual letter (cf. 2 Cor 3:2-3) whereas by the sacrament of Confirmation, like a house already built, he is consecrated as a temple of the Holy Spirit and as a letter already written is signed with the sign of the cross" (III q. 72, a. 11).
9.As we know, there are pastoral problems regarding Confirmation, and more particularly, the appropriate age for receiving this sacrament.
There has been a recent tendency to delay the time of conferral until the age of 15-18, so that the recipient's personality may be more mature and he can consciously make a more serious and stable commitment to Christian life and witness.
Others prefer a younger age. In any case, there must be hope that there will be a thorough preparation for this sacrament, which will allow those who receive it to renew their baptismal promises with full awareness of the gifts they are receiving and the obligations they are assuming. Without a long and serious preparation, they run the risk of reducing the sacrament to a mere formality or external ritual, or even losing sight of the essential sacramental aspect by insisting exclusively on the moral commitment involved.
10. I will conclude by recalling that Confirmation is the sacrament capable of inspiring and supporting the commitment of the faithful who want to devote themselves to Christian witness in society. I hope that all young Christians— especially with the help that comes from the grace of Confirmation -- will merit the acknowledgement given by the Apostle John: "I write to you, young men, because you are strong and the word of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one" (I Jn 2:14).
L'Osservatore Romano April 8, 1992