My grandmother, Joyce Pollard (nee Holbrook), was a convert to Catholicism from the Southern Baptist faith. At the time of my Confirmation I chose my grandmother as my sponsor, because Grandma was one of the most faithful Catholics I had ever known. Shortly before the big day, Grandma told me the story of her Confirmation.
Grandma decided to convert to Catholicism at fourteen years old, because of a Catholic friend of hers. This friend introduced my grandmother to a priest who was able to answer all of her theological questions. (Ah, the good old days when priests really studied theology, and could explain and defend the faith!) With her parents’ permission, Grandma entered the Catholic Church at fourteen years old. On the day, the bishop of her diocese came and gave Grandma Confirmation. For her sponsor, my grandmother chose her friend’s older sister. At one point Grandma’s sponsor was supposed to lay her hand on Grandma’s shoulder. Apparently, the sponsor forgot, and the bishop slapped Grandma on the shoulder as a way to remind her sponsor to put her hand on Grandma’s shoulder. From what Grandma said, the slap on her shoulder was so hard that Grandma became frightened. She said that her immediate response was to attempt to turn and run out of the church. Grandma’s sponsor apparently caught this reaction before Grandma had time to react. She immediately placed her hand on Grandma’s shoulder, and held it tightly; preventing Grandma from turning tail out of the church.
I tell this story because it represents the idea I wish to convey in this post. Grandma’s sponsor forgot to place her hand on Grandma’s shoulder. To remind her the bishop made the surprising decision to slap my grandmother’s shoulder. This action shocked my grandmother, and her initial reaction was to jump up and run away. That is what Confirmation is all about. The Holy Spirit comes to us in every sacrament, but the reception in Confirmation is unique. It can be quite shocking. In the Bible, fire is not always used as a symbol of punishment. For instance, in Exodus, God appears as a fire on a bush when He reveals Himself to Moses. There are numerous instances in the New Testament of God being referred to as fire. In fact, God is sometimes referred to as a consuming fire of love. But is the process by which we receive this “consuming fire of love” really a sacrament?
Despite what many people believe, Confirmation is a sacrament. During Pentecost, according to Acts, the Apostles and other disciples of Jesus were gathered in a room together. They were afraid to leave because the Roman and Jewish officials had crucified the Master. What would these officials do to His followers? Just when all hope seemed lost, Jesus himself appears. He greets His disciples, and gives them some words of encouragement. Then He breathes upon them. With the breath, tongues of fire appear hovering over the disciples’ heads. These tongues of fire are described as the Holy Spirit (the word used for “spirit” means “God breathed”). Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples are strengthened. So much so, that they immediately leave the upper room, and go out to preach to the people.
Throughout Acts of the Apostles the Apostles bestow the Holy Spirit on others by the “laying on of hands”. It was also accompanied by anointing with oil. Acts often mentions a strengthening of faith this comes with the “laying on of hands”, and anointing with oil. But is Confirmation really a sacrament?
Humans are created by God. God is sacred. Because God is sacred, all of His actions are sacred. So God created humans, the creative was sacred. Since the act of creation is sacred, the object created is also sacred. So mankind itself (collectively and individually) is sacred. When God the Holy Spirit comes to us in Confirmation, it sanctifies us in a special way. This very fact makes it a sacrament. In fact, Jesus bestowed the Holy Spirit separately from the other sacraments. This fact alone makes Confirmation a sacrament.
One Protestant objection to Confirmation being its own sacrament is that the believer receives the Holy Spirit at baptism. Why do we need another sacrament in which to receive the Holy Spirit again? Ignoring the issue of infant baptism, Confirmation as a sacrament still makes sense. Yes, a believer who receives baptism does receive the Holy Spirit, but the reception at Confirmation is different. At Confirmation we receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, counsel, fortitude, piety, understanding, knowledge, and fear of the Lord). These gifts help us increase our holiness of life.
Let us not forget, too, that the Apostles were baptized. Yet, Jesus saw fit to bestow the Holy Spirit upon them again at Pentecost. One may argue that the Apostles did not receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, because the Holy Spirit was spoken of as coming in the future until Pentecost. Yet, one can also read Jesus’ words as meaning that the Holy Spirit would come in a new, more powerful way at Pentecost. Surely people had the Holy Spirit before Pentecost. Indeed, the Old Testament is replete with instances of the “Spirit of God” (i.e. the Holy Spirit) descending on individuals. Certainly, when writing the books that would eventually become a part of the Old Testament canon, the human authors had the Holy Spirit working through them. That is precisely what is meant when the authors of the Bible are said to have been inspired.
So we can see that Confirmation is rightly considered a sacrament by the Catholic Church. Furthermore, in reading the Bible, we can see that when the Holy Spirit comes to us, it is often a shocking experience. For the Holy Spirit does not come to us empty-handed. No, He brings His gifts which are meant to strengthen us in our life of faith. The reason the Holy Spirit appeared at Pentecost as tongues of fire is because the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. This love is so intense that it is like a burning/consuming fire. Often times, when a person falls in love, they are described as being on fire with love for that person. It is the same with God. He is on fire with love for His creation. It shouldn’t come as a shock that this love could give us a bit of a jolt when it comes upon us in such a powerful way, as in Confirmation. Hopefully, we may respond by being “confirmed” in our faith. Hopefully we may respond with strength, and a more firm dedication to our service of God. Let us not run away if the love of God happens to give us a bit of a slap in Confirmation. Instead, let us be steady like a rock. That way we, too, may be blessed by Christ; and we may more surely dwell on the rock founded by Christ…the Catholic Church.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity