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.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, and a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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5 Responses

  1. D. N. Keane

    The writer begins with a different definition of “confirmation” than the one found in the Catechism of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (which does not identify confirmation as a sacrament):

    Q. What is Confirmation?
    A. Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature
    commitment to Christ, and receive strength from the
    Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands
    by a bishop.

    Q. What is required of those to be confirmed?
    A. It is required of those to be confirmed that they have
    been baptized, are sufficiently instructed in the Christian
    Faith, are penitent for their sins, and are ready to affirm
    their confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

    (BCP, p. 860)

    The author speculates that the reformed view of confirmation articulated in the Prayer Book is a product of Pelagianism, though I’m not entirely sure how that would be the case unless someone is arguing that the rite of confirmation imparts salvation. I’m not aware of anyone making that claim. If any means of grace that involves effort or active participation on the part of the recipient is to be called Pelagianism then so too is prayer and preaching and penitence. If that’s the case, we’re not on the same page about what constitutes Augustinianism.

    • Samuel Keyes

      Well, the 79 prayer book’s definition is novel, at least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. (I’m a Catholic; whether or not conformation is a sacrament isn’t really on the table for me.) So my concern for Pelagian tendencies is more directly pertinent to the Latin Church and its understanding of confirmation. (It doesn’t “impart salvation.” None of the sacraments do that, per se. But it is part of “full initiation,” which means it is part of the Church’s normative understanding of how one goes about attaining salvation.) But if we’re going to have merely a coming of age rite, we shouldn’t call it confirmation, because that’s not what confirmation is.

      I wouldn’t want to label as Pelagian anything that involves effort or active participation. Each sacrament involves its own peculiar graces. Baptism and confirmation are similar in this regard, especially as distinct from the Eucharist. They have an indelible character. So if we wouldn’t see baptism as the reward or mark of a “mature” faith, we shouldn’t see confirmation that way either. Nor should we see the Eucharist that way. The maturity and formation of the recipient in no way changes the character of the indelible mark or the reality of the sacrament itself; in the case of the Eucharist, though, precisely because it is a sacrament to be repeated, maturity in reception does deep our ability to be transformed and receive the grace (the grace itself is unchanged).

      • D. N. Keane

        I’m terribly sorry — I didn’t realize you’re a Roman Catholic, thanks for that helpful clarification, Dr. Keyes. My apologies! I’m an Episcopalian. So we’re starting from a different conception of confirmation. The 1979 Catechism is a formal articulation of the doctrine of the Episcopal Church (Canon III.10.3.c.2; Canon IV.2; et al.). The view of confirmation found there matches that in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, identified by the Anglican Covenant (1.1.2) as expressing the shared teaching of the Anglican family of churches (I note this simply because the mission statement of Covenant, TLC’s blog, affirms the Anglican Covenant). As you observed, this reformed view of confirmation is, of course, novel in relation to the understanding of the rite that emerged in the Middle Ages; Anglicans hold that “every particular… church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying” (Article XXXIV of the Articles of Religion, affirmed by Anglican Covenant 1.1.2). Sorry for that lengthy clarification; but I thought it helpful to clarify the vantage point from which I write.

        I wouldn’t say and didn’t say that sacraments “impart salvation” either; my point there — poorly and imprecisely expressed I fear — was that if the Pelagian heresy pertains to how individuals obtain salvation (viz., that it may be obtained by the unaided human will) I am unable to see how the reformed view of confirmation could be viewed as stemming from that heresy. Indeed, the Prayer Book envisions confirmation as following baptism, so both the rite and the instruction leading up to the administration of the rite, are designed for a person already sacramentally incorporated into the body of Christ and aided by grace.

        I take your point about the name. The 1662 Prayer Book gives both a short and a long name to the rite: “Confirmation
        or Laying on of Hands upon those that are baptized and come to years of discretion.” Perhaps we should call it something else if we do not understand it in the same way that medieval catholicism did. But, there are a number of terms that the Church of England kept with modified definitions after the Reformation. Moreover, the word confirmation simply means “strengthening,” so it seems entirely appropriate for our rite, which follows a process of catechesis. Both the proceeding catechesis and the prayer contained in the rite have in view the strengthening of the candidate by divine grace. Historically we have always viewed confirmation as part of the whole process of Christian initiation, as you do, but I do not understand why we should separate catechesis from the process of becoming a Christian or view catechesis as a process involving unaided human effort (i.e., in Pelagian terms). After all, in the case of an adult convert, catechesis precedes baptism, but we wouldn’t view that as an expression of implicit Pelagianism. Indeed, when the Pelagian controversy began the catechumenate preceding the baptism of an adult convert was quite rigorous, but it did not fall under suspicion from the opponents of Pelagius.

        We need not view the strengthening grace that the rite of confirmation has in view as a “reward” for achievement simply because it follows a process of catechesis. The catechesis isn’t a test, but an unfolding of what is implicit in baptism, so the conclusion of that process cannot be viewed as any sort of achievement. The strengthening grace envisioned in the text of the rite seems rather to assume that the individual has assumed more risk and will face more danger now that the baptism identity has become more conscious and the guardianship of the godparents formally comes to close. The strengthening is not a reward but equipment.

        Thank you for your reply and willingness to discuss this with me.

  2. David Sinclair

    Unfortunately, for the majority of Episcopalians, Confirmation is
    Graduation from Sunday School, and once you are confirmed your parents won’t make you go to Church any more. This was true 55 years ago when I was Confirmed and is still mainly true today. Excuse the bad English, but “your parents had you done at Baptism and had you did at Confirmation.”

    If the Church is Blessed with a vibrant Youth Group Program, then there is hope that some of the Confirmands will stick around. As far as I know, most of our Seminaries don’t provide courses in Youth Ministry. SO unless the Seminarians do field work in a setting with a good Youth Group, which will usually be led by Lay People…well we have seen the results.

  3. Alexander Roth

    Thanks for these comments, which are akin to Timothy Gabrielli’s 2013 book on Confirmation. I have found the focus on the deepening relationship with the Gift and Person of the Holy Spirit, and the emphasis upon God’s generosity in giving this strengthening gift, to be helpful.


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