It's been a long time, but I can remember it
well. The 40 of us were lined up in the schoolyard on a cold
day, our red "graduation" robes blowing in the wind.
We were only in the fifth grade, but we were allowed to wear
the robes for Confirmationred being the color the Church
uses to represent the Holy Spirit. We felt very grown-up,
and very proud.
An hour later, as far as I could tell, it was over. We had
been anointed (blessed with oil) on the forehead and slapped
lightly on the cheek. In those days, that "slap"
told us that we had to be "soldiers of Christ,"
ready to suffer for our faith. We had sung "Come, Holy
Ghost," and the bishop had prayed over us and put his
hand on our head. I felt like I had been ordained or surely
something as important and official as that.
I look back on that day of years ago and ask
myself, what difference did it make? It was a nice ceremonyalmost
like a parade or a welcome-home celebration. And of course
there was the party afterwards and the Confirmation presents.
But really, I didn't understand how much of a welcome it was
and to what!
My wife tells me that, for her, the sacrament
did make a big difference right away. I was glad to hear that
on her Confirmation day she felt the love and power of God
in a special way. She began to pray more, and attended Mass
on weekdays. She made a constant effort to be more helpful
at home, to be more polite to her parents, and to be less
quarrelsome with her sistersand she felt the grace within
her to succeed.
Connecting the present to the past
To help me know why we do what we do now in
the Church, I like to recall our Church history and tradition.
In the early days of the Church, many Christians felt the
Holy Spirit come into their life through the "laying-on
of hands," as it was called then. A leader of the Christian
community would lay his hands on those who had been baptized
and pray for the Holy Spirit to come down into them. This
practice seems to have been a forerunner of the official sacrament
which we now call Confirmation. Afterwards, these new Christians
would spontaneously be inspired to praise God aloud and pray
in languages they hadn't known before.
Today, some Christians called charismatics or
Pentecostals (including Catholics) testify that they have
had this same experiencebeing "baptized in the
Spirit," as they call it. It is not the same as the Sacrament
of Confirmation, but it is a practice which seems to make
them more receptive to the presence of the Holy Spirit. They
feel changed inside, and charged with a spiritual energy that
they never had before.
The way that Confirmation is celebrated in the Church today is
a reminder of that early Christian practice, although the
bishop no longer lays his hands directly on the heads of those
who are being confirmed. During the ceremony, the bishop extends
his hands over the candidates and prays: "All-powerful
God, 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 judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge
and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe
in your presence."
Earlier in the ceremony, to prepare them for this moment,
the bishop asked the candidates to renew the promises which
their parents made for them at Baptism. He went over each
of the major points of the Creed we say every Sunday at Mass
and asked the candidates whether they believe in the Fatherhood
of God, the Lordship of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit,
and other teachings of the Church.
When the candidates respond to these statements
of faith, they do so in a group, as part of the Confirmation
ceremony. They all give the same outward response, but inwardly
their responses can differ in emotional intensity. Some may
reaffirm their faith with all their heart, and they may open
themselves up to a deeper and more mature awareness of the
Holy Spirit's presence in their life. Others may feel absolutely
no change of heart as they go through the Confirmation ceremony.
Most people's experience probably falls somewhere in between
these two extremes.
Different experiences of Confirmation are matched by different
responses to the sacrament and its graces. In talking about
my wife, I said that she not only felt something different
at her Confirmation, but she also behaved differently afterwards.
On the other hand, I don't remember behaving any differently
right after I was confirmed, although I can honestly say that
if I weren't a confirmed Christian I might have lived my life
very differently over the years. And I'm sure that there are
people whose Confirmation has never, ever made any difference
whatsoever in their life. But there again, most people fall
somewhere between the two extremes.
It used to be different
With these widely differing responses to Confirmation,
why do we have it at all? What can we expect? Where
did it come from?
In the earliest days of Christianity (we learn
about them from the New Testament, especially from the Epistles
of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles), adults became members
of the Church through both a water baptism and a laying-on
of hands. For many converts, becoming a Christian meant giving
up sinful habits and beginning a new life. They felt a great
spiritual energy to live differently from the majority of
people around them.
Centuries after the apostles, when almost everyone in the
Roman Empire was Christian, most people no longer experienced
such dramatic change in their life at Confirmation. In the
fourth century, for example, St. Augustine wrote, "Who
in the present day expects that those on whom hands are laid
for the bestowal [gift] of the Spirit will suddenly begin
speaking in tongues?" In other words, only a few hundred
years away from the apostles, those charismatic gifts I mentioned
earlier had all but disappeared. Becoming a Christian by that
time meant living like everybody else and seldom suffering
or even feeling uncomfortable.
As years passed, the laying-on of hands by the
bishop was changed to an anointing with oil, since in the
Scriptures anointing is often associated with the reception
of God's Spirit. And, some years after that, the full ceremony
of Christian initiation into the Church was divided into two
parts: baptism with water by a priest, and anointing with
oil by a bishop. This happened because the bishop could not
always be present at everyone's baptism, and yet he wanted
to personally receive every new Christian into full membership
in the Church. After a while, this second part of Christian
initiation became a completely separate ritual called Confirmation.
Eventually it turned out that, while all Christians were baptized,
few were confirmed. One reason for this was that every parish
had a priest but bishops were few and far between, just as
What difference can it make?
Seeing how the practice of Confirmation has
differed widely down through the centuries, even falling into
long periods of disuse, a more radical question can creep
into our mind: Why keep up the practice of Confirmation at
One obvious answer is that Confirmation is a part of our tradition.
It is a part of the Catholic heritage. By continuing the practice
of Confirmation we show that we accept and continue that heritage.
Still, is this enough? Of course not. Just because we have
always confirmed in some way is not a good enough reason for
continuing to do it today. There must be more reasons than that.
One important reason is that Confirmation can make a real difference in
the lives of young people. It can give you a chance to think
about your baptism and about what it means to be a Christian.
When you were baptized as an infant, you didn't know what
was happening. Now, when you are older, you have a chance
to reaffirm your membership in the Church and to say your
own "I do" to your baptismal promises.
So Confirmation can indeed make a difference in your life.
It can have the effect of a special spiritual awakening, as
it had for my wife. Or it can have the effect of being a special
reminder of your commitment to Christ and to the Church, as
it was for me. A lot depends on you, and on the circumstances
surrounding your own Confirmation.
What difference do you want it to
Many of us were confirmed before we were ready
to make this serious commitment. We said we were willing to
be confirmed Christians, and the bishop anointed us with the
sign of Christ's cross.
In some ways, it's a question of maturity. If you've already
been confirmed, you're older now than you were then. You've
recited the Creed, a statement of your beliefs, Sunday after
Sunday at Mass. You've learned more about the meaning of your
faith. But have you taken the time to make your Christian
living more mature as well? Does the meaning your head already
knows take shape in actions from your heart?
God always offers you the grace to live up to your baptismal
promises and to the commitment that your parents made for
you at Baptism. So the important question is, what difference
do you allow the sacrament of Confirmation to make in your
life? If Confirmation does not seem to have the expected or
desired effect, it is not that God has in any way failed you.
When you were confirmed, you renewed the promises that your
parents made for you at your Baptism: to believe in God, to
be a member of the Church, to avoid sin and lead a moral life.
As you are probably aware, there's a lot packed into those
simple phrases. There's also a lot of commitment that is demanded
of you if you take them seriously.
And how seriously do you take these promises?
I believe that being a Christian, especially a confirmed Christian,
should make a noticeable difference in a person's life. Jesus
once said, "Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord, will
enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will
of my Father" (Matthew 7:21). He meant that saying the
words was not enough; choosing to know and do God's will was
necessary. Being a confirmed Christian, like being a confirmed
soccer player or a confirmed music lover, is a matter of deeds,
How to let it make a difference
You may honestly believe that being a confirmed
Christian ought to make a difference in your life, but you
don't know how. Or you may realize that your growing Christian
maturity ought to have a greater impact on your life, but
you're not sure what it should be. Here are a few practical
suggestions about living up to your Confirmation.
1. Learn more about what it means to be a Christian.
Read the Gospels (Matthew 57 is a good place to begin)
to see what Jesus asks of his followers. Find a book on how
to live the Christian life (there are lots of them) and find
one area where you might make an improvement. Ask someone
whose faith you respect (age doesn't matter) how he or she
tries to live a Christian life.
2. Think about yourself, your own hopes and ambitions, your
own values and ideals. Take the time to write them down. Then
ask yourself how these stack up against what you find in the
Gospels and what you learn about living up to the teachings
of Christ. Compare your own goals in life and your own personal
behavior in the light of what it means to be a confirmed Christian.
3. If you find differences between the way you are and the
way you think a Christian should be, make some honest judgments
about which way you want to go. This kind of self-examination
is not easy, but the results are very rewarding. You may find
yourself faced with some difficult choices, but no one can
make them for you.
4. If you want to change your goals or behavior
as a result of what you find out about yourself, be practical
about it. Don't try to change everything at once. Pray about
it, and ask for guidance from someone you respect. And don't
try to do it alone. When you feel discouraged, remember it's
a lifelong task. Get in touch with other young people in your
parish or school who seem to be taking their Christian commitment
seriously. Confirmation can and does make a differenceif
you allow, even welcome, such change.
Members of Youth Update's Advisory
Board who previewed this issue are Vince Bonno, 16; Missy
Bronner, 14; Andy Madewell, 14; Traci Nastold, 16; Sang Nguyen,
16; Louis Nie, 19; and Mary Smith, 14. Questions from readers
are submitted through the board and answered by the author.