Sunday, May 22, 2011

Confirmation, Western Style

Yesterday, my son John Paul received the Sacrament of Confirmation according to the Roman rite of the Catholic Church.

Confirmation has developed in a distinctive way in the Roman rite (which is the rite of the vast majority of Catholics in the world). In the Byzantine rite and many of the other rites of the Eastern churches, the Sacrament of "Chrismation" is given to everyone immediately after Baptism, whether they are infants or adults, and is usually administered by the priest with oil blessed by the bishop. Because Chrismation/Confirm- ation is linked to Baptism as its crowning and fullness, the practice of the Eastern churches emphasizes this link. The newly initiated Christian, baptized and anointed in the Holy Spirit, then receives the Eucharist--not only adults, but also infants. The practice of the Eastern churches reflects the unity of "Christian initiation" by always keeping together the celebration of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist.

The Roman rite, however, places emphasis on another important aspect of this special anointing, and the results of the development of Roman practice highlight other aspects of the mystery and significance of the sacrament. This particular emphasis is on the relationship between Confirmation and the ministry of the bishop. In churches in the West, the bishop specifically and personally confers Confirmation. Historically, in the case of infant Baptism, this meant that Confirmation had to be delayed until the bishop came to visit the parish church in his diocese. In ancient times, travel was difficult, and these visits were not frequent.

Thus, for Catholics of the Roman rite, it was ordinary for Baptism and Confirmation to be separated by a period of time, and the baptized infant was a young person by the time the bishop administered Confirmation. Some time after Confirmation, the person would receive the Eucharist for the first time. Thus it was for many centuries. At the beginning of the last century, however, Pope St. Pius X stressed the importance of early reception of the Eucharist, and the age for first communion was lowered significantly. The result was that it became normal for a person to be baptized as an infant, to receive the Eucharist at the age of 7, and then to be confirmed later, around the age of 13 or 14.

Today it has become common in the Roman rite for adults to receive the three sacraments all together. The pastor of a parish baptizes, administers Confirmation as representative of the bishop and then gives first Eucharist to the new adult Christian, often at the liturgy of Holy Saturday. But for "cradle Catholics" the practice remains as it has been for the last hundred years.

For Catholics of the Roman rite, this has resulted in greater reflection on Confirmation as a sacrament that initiates the "adulthood" of the Christian life. It provides the special strength that enables a Christian to live and witness to his or her faith in the world. And the administration of Confirmation by the bishop emphasizes that the Christian has a direct vocation in the Church, concretely reflected in its being given at the hands of one of the successors of the Apostles. Indeed there is something appropriate to receiving Confirmation at the very beginning of one's "mature life." It is a reminder that the grace of the Holy Spirit is the foundation of a person's life, at precisely that time in which the person begins to become aware of the possibilities and responsibility of that life. It is a good way to embark upon the journey of adolescence and to receive the strength to develop as mature Christian and human adults.

So was I thinking about all this as my son was being confirmed? Yes. My mind is never far from theology and history. I have sometimes felt that I "like" the practice of the Eastern churches better. It is a glorious thing to attend the Christian initiation of an infant in a Byzantine church, and I have many friends who are members of Byzantine Catholic churches, i.e. churches of the Byzantine rite that are in full communion with the Pope. I love the unity of the celebration of Baptism-Chrismation/Confirmation-Eucharist.

And yet, I reflected on other things as I watched my son receive the Sacrament of Confirmation at this specific time in his life, at a distinct "moment," and at the hands of a bishop who can trace his episcopal consecration back through the centuries to the original twelve special followers of Jesus. I thought it good that he should be strengthened in grace at this time, when I can see almost daily my boy beginning to be a young man. I thought it good that this time of growth for him should be marked by a distinctive experience of being called by the Church, sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and reminded of his own unique responsibility for living and witnessing to his faith.