Here is an excellent summary of the theology, history and liturgy of the sacrament of confirmation by John-Paul Sheridan. It is Chapter 3 from the book entitled “Promises to Keep: Parents and Confirmation”. He is diocesan advisor for primary school catechetics in the diocese of Ferns.
Some initial thoughts on sacrament would be a good place to begin. The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum. In the ancient Roman world it signified a pledge of money or property which was deposited in a temple by parties to a lawsuit or contract, and which was forfeited by one or other if the suit was lost or the contract broken. The word also came to mean the oath of allegiance that soldiers took to both their commanders and to the gods of Rome. It had therefore a religious or sacred significance. In the second century, Christian writers used the word to describe Christian Initiation – in that Baptism was like a sacramentum administered to ‘new recruits’, and marking their new life in service of God and the Christian community. As the Roman Empire began to decline the word remained in usage in the Church and came not only to signify Baptism, but also any blessing, liturgical feast, or holy object.
The word sacrament signifies a hidden reality: it is a sign of something that is sacred or mysterious. It is sacred in the sense that it is precious or important, and mysterious in that it is not fully understood. Every religion has things that it signifies as sacred, as sacramental. There are sacred places like temples, churches, shrines, mountains; there are sacred actions like prayer, chanting, singing, blessing, fasting, gestures; there are sacred objects like vessels, pictures, icons, statues, vestments, writings; there are sacred persons like priests, sacrificial victims, kings and queens, prophets, holy men and women, shamans, gurus. To untrained eyes and without initiation into the mysteries and sacred rituals of any religion, all these are just a collection of things, places and people. For believers they are sacred because they signify something beyond themselves, something special, and something that is hidden and mysterious.
We are quite familiar with all the signs that surround us in everyday life: road signs giving us directions and regulating our speed; signs that tell us when a house is for sale or when there’s twenty per cent off. Logos are one of the great signs of the modern age. Everyone can identify brand logos and labels, especially children. Any parent, who has struggled with a child’s desire or demand for a certain type of trainer, can empathise. These signs communicate a direct emphatic message. In our religion we have certain signs, with which we are all familiar and to which we show deference and respect. A symbol is a special sign, which helps give expression to experiences and meanings, which often defy language: we all like cake, and it’s nice to treat ourselves from time to time. However, put candles on it and it signifies something more. Put twenty-one, forty, fifty, or even one hundred candles and then the significance is even greater; sunsets happen every evening without fail, but sit and watch it with someone special, or at the end of an eventful day, perhaps after eating some of the cake with the candles, and it has an even greater meaning; rings are just bands of gold, silver, or a base metal, but offer and exchange them as part of a celebration of the sacrament of marriage and they have a whole new meaning, which often cannot be put into words. For the people living in the ancient world of the Roman Empire, the cross was a means of execution. To Christians it becomes the symbol of redemption, the triumph of Christ over sin and death. Water is one of the basic things needed to sustain life. Bless it and pour it over the head of a baby and it becomes something that sustains more than just physical life.
Theologian Joseph Martos calls sacraments ‘doors to the sacred’, invitations to religious experiences. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade calls them ‘hierophanies’ from the Greek words, hieros meaning sacred or holy, and phaino, meaning to manifest or reveal. Therefore, a sacrament is a manifestation of the sacred (1). This experience of sacrament is the experience of entering a place where space, time and meaning are sacred. One of the elements of the Alive-O programme (the primary school catechetical programme in Ireland) has been to encourage the teacher to create a ‘sacred space’ in the classroom. This has been a very successful addition to the liturgical and spiritual formation of the children. With the addition of religious images like statues and icons, and liturgical symbols like candles and crucifixes, it has helped to evoke an attitude of prayer and to focus the prayer-time in class. One teacher told me that as soon as she lights the class candle at the beginning of prayer-time, the children have an awareness of a different moment of time in the school day. In the classroom space, time and meaning can become sacred.
The Sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131
It wasn’t until the twelfth century that the number of sacraments was restricted to the seven that we have today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes these seven sacraments as: ‘powers that come forth from the Body of Christ, which is everliving and life-giving. They are the actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are the ‘masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant’ CCC 1116. The celebration of the sacraments, according to the theologian Bernard Cooke:
was the celebration of those ultimate ‘mysteries’ that had been revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Sacramental liturgies brought men and women into a world beyond the purely human, into the realm of the sacred, into contact with divine power and, it was hoped, divine mercy and grace… While these mystery celebrations were intended to worship and acknowledge God, they were also meant to benefit the humans who performed them… For the past thousand years or so, this understanding has taken the form of belief that salvation came to people through sacraments; sacraments ‘give grace’. They overcome human sinfulness; they give men, women, and children the moral strength to lead good lives and so reach their destiny; they bring people closer to God (2).
The sacraments transform us, but this can only be achieved by an active participation on our part. ‘The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions’ CCC 1131. Sacraments don’t just happen to us as we stand on the sidelines as a passive or partly interested spectator.
Finally it must be remembered that the celebration of a sacrament is not just about the individual. When we all gather and celebrate a birthday, we all benefit from the event. At times of sadness we can all be moved in some way and in varying degrees. In the celebration of the sacraments: ‘the fruit of sacramental life is both personal and ecclesial. For everyone of the faithful on the one hand, this fruit is life for God in Christ Jesus; for the Church, on the other, it is an increase in charity and in her mission of witness’ CCC 1134.
The Sacrament of Confirmation confers a character. By it the baptised 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. The Code of Canon Law: canon 879.
History of Confirmation
If people in the Early Christian Community wanted to commit themselves as followers of Christ, they had to be baptised with water. Sometimes those people also received the ‘laying on of hands’ from leaders in the Christian Community, or they were anointed with oil, that is, they were marked with consecrated oil as Christians. Today the laying on of hands and anointing are the central actions of the Confirmation ceremony. Scholars, however, cannot establish whether this laying on of hands and anointing with oil in the New Testament had anything to do with what we now call Confirmation. There is no clear evidence of a separate sacrament of Confirmation at this time in the history of the Church.
Gradually, the ceremonies that signified a person was becoming a Christian became more elaborate and involved. At first, solemn initiation (the process of becoming a member of a group) into the Church took place in a single ceremony. That ceremony normally unfolded during the Easter Vigil service. After a long period of instruction that sometimes lasted as long as three years, each candidate was baptised individually and apart from the main assembly, and then clothed in a white garment. The candidates were then brought before the Bishop, the leader of the local church, and the other members of the assembly. The Bishop laid his hands on the candidates; he prayed that the candidates might receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. From the fourth century, bishops have used the prayer that we currently use in the Confirmation ceremony today.
After a time, because the number of those who wanted to be Christians grew so quickly, the Bishops were no longer able to be present at every ceremony of initiation. The Eastern Church, that is, the Churches in what we now call the Middle East, resolved this problem by allowing priests to administer the whole ceremony of initiation. To this day in many Eastern Churches, the ceremony of initiation remains a single ceremony. So, a person is baptised, ‘confirmed’, and shares in the Eucharist in the course of one ceremony, even if that person is an infant.
In the Western Church, the Church of Rome, the problem was resolved in quite a different way. The ceremony of initiation was divided into separate ceremonies that took place at different times. Priests were allowed to baptise and it seems that most often they gave Holy Communion in that ceremony, too. However, bishops alone could lay on hands and anoint. Bishops completed the initiation process in this way whenever they could arrange to be present in a particular area.
We are not quite sure why the Western Church chose this means of resolving the problem. We do know that when this division of the ceremony of initiation took place, people began to think in terms of two different or separate sacraments: Baptism and what came to be called Confirmation.
Over the course of the next few centuries, Confirmation became more and more separated from Baptism, both in time and in meaning. Christians no longer saw it clearly as the sealing or completion of Baptism. They began to look upon it in many different ways; as a sacrament of growth, or of maturity, or of commitment. Only at this time did the idea of Confirmation making a person a ‘Soldier of Christ’ arise and gain support.
Who have given these men and women the dignity of meriting the forgiveness of sins
through the bath of regeneration of the Holy Spirit;
put your grace in them that they may serve you according to your will:
For yours is the glory, Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church,
now and for ever and ever! Amen.
Prayer at the Imposition of Hands during Confirmation from The Apostolic Tradition (c.315) by Hippolytus.
Although, as stated, there was no clear emergence of Confirmation as a separate sacrament until after the third century, the elements of the Sacrament of Confirmation can be recognised in the Sacrament of Baptism in the early Church.
After Pentecost, the Apostles began initiating new members into the Christian community. These procedures were loosely organised, but followed closely the practices used in the Jewish groups at the time. Procedures included a period of preparation, comprising instruction and repentance. This was followed by reception into the community through a bath of water and sometimes a laying on of hands.
Later a longer period of preparation was required. This included instruction, prayer, fasting, repentance and good works. A Sponsor was also required to present a candidate to become a Catechumen (one under instruction). Preparation could last up to three years under of the care of the Sponsor who witnessed to the moral quality of the Catechumen’s life.
At Baptism, each catechumen went into the water where they were asked to state their belief in Jesus Christ. Up to three immersions took place. Deaconesses assisted the women during this ceremony. After Baptism, the bishop anointed each person on the forehead to signify being joined with Jesus Christ. Then the bishop greeted each with the kiss of peace.
Later, more rituals, for example, breathing on the candidate to blow away evil spirits and blow in the Holy Spirit, were added to the form of the sacraments. Special places were built apart from the church as fitting places for driving out devils (Baptisteries). With the growing number of Baptisms and churches, bishops were no longer able to preside at each Baptism to confirm it by laying on of hands. Hence, Baptism and Confirmation began to emerge as separate ceremonies. Confirmation took place whenever the Bishop could be present.
Only as Christianity became the prevailing religion did infant Baptism become the common practice. Hence the period of preparation no longer seemed necessary. In some places, Confirmation continued to immediately follow Baptism. During the Middle Ages, fifteen was the usual age for Confirmation, but practices varied widely.
The Council of Trent stated the age of reason to be sometime between the ages of seven and eleven.
After the French Revolution, twelve was considered the more appropriate age for Confirmation.
The bishop’s kiss of peace now became a token blow on the cheek to signify that one must be ready to suffer for Christ.
The Second Vatican Council prepared new guidelines for the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The latter is now seen in terms of initiation and generally takes place within the Eucharist. Before being confirmed, candidates renew their Baptismal Promises, are next confirmed and then celebrate and receive the Eucharist. Thereby they enact again the traditional initiation sequence of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. The new rites of Confirmation were introduced in 1971.
you have made this mixture of oil and perfume
a sign and source of your blessing.
Let the splendour of holiness shine on the world
from every person signed with this oil.
Second Prayer for Consecration of Chrism – Roman Missal
Ceremony of Confirmation
On the day of your child’s baptism you brought them to the church and began their journey of faith. You stood before the priest and the community of the Church, represented by your family and friends and promised to ‘keep the flame of faith alive in their hearts’ (Rite of Baptism). You promised ‘to be the first teachers of your child in the ways of faith’ (Rite of Baptism) and also to be ‘the best of teachers’ (Rite of Baptism). Over the last twelve years you have been responsible for teaching them their prayers, bringing them to Church, giving them the first lessons in right and wrong. The family is described as the ‘domestic church’ (Lumen Gentium 11), where your children receive their ‘first Christian experience’ (General Directory for Catechesis 226), and this experience ‘frequently leaves decisive traces which last throughout life’ GDC 226.
On the day of Confirmation it is time for children to take on the responsibility for their own faith. In many parishes a Service of Light is held some time before the Confirmation ceremony. I have heard parents say that they found this a more memorable occasion, when compared with the hustle and bustle that often accompanies the Confirmation day. During this ritual, parents light again the candle that was first lit on the day of their child’s baptism and they then hand that candle to their son or daughter. The ritual symbolises the handing on the responsibility for their faith to the child. However, for parents and godparents it is not the end. Parents still have a great deal to do with the religious upbringing of their children, a responsibility which often remains throughout life. Parents will always pray for their children, and hopefully in a spirit of love and caring offer advice and encouragement from time to time.
Almighty God, Father of your Christ, your only-begotten Son,
grant me a spotless body, a pure heart, a watchful spirit, a knowledge without error.
Let the Holy Spirit come
so that I may possess the truth and believe it firmly
though your Christ. Through him, glory to you,
in the Holy Spirit for ever! Amen.
Prayer of the Confirmed Person from The Apostolic Constitutions (c.380)
On the day of Confirmation the school is also present with the teachers, the choir, the servers and all the others it takes to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. The teachers that are present have prepared the young people in the last year for the Sacrament of Confirmation. However, on the day they also represent the many teachers who have nurtured the faith of the boys and girls over the years since they began school, because teachers ‘have the responsibility to cultivate this gift by nourishing it and helping it to grow’ GDC 244. It is the special function of the school to ‘enable young people, while developing their own personality, to grow at the same time in that new life which has been given to them in baptism’ GDC 259.
On the day of Confirmation the Christian community is present once again. The community of the particular parish plays its part in the journey of faith of the young people who are about to be confirmed. By virtue of their own Confirmation, the members of the community ‘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 11). ‘The parish is, without doubt, the most important place in which the Christian community is formed and expressed. It is the place where faith is born and grows’ GDC 257. All who help in the preparation for the day of Confirmation have helped the faith of candidates. In the words of
St Paul ‘I received from the Lord, what I also delivered to you’ l Cor. 11:23. It is the privilege of the community to contribute what was contributed for them – the witness, prayer and practical assistance to the young people. In the future and in their turn the girls and boys who are confirmed today will help the future generations.
Finally the clergy are present – the bishop and the priests of the parish. The bishop is the original minister of Confirmation. The reason for this is to signify an obvious link with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost. As the leaders of the Church, the bishops are the successors to the Apostles. In certain circumstances the bishop may delegate the parish priest or another priest as an extraordinary minister of the sacrament, most usually the parish priest of the parish where the sacrament is taking place.
The rite of Confirmation is to be revised in order that the intimate connection of this sacrament with the whole of Christian initiation may stand out more clearly. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 71
In the normal course of events the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation takes place during the celebration of the Eucharist. Confirmation (like Baptism) is connected with the Eucharist. The Gift of the Holy Spirit confirms us as children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, uniting ourselves more consciously with Jesus, who offers to the Father his sacrifice of love for the salvation of the world. The word ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving. The Gift of the Holy Spirit makes us more aware of the goodness of God and deepens our sense of gratitude and thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit teaches us to address God as ‘Father’ Gal. 4:6. Finally, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus enables us to appreciate more fully that partaking with others in the Bread of Life at Communion commits us to a life of mutual love and sharing in accordance with the commandment of Jesus: ‘love one another’.
Ordinarily there is a sponsor with the child. The choice of sponsor very much depends on the local custom. Many times it is one or other parent or both, sometimes a child’s godparent, sometimes an older brother or sister. The criteria for a sponsor is that they are confirmed themselves, are Catholic and in good standing.
If they learn to remember enough, they are asked whether they have fulfilled what their sponsors promised in their name at baptism. If they respond that they have fulfilled it, then that profession is publicly renewed, as equals gathered, in ceremonies which are solemn, appropriate, pious, serious, and grand. These things befit that profession, than which nothing can be holier… these rituals will have more authority if they are done by bishops themselves, not by pastors or assembled suffragans. From Paraphrases on the New Testament (1522) by Erasmus.
The ceremony of Confirmation is in four parts: Presentation of the Candidates; Renewal of Baptismal Promises; The Laying on of Hands; Anointing with Chrism.
Presentation of the Candidates
After the Gospel the bishops and the priests take their seats. The parish priest or his delegate will present the candidates for Confirmation. The candidates are asked to stand and present themselves for receipt of the sacrament. This presentation of candidates is also part of the rite of ordination for a priest and bishop. It marks the willingness of the candidates to go forward and receive the sacrament that is about to be conferred on them. They stand up by themselves in marked contrast to the day when they were carried to the Church on the occasion of their baptism. In some places and depending on numbers, the names of the candidates are read out. Sometimes the bishop asks the parish priest about the preparation that has been undertaken by the candidates before Confirmation. The parish priest usually gives a brief description of the faith journey of candidates up and until the present time.
Renewal of the Baptismal Promises
After a homily by the bishop, the young people are asked to stand to renew the promises made for them at Baptism by their parents and godparents. In Baptism we became children of God, followers of Jesus Christ, and members of the Church. In Confirmation we publicly profess our faith in God our Father and in Jesus Christ who sent us the Spirit to enable us to take part in the life and mission of the Church.
Laying on of Hands
The laying on of hands is the biblical gesture by which the Holy Spirit in invoked. In Acts 6:1-7, the Apostles lay their hands on the seven they chose to assist them. In Acts 13 the prophets and teachers of the Church at Antioch laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas before they undertook the particular ministry for which God was calling them. The laying on of hands is used in Confirmation and in other sacraments. In Confirmation it evokes the invisible gift of the Holy Spirit given to us by God. The bishop accompanied by the priests present lay their hands on the children for Confirmation during the prayer: It begins with the bishop saying:
My dear friends, in baptism God our Father gave the birth of eternal life to his chosen sons and daughters. Let us pray to our Father that he will pour out the Holy Spirit to strengthen his sons and daughters with this gift and anoint them to be more like Christ, the Son of God.
Pause and all pray in silence. The bishop and priests extend their hands over the candidates:
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life.
Send your Holy Spirit upon them
to be their helper and guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgement and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Anointing with Chrism
The sacramental sign of Confirmation is the anointing with Chrism and the words ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ This anointing is a sign that our whole being has been filled by the power of the Spirit. The oil used for this anointing is Chrism. Chrism is used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders: the head of the newly-baptised is anointed with chrism, the forehead of the person confirmed, the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration, and the hands of a priest at his ordination. It is used in the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, altars and altar-stones.
The second sacrament is Confirmation, whose matter is chrism blessed by a” Bishop. It is made. from oil, which consciously signifies excellence, and balsam, which signifies the aroma of good character. And the form is, ‘I sign you with the sign of the cross, and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ Council of Florence, 224 (1439)
The word ‘chrism’, comes from the Greek chrisma, and was used to designate any substance used for the purposes of smearing or anointing, such as the various kinds of oils, unguents, and pigments. Eventually its meaning was restricted to oil used in religious functions and ceremonies. It is a mixture of purest olive oil and balsam. There are many references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the use of oil in religious ceremonies. It was used in the coronation of kings, in the consecration of the high priest and in the ordination of the Levites. Balsam is an aromatic, resinous substance that is extracted from the wood of certain trees or plants. In the beginning the Christian Era it was obtained from Judea and from Arabia, but today it comes from the West Indies. Chrism is blessed by a bishop in a special manner at the Chrism Mass. Rather than making the sign of the cross over it, as with other blessings, the Bishop breathes on it, signifying the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
As the person is anointed during the Confirmation ceremony, the Bishop say, ‘Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit’. This gesture and the words accompanying it express clearly the effects of the giving of the Holy Spirit. Signed with the perfumed oil, the young person receives the seal of the Lord and the gift of the Holy Spirit, drawing them closer to Christ and to the ministry for which all, as baptised Christians, are called.
1. Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred (London, SCM Press, 1981), 16.
2. Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications,