By Sam Keyes
Of all the sacraments, confirmation is the most widely misunderstood. Among Protestants, it often functions, at worst, as a mere coming-of-age ritual. At best, it gets described as something having to do with a “mature” or “adult” faith. That is, Mom and Dad baptized me, but now I get to choose the faith for myself. Most Catholics, in my experience, learn that confirmation is the “sacrament of maturity,” which often seems to mean they can leave the Church once they’ve gone through with it.
There are also the ecclesiastical explanations, which in some ways I prefer. Baptism is into the universal Church; confirmation, with the special sign of the bishop, is more particular. It is a way of saying, “I don’t want to be a Christian in general; I recognize that I need to commit to the Church here.”
Theologians used to joke about confirmation as a “sacrament in search of a theology.” Perhaps they still do. What they really meant, I suppose, is that it was a sacrament in search of a “meaning” which transcends the historical process by which it was severed from baptism in the first place. But sacraments don’t just mean things; they do things. And confirmation is the most prominent victim of this clumsy modern drive to make everything “meaningful.”
When my students express shock and horror at the idea of confirmation being given to someone less “mature,” my first point is always the ecumenical one. Whatever confirmation is, it cannot be less than what it is when given at baptism (as chrismation) in the Eastern rites. It is therefore not the “sacrament of maturity,” at least not in the way that so many Catholic young people have been taught. It is not the reward for memorizing bits of catechetical information. It is, like all the sacraments, a gift of grace. The only things required for reception are (1) that the subject be baptized, and (2) that the sacrament is desired. If the subject is of the age of reason, they should also have received the sacrament of penance.
Perhaps it is a perennial Pelagian temptation that leads us to this idea of the sacraments as prizes for the mature. We remain uncomfortable at the idea of pure grace. So the gift of confirmation becomes a sign of our cooperation with baptism — making the decision “for yourself,” coming to a mature, adult faith, etc. These are all good things, but they aren’t what confirmation is. Confirmation, like all the sacraments, gives grace. In this case, it is a “confirming” grace, that is to say a strengthening of baptismal grace with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. All the sacramental formulae are clear in this regard.
Contrary to the popular perception, then, the sacrament of confirmation is not a recognition or blessing of maturity but the sacramental grace for maturity. The worry that a strong theology of confirmation will somehow displace or devalue baptism is no more necessary than a similar worry about the Eucharist. In the Catholic Church, baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist simply are full Christian initiation. Someone who has not been confirmed is not fully initiated, just as someone who has not received the Eucharist is not fully initiated. To say this isn’t to make some kind of claim about a person’s character or even their level of discipleship or holiness. But we shouldn’t intentionally hold back from confirmation any more than we should intentionally hold back from the Eucharist.
As such, I am a firm believer in the “restored order” movement making its way around the Catholic Church. Despite the historical reasons for separating them, the sacraments of initiation make sense together. Further, why wait? My six-year-old daughter may be a little wary of approaching the confessional for the first time, but she is very excited to be confirmed. Rather than a graduation from religious education, her confirmation next month will be a new start in nurturing the grace of her baptism. She will need that grace as she grows into the full stature of Christ. She can do secular coming of age rituals whenever she wants. But right now she wants Jesus, and I see no reason for the Church to stand in the way of that desire.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Keyes serves as professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.