October 15, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 25
Part 3: SERIES ON THE SACRAMENTS
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo anointing Eli Brake with his sponsor Anthony Farnum during the Confirmation rite at St. Anne Church in Bristol in May 2012.
Confirmation: A sacrament for the new evangelization
R ecently Archbishop Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said that, “Philadelphia, like so much of the Church in the rest of our country, is now really mission territory again — for the second time.”
The archbishop was commenting on the fact that fewer and fewer Catholics are practicing their faith. At the same time, society is becoming increasingly secular.
Attuned to this worldwide problem during his pontificate, Pope Blessed John Paul II repeatedly called for a “New Evangelization.”
“There is. . . situation. . . where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization” (Redemptoris missio, no. 33).
The Church is equipped for this task since, by her nature, she is missionary (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 767).
From the beginning, the Holy Spirit has been the prime mover in this sacred enterprise. When, as Christ promised, the Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost, the Church began to proclaim the Gospel (Jn 20:21-23; Acts 2:1-12). Thus, the Holy Spirit is the “power from on high” (Lk 24:49) who emboldened the first disciples to bear witness to the Resurrection of Christ.
The Pentecost event is the essential frame of reference for understanding Confirmation.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (no. 1302).
Thus, Confirmation bestows a gift of the Holy Spirit so that the Church can fulfill her mission: to proclaim and make present the saving work of Jesus Christ in the world.
As the name suggests, Confirmation strengthens or “confirms” the grace of Baptism — the beginning of Christian discipleship — by giving it a missionary orientation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1285, 1289, 1303-1305, 1316). Whereas Baptism, among other things, incorporates one into the Church, Confirmation empowers one to carry out the Church’s work.
Significantly, the Rite of Confirmation includes a renewal of baptismal promises that highlights the connection between these sacraments. However, Confirmation should not be understood as an adolescent rite of passage whereby a person definitively affirms his or her Baptism (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1308).
Rather, the sacrament confers the power of the Holy Spirit so that the person can live according to the grace of Baptism — throughout life.
(While Confirmation is normally given at age 15 in the Diocese of Richmond, Church law permits, and even presumes, that the sacrament will normally be given around age seven. In the case of an emergency, Confirmation can and should be given even to an infant.)
The meaning and purpose of Confirmation become clear when we consider the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ. Here, it should be noted that the term “Christ” (in Hebrew: masia; in Greek: Christos) is not Jesus’ last name. Instead, it is Jesus’ title: He is the One whom the Father “anoints” (chooses) to accomplish salvation.
Now, the Son of God was always divine, but at a given moment he became human. This is when the Father “anointed” the Son’s sacred humanity with the Holy Spirit. Consequently, Jesus, in carrying out his mission as the Christ, did not rely on his own divinity; rather, he relied on the power of the Holy Spirit that had been given him.
From the instant when the Son of God was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Lk 1:35), to when he “handed over the spirit” on the Cross (Jn 19:30), he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Spirit raised Christ from the dead (Rom 1:4; 8:11). The anointing of the Son of God was visibly and symbolically manifested at Christ’s Baptism, when the Spirit appeared as a dove (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32).
Similarly, we become “Christians” — disciples of Christ — when the Father anoints us with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation.
The formula used to administer Confirmation is derived from the Pentecost scene in the Gospel of John, which emphasizes the continuity between Christ’s mission and ours: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. . . .Receive the holy Spirit” (20:21-22).
As in the case of Christ, our anointing with the Holy Spirit is simultaneously our commission to proclaim the Gospel.
Given the diminishing role of God and the Church in society, it is urgent that we put the grace of Confirmation to work. In the New Evangelization, personal testimony is imperative since it will ensure the credibility of our message. We must know what we are talking about.
We can draw inspiration from St. Paul, the great missionary. The Apostle proposed the Gospel as a truth that had transformed his life and given it full meaning.
In 1 Corinthians, for example, he explains that the Gospel is a paradox: The Death (and Resurrection) of Christ has wrought salvation (1:18-25; 2:1-8).
It is difficult today, as it was then, for the world to accept this truth. Nevertheless, “This God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:10). That Spirit, “who scrutinizes even the depths of God” (1 cor 2:10), enables us to truly know the Lord, and not simply about him. This is the power and promise of receiving the Holy Spirit in Confirmation — we become Apostles for the New Evangelization.