Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
A Deepening of Our Christian Identity
My father, Leo, didn't get a middle name at Baptism.
We kids teased that his parents had simply run out of names. He
was the last of a very large family. (More likely, the lack had
to do with the custom of their immigrant community.) The middle
initial he used throughout his adult life stood for his Confirmation
name, Peter. Using the initial as part of his name was very fitting,
for the Sacrament of Confirmation is as much a part of our Christian
identity as Baptism. It was fitting, too, that he bore the names
of two popes. Confirmation, administered by the bishop or his
delegate, is a personal experience of belonging to a large family
Older Catholics remember Confirmation as the moment
when their identity was changed: They "received the Holy Spirit"
and became "soldiers of Christ." Today Confirmation is often defined
as a sacrament of mature Christian commitment. It is the occasion
when young people baptized as infants put their "personal signature"
on their parents' decision.
But the bishops have fixed the age for Confirmation
in the United States at "between seven and 17." Can "commitment"
mean the same thing to a second-grader and a high school senior?
This Update will explore the rich meaning of the Sacrament
of Confirmation by looking at it in terms of our Christian identity.
Acquiring Christian identity
Our earliest ancestors in faith did not
distinguish Confirmation from Baptism. The apostle presiding over
the little community baptized new members, anointed them with oil
and offered them the Eucharist for the first time in one rite of
initiation. (The same thing happens today at the Easter Vigil when
catechumens are initiated.)
As the Church grew and spread throughout
the world, the apostles' successors, the bishops, could no longer
personally baptize every new Christian. They delegated the rite
to priests. Still, the bishops made regular visits to local communities
to confirm the priests' Baptisms with a second anointing.
Thus a separate sacrament was born.
Confirmation is still, with Baptism and
Eucharist, a sacrament of initiation. The Catechism of the Catholic
Church insists that the unity of the three sacraments "must
be safeguarded" (#1255), even though children do not receive them
at the same time.
The Catechism describes Confirmation
as a deepening of baptismal gifts. It says that the sacrament roots
us more deeply in our identity as God's children; unites us more
firmly with Christ; increases in us the gifts of the Holy Spirit;
binds us more closely to the Church; and gives us special strength
to bear witness to our faith (see #1303).
With Baptism and Eucharist, Confirmation
shapes us as Catholic Christians. Each of these sacraments focuses
on a different aspect of our life as believers: birth, breath and
Baptism is birth into the family of the
Church. In the baptismal font we die and rise to new life in Christ.
Parents bring an infant to the font because they want more for the
child than physical life. They come to ask the fullness of
life that only Christ can give. When infant baptismal symbolism
is at its best, a baby is lowered beneath the water into the death
of Jesus and rises again, gasping with eternal life.
Inhale, exhale: That's the essential
rhythm of life; it's the first thing a newborn must do to survive.
The breath of Christian life is the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit
of God dwelling within us. First received at Baptism, the gift of
the Spirit is celebrated more fully in Confirmation. It's like taking
a more grown-up breath.
Besides breath, a newborn needs nourishment
in order to survive. Living and breathing, once established, continue
without conscious thought. But the need for food demands our attention
frequently. The food we eat is the very stuff of which our bodies
are made. Without it babies can't grow and grown-ups can't maintain
healthy bodies. Just so, we need the nourishment of Eucharist frequently.
We became members of Christ's Body when we were baptized, but the
Eucharist nourishes our growth and keeps us healthy members of Christ.
Discovering Christian identity
Adults adopt many names besides those given by their
parents at Baptism. We define ourselves by citing the relationships,
jobs and interests that are important to us. We identify ourselves
as Jeff's Dad, Mrs. Luebering, Jill's or Greg's friend. We say
we are a New Yorker or an Iowan, a Republican or a Democrat, a
union member, stockbroker, homemaker, pro-lifer, Big Brother,
An infant, on the other hand, begins first to grow
into an identity given by others. In a matter of monthsabout
the time parents have stopped saying "the baby" and started speaking
of Chris or George or Mariaa little one responds to the
sound of his or her name. A family name is a greater hurdle. It
takes much more than a few months for a child to learn it, much
less to come to some understanding of what it means to be a Sanchez
or a Shea or a Sekitei.
It takes time, too, for a youngster to grasp the realities
of larger identities. A sense of racial, ethnic or national belonging
comes slowly. It is absorbed over the years from celebrations
and stories: Fourth of July fireworks and Thanksgiving pageants,
ethnic foods and festivals, tales of immigrant struggles and the
pain of discrimination.
A child born into the Church undergoes a similar learning
process. Slowly the child discovers what it means to be Catholic
from shared stories and customs. The Christmas creche and the
crucifix on the bedroom wall, family prayer and Sunday Mass, Jesus'
name on a parent's lips and attending more formal religion classes:
All these things and more teach children who they are in God's
sight, as members of God's family.
Preparation for Confirmation includes learning to
articulate what it means to be a Catholic Christian: the faith
we express in Creed and lifestyle. Confirmation has long been
delayed until a baptized infant could reach some understanding
of these thingsat least until the age of reason (about seven)
and often until the approach of adolescence.
The Church to which parents brought an infant for
Baptism is, of course, larger than anyone's personal experience.
It is larger than a circle of believing friends, larger than the
parish community in which a youngster has been growing up. It
reaches not only to Rome, but also to the interior of Africa,
the scattered Philippine Islands, the remote villages of Central
Modern communications have shrunk the world beyond
the wildest imaginings of previous generations. All through a
child's life come images of the Church from around the world:
the Church's efforts to feed starving children in distant countries,
papal travels, debates between bishops and government bodies.
Today's Confirmation candidates, even the youngest
ones, probably have a better sense of Christian identity than
any recent generation. Young people are ready to stand before
a representative of the larger Churchthe bishop or his delegateand
be anointed with the perfumed oil (chrism) blessed by the bishop
at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. They can say with knowledge
they lacked as newly baptized infants, "Yes, this is my Church.
I accept the faith of this Church as my faith. This is who I am."
"Who are you?" is a question we first answer with
our name. Catholics have traditionally chosen a Confirmation name.
It may be the name of a canonized saint or a hero whose life inspires
a youngster. Or it may be a personal affirmation of the name given
Affirming Christian identity
Sooner or later, every youngster has to come to personal
terms with his or her birthright identity. It's one thing to know
the traditions of a family, a people or a Church. It's another
to choose them, to claim that identity.
"Owning" the identity conferred at birth doesn't always
come easily. For example, most young children cherish an "adoption
fantasy," a conviction that they were really born to better parents.
(Adopted children idealize their birth parents.) All kids at some
time wish they'd been born into a different familyinto the
household down the street where fewer rules are imposed or to
a friend's more understanding parents. And adolescence begins
the new and difficult (for parents and child alike!) task of establishing
an identity as a separate and independent adult.
Sometimes the heritage gets dumped. Most often, the
next generation follows in the footsteps of the generations before.
At the same time, few people accept their heritage without reshaping
it to fit their own personality and experience, to fit the reality
of the world they know. That's especially true with religious
belief. The Church into which your child was baptized has undergone
enormous change in the last few decades.
Vatican II may be ancient history to today's childreneven
to their parentsbut its effects are still rippling through
Catholic life and theology. The world is changing, too. Today's
kids learn to use a computer as early as they wield a pencil;
they cruise the information highway with enviable ease. What does
it mean to affirm the baptismal commitment in a fast-changing
Human commitment is always a signature on a blank
check. The vows made on a wedding day have to be rethought and
remade many times over the years. Our faith commitment undergoes
similar stress and change. Every time we brush against mysterythe
wonder of birth, the pain of loss, the frustrations of everyday
lifeour concept of God changes a bit. We have to choose
belief all over again.
Like the rest of us, today's Confirmation candidate
will continue to search for a better sense of divine reality until
the day when eternal light explodes on newly opened eyes on the
other side of the grave. Pledging faith to God is more a lifetime
effort than a one-time action. It is therefore very difficult
to speak of Confirmation as a sacrament of "mature" commitment.
As the Catechism warns, maturity in faith cannot be measured
by age (see #1308).
Life is strewn with broken promises, a fact every
child learns early and every adult acknowledges sadly. But we
keep on making and receiving promises because we believe that
commitment is possible. And that belief rests on our faith that
one promise, at least, will never be broken: God's commitment
to us. Confirmation is the "seal" of God's promise. It marks us
as God's property, a people set apart.
Church law requires, when possible, Confirmation before
the sacraments of commitmentMarriage and Ordersbecause
we believe in a God who keeps promises, whose faithful promises
provide the security from which we can promise fidelity.
In Catholic tradition Confirmation is indeed a sacrament
of commitment, but the commitment we celebrate was God's before
it was ours. It is much less a sacrament of human commitment than
a sacrament of faith in God's fidelity to us.
Living Christian identity
Believers have the Spirit, our God-breath, from Baptism.
But the Spirit who was a soft, life-sustaining breath in an infant
is, at Confirmation, the breath behind speech. The Spirit is the
power to raise our voices in witness.
Witness in the early Church often meant putting
life on the line. From "witness" in Greek comes our word martyr.
Believers are still dying for their faith in our world. But today
witness frequently refers to vocalized faith and evangelistic
fervor, in the best, most positive sense of these words. Witness
implies enthusiastic testimony to what the Lord has done in each
of our lives.
Witness was first (and still is) a legal term,
a description of someone who testifies to what he or she knows
from personal experience. And that is the reality of Christian
witness in every generation. Whether expressed by a martyr's death,
in enthusiastic words or in quiet, everyday concern for others'
needs, Christian witness is believers' testimony to what they
know: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is life and hope
for all the world.
Children learn from infancy how people of faith take
the stand in today's world. They hear quiet prayers and stories
of Jesus; they see consolation offered for a child's skinned knee
and a neighbor's loss. They watch adults give themselves in service
to the community and to the needy. TV brings far-flung witness
into the living room: papal visits and famine relief efforts,
missionaries slain in distant lands and hometown residents putting
their lives at risk to save a child from a burning building.
Formal religious training acquaints them with the
Church's heroes, the saints. This, in turn, demands from older
children some form of service as a sign of readiness for Confirmation.
In a court of law, giving witness is an end, not a
beginning. No one expects the observer to learn more about the
facts to which he or she testifies; no one expects the witness
to offer fresh testimony once the case is closed. Christian witness
is different. The case of Jesus Christ is far from closed; the
strength of his witness and evidence that his followers offer
have been mounting for 2,000 years.
Confirmation, like the other sacraments of initiation,
marks the beginning of a journey toward deeper knowledge of God.
Our Confirmation candidates join us in claiming our heritage.
For years to come, they will bear witness to what loving and believing
people have handed on to themall in the Spirit of God.