The girls wobble unsteadily on new heels; the boys
in their suits look awkward as colts. The teenagers’ interests lean
toward the gifts after Confirmation, especially those intriguing
white envelopes that might contain cash.
So what’s a parent to do? We’re torn between wanting our children
to appreciate the full richness of the sacrament and knowing that
it may take years for the meaning to unfold. Three pieces of advice
might help us live with this dilemma.
One answer is to take the long view, as did Liz, veteran mother
of four boys. As she watched her son Scott being anointed with chrism
(oil scented with balsam), she whispered to her husband, “He may
not know now how much he’ll need this. But in the years ahead, he’ll
draw on it again and again.”
Liz was, of course, prophetic. The oil was barely dry on the teenagers’
foreheads before their car doors slammed and plans were shouted
to meet for doughnuts. But in a dangerous world of car accidents
and AIDS, addictions and gun violence, parents are well advised
to cherish this symbol of strength and protection.
For Scott, one of the times his mother had predicted came six years
after Confirmation. A deft skier, he had an accident so critical
that the helicopter landed right on the slope. As it flew Scott
to the hospital, his parents were notified by phone that he might
not survive. They called their pastor who anointed Scott in the
emergency room. After several grueling weeks in intensive care,
he lost an eye, but his life was saved. Thus, the same symbol can
spiral throughout our lives, from Baptism to Confirmation to the
Anointing of the Sick.
Understand the History
Some of the current confusion about the sacrament results from
the separation between Baptism and Confirmation after the 11th century.
In the early Church, the bishop laid hands on the newly baptized
and anointed them as part of the baptismal rite. The joining of
the water bath and anointing was meant to show the link between
Jesus’ baptism and the outpouring of the Spirit on his mission.
As Christianity spread, however, it became difficult for the bishop
to anoint numerous converts. This part of the rite was deferred
to a later time when he could visit the parish. Gradually, the post-baptismal
anointing became known as “Confirmation” and the candidates, rather
than being newly baptized, were people who had been baptized years
In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the original practice
has been restored. Now in this rite, regardless of age, people receive
all three sacraments of initiation at once: Baptism, Confirmation
and Eucharist. In the Eastern Church, where the anointing was not
reserved to the bishop and could be done by the priest, no separation
between sacraments occurred; all are celebrated together.
Parents should remember that this is not the first outpouring of
the Spirit upon their child. That happened in Baptism. Confirmation
candidates have lived in the faith of the Church for some time.
On their 25th anniversary, a couple may repeat the same marriage
vows, but they say them in a different context than when they were
first married. With all the weight of experience behind them, the
vows may be even more meaningful.
So Confirmation celebrates the Spirit who has always been present
in the young person’s life, making him more like Christ, strengthening
her to continue God’s work. Some communities emphasize maturity,
and some parents may have been confirmed under the “soldier of Christ”
model. But the Rite of Confirmation doesn’t mention maturity. No
one could ever “deserve” the Spirit’s giftlook, for example,
at the frightened apostles on Pentecost. No paragons of maturity
in that Upper Room!
Let the Symbols Do Their Work
It helps bewildered parents to concentrate on the Confirmation
symbols as an alternative to the “Everything You Always Wanted to
Know About Being Catholic” approach. Unfolding the symbols, as we
saw in Scott’s story, may take a lifetime. But it offers a more
meaningful alternative to the deadly emphasis on facts, figures,
dogma and data that constitute some sacramental preparation.
One catechist suggests that the jokes calling Confirmation the
sacrament of exodus have a basis in fact. “Pandering to the prediction
that those confirmed will leave the Church, we serve up the sacred
truths of our faith and the rich mythology of Catholicism in an
endless stream of pointless data, presenting it with all the flair
of a class in Algebra I” says Ted Furlow in the February 5, 2001,
issue of America magazine.
Instead of this desiccated, boring approach, which repels kids
with a barrage of information, the symbol speaks of the richness
of reality. It is not foreign to kids’ experience: We use symbolic
language daily, with a door slammed, a high five, a kiss or embrace.
Symbols affect the whole person, not just the intellect. We move
from sensible fact to meaning as symbols communicate an elusive
Religious symbols point to the inexplicable and help create the
very presence of that to which they point. It is hard for any parent
to put love for a child or spouse into language; how much harder
it is to name God’s presence among us. Bread torn, oil smeared,
wine pouredall speak of a world being transformed and our
participation in that transformation.
The genius of Catholic sacramentality is the bold claim we make:
that through these concrete actions, God comes among us. Through
this laying on of hands, this anointing with chrism and these words,
we receive the same Spirit that Jesus received at his baptism and
that the apostles received at Pentecost. We join the same Spirit-filled
community to which great saints belonged: Catherine of Siena, Thomas
More, Teresa of Avila.
Sociologist Andrew Greeley says of sacramentality: “Catholics stay
in their Church because they like being Catholic, because of loyalty
to the imagery of the Catholic imagination, because of pictures
of a loving God present in creation, because of the spiritual vision
of Catholics that they absorb in their childhood along with and
often despite all the rules and regulations that were drummed into
their heads” (The Catholic Myth).
Parents who want their children to remain Catholic should put their
hopes more in the sacramental symbols than in information memorized,
drilled and tested.
Focus on the Symbols
Let’s reflect, then, on the symbols of Confirmation:
Laying on of Hands. Remember how often Jesus touched
the people he healed? See, for instance, the cure of Jairus’s sick
daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43). Elsewhere in Scripture, the laying
on of hands brought the Spirit’s life-giving power for service and
ministry (see Acts 6:6 and 13:3). Through the ritual gesture, our
children are blessed and empowered to bring their unique gifts to
the people of God.
Anointing With Chrism. The word chrism is
related to the word Christ, which means “anointed.” The ancient
Hebrews anointed kings and priests, marking that person as sacred.
Later, Christians called Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed
one. When the bishop blesses the oil on Holy Thursday, he invokes
the Spirit so that those to be anointed will share in Christ’s “royal,
priestly and prophetic honor.”
When our children are anointed, then, they share in Jesus’ mission.
They are marked with a new identity that cannot be changed. In the
rite we ask that this seal will make them more like Christ.
Signing With the Cross. Our children are familiar
with insignia which mark one a member of a certain fraternity, sorority
or military branch. Gang colors identify their members, as uniforms
do theirs. What does it mean to be marked with the sign of the cross?
It grounds our life firmly in Jesus’ life and empowers us to remain
faithful in adversity.
Marking our children with the cross at Confirmation, as they were
marked at Baptism, reminds them of their Christian identity, their
call to mission and the price they must pay to witness to Jesus.
Young people who seek heroes can identify here with the greatest
hero who ever lived. Jesus in turn calls them to love the difficult,
to live out the adage that youth was made for heroism.
Gift of Peace.The exchange of peace is an
ancient ritual that transcends divisions in the community. It points
to an underlying unity that comes from the Spirit. Our children
belong to the Body of Christ, which is fractured now but looks forward
in hope to the restoration of oneness.
Riddle: When Is an End a Beginning?
The sacrament celebrated at church is only the beginning. We and
our children can sometimes savor it more in retrospect. This is
the way we relive a trip through souvenirs or revisit an important
event through photos or videotapes.
So in one sense, a sacrament is about remembrance: Confirmation
looks back to the descent of the Spirit on Jesus after his baptism.
But we also look forward. It gives our children and us a new way
of seeing, a symbolic language to help interpret this world. They
go forth from Confirmation empowered for service, anointed like
royalty, signed with Christ’s cross and gifted with peace. Through
the ritual, we give them the best we have.
Parents can continue to pray for their children in the words of
the bishop who lays hands on them:
“Send your Holy Spirit upon them
to be their Helper and Guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom
the spirit of right judgment
the spirit of knowledge
Fill them with the spirit
and awe in your presence.
The ideas in this article are drawn from Confirmation: Anointed
and Sealed With the Spirit, by Thomas Morris and Kathy Coffey,
published by Living the Good News (phone 800-824-1813).