Two ways to celebrate confirmation—and its two most powerful symbols
The church has two different but similar rituals for the celebration of confirmation. The actual celebration of the rite itself is the same in both instances, but the placement of the rite changes depending on the circumstances.
If you think of designing the sacraments as similar to designing a house, some houses are built in such a way that people enter through the living room door. Others are built in a way that makes using the kitchen door seem more appropriate. Both kinds of houses have a living room and a kitchen, but the way you first enter those rooms is different.
With confirmation, anyone who reaches the age of reason (about age seven) without having been baptized is confirmed in the same celebration as their baptism.
Catholics who are baptized as infants are confirmed later in life. In the United States, this usually happens sometime during the person’s teen years. In either case, the essential elements of the confirmation liturgy are the same.
The essential elements of confirmation are an “anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of the hand, and through the words: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation).
Confirmation with baptism—the new normal
The “normative” celebration of confirmation is in conjunction with the celebration of baptism and Eucharist—usually at the Easter Vigil—as envisioned in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. In the ancient church, all confirmations were celebrated as part of the baptismal rite. When the church was still very small, the bishop would preside over these baptism-confirmation celebrations, and they would usually take place once a year at the Easter Vigil. Age was not a factor. Babies, children, teens, and adults were all baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil.
As the church grew, bishops could not always preside over all the baptism-confirmation celebrations. In the West, bishops delegated the baptismal ritual to parish priests, but they retained the confirmation ritual to themselves. So by the sixth century, people (usually infants) would be baptized by their parish priest. They would have to wait until the bishop came to visit the parish before they could be confirmed. However, in some places where the bishop could still preside—such as at the cathedral parish—infants were still baptized and confirmed in the same celebration. This was the case up until the 12th century.
In the late 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the ancient unity of the baptism-confirmation celebration by giving authority to parish priests to baptize and confirm any unbaptized person who has reached the age of reason (about seven years old). For Catholics who were baptized as infants, the bishop is still the ordinary minister of confirmation.
Confirmation apart from baptism—usual vs. normal
As we said, the single celebration of baptism-confirmation is once again “normative.” “Normative” doesn’t necessarily mean “usual,” however. The majority of Catholics are still confirmed many years after baptism and after their first communion. (In a few places in the United States, children who were baptized as infants are confirmed in conjunction with their first communion.)
The basic ritual of Confirmation looks like this:
- Entrance Rite
- Celebration of the Word of God
- Sacrament of Confirmation
- Liturgy of the Eucharist (optional)
The celebration of the sacrament itself is multilayered and a little complex. Like all sacramental rituals, the symbols overlap and build on one another.
- Presentation of the Candidates
- Homily or instruction
- Renewal of Baptismal Promises
- The Laying on of Hands
- The Anointing with Chrism
- General Intercessions
- Lord’s Prayer
- Blessing and Prayer over the People
The key symbols in this part of the liturgy are:
- the laying on of hands
- the anointing with the oil of Chrism
In the next session, we’ll look at the laying on of hands and what that powerful symbol means to confirmation candidates.