The Sacrament of Confirmation, as described by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 1962

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'In the biological order, a creature must first be born, then it must grow. In the supernatural order of grace, divine life is born in the soul by Baptism; then it must grow “in age and grace and wisdom before God and men.” The soul who receives the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation is born spiritually and matures spiritually. It receives citizenship in the Kingdom of God and is inducted into God’s spiritual army and the lay priesthood of believers. This soul is “born of the Virgin Mary” – the Church – and begins its apostolate as Our Lord began his preaching after the descent of the Holy Spirit at His baptism in the Jordan.

Confirmation, like every other sacrament, is modeled upon Christ, and reaffirms some aid or gesture in His life. It is bound up with Our Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.

Our Lord had a double priestly anointing corresponding to two aspects of His life: the first, the Incarnation, made Him capable of becoming a victim for our sins, because He then had a body with which He could suffer. As God He could not suffer; as Man He could. This first aspect culminated in the Passion and Resurrection, which one participates in by Baptism.

But the sacrament of Confirmation is particularly a participation in the second anointing of Our Lord, that of the coming of the Spirit in the Jordan, which ordained Him to the mission of preaching the apostolate. This reached its culmination on Pentecost, when He filled His Church – His Mystical Body – with His Spirit. Pentecost is to the New Testament what the gift of the law is to the Old Testament, only it is more perfect.

The descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ in the Jordan had a double effect on Our Lord. It prepared Him for combat:

“Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit, and by the Spirit He was led on into the wilderness, where He remained forty days, tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1)

It prepared Him for preaching the Kingdom of God:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; He has anointed me, and sent me out to preach the gospel to the poor, to restore the brokenhearted; to bid the prisoners go free, and the blind to have sight; to set the oppressed at liberty, to proclaim a year when men may find acceptance with the Lord.” (Luke 4:18, 19)

detail of a ceiling painting depicting the Sacrament of Confirmation; date and artist unknown; Sagrada Familia Church, Porto Alegre, Brazil; photographed on 7 July 2011 by Eugenio Hansen, OFS; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsAbout three years later, at the Last Supper, Our Blessed Lord promised to send the Spirit to His Apostles, disciples, and followers, which He did fifty days after the Resurrection on Pentecost. It would seem better if Our Lord had remained on earth, so that all ages might have heard His voice and thrilled to the majesty of His person; but He said it was better that He leave, otherwise the Spirit would not come. If He remained on earth, He would have been only an example to be copied, but if He sent the Holy Spirit, He would be a life to be lived.

Though Our Lord knew on Holy Thursday that His Apostles were distressed because He spoke of His approaching death, He consoled them with the advantages of His leaving this earth and yet remaining in it, in another way:

“So full are your hearts with sorrow at My telling you this. And yet I can say truly that it is better for you I should go away; he who is to befriend you will not come to you unless I do go, but if only I make my way there, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6, 7)

His perpetual presence, even in His glorified state, would have limited His moral and spiritual influence. He might have become to man the type of Christ that Hollywood presents – a celebrity. Instead of being in our hearts, He would only have been in our senses.

Would men ever have thought of spiritual fellowship with Christ, when physical fellowship might be had; when good and bad would have had equal perception of Him; when He would be external to the soul of man, not internal? Where would faith be, if we saw? And would not the world have tried to recrucify Him, though that would have been impossible after His Resurrection?

These questions are in vain; Divine Wisdom said it was better that He depart from the globe for, once in glory, He would send His Spirit, “the Truth-giving Spirit to guide you in all Truth.” Great men influence the earth only from their funeral urns; but He, Who gave the earth the only serious wound it ever received – the empty tomb – would rule it at the right hand of the Father through His Spirit.

This Spirit He sent upon the Church on Pentecost, like a soul entering a fetus; chemicals which are disparate and disconnected became a living thing. So the Apostles, with their individual whims and ignorances, were, under the pentecostal fires, fused into the visible, living, Mystical Body of Christ. It is not to the point in a book on the sacraments to describe this; but it is to the point to say that Confirmation is a kind of Pentecost to a baptized soul. Christ dwelling in the flesh would normally be in one place only at one time, but His Spirit, unbound by fleshy bonds, could cover the earth, working on a million hearts at once. Nor would such hearts be without comfort at His physical absence, for the Spirit He called “another Comforter.”

It is the Son, Christ Our Lord, Who reveals the Heavenly Father. We would never know the mercy and love of the Father, if He had not sent His Son to walk this earth and pay our debt for sin. But who reveals the Son? It is the Holy Spirit.

We know what goes on in other minds because we, too, have minds or souls; we know what goes on in the mind of Christ because we are given His Spirit. The natural or unbaptized man cannot perceive the things of God, for they are spiritually discerned. As the scientist knows nature, so the Christian, thanks to the Spirit, knows Christ:

“He will not utter a message of His own; he will utter the message that has been given to Him; and He will make plain to you what is still to come. And He will bring honor to me, because it is from me that He will derive what He makes plain to you. I say that He will derive from me what He makes plain to you, because all that belongs to the Father belongs to me.” (John 16:13-15)

It is through the Spirit received in Confirmation that Christ walks the earth again in each obedient Christian; it is through the Spirit that we are sanctified, comforted, and taught to pray.

These and other words of Our Lord about sending the Spirit of Truth who will enlarge our knowledge of Him, prove that the whole truth is not available to us in written records. Pentecost was not the descent of a book, but of living tongues of fire. Confirmation gives the lie to those who say that “the sermon on the mount is enough for them.” Our Lord’s teaching, as recorded in the Gospels, was implemented, complemented, and revealed in its deeper meaning through the spirit of truth He gave to His Church. We indeed know Christ by reading the Gospels, but we see the deeper meaning of the words, and we know Christ more completely when we have His Spirit. It is only through the Spirit that we know He is the divine Son of God and Redeemer of humanity:

“Those who live the life of nature cannot be acceptable to God; but you live the life of the spirit, not the life of nature; that is, if the Spirit of God dwells in you. A man cannot belong to Christ unless he has the Spirit of Christ.” (Romans 8:8,9)

Because an added measure of the Spirit is given in Confirmation, it was administered, even in the early Church, not by disciples but by Apostles or by the bishops who had the fullness of the priesthood.

The deacon Philip went to a city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. He converted and baptized many. But, in order to “lay hands on them” or confirm them, it was necessary for the Church in Jerusalem to send Peter and John (Acts 8:5-17). Later on we read about Confirmation at Ephesus by the Apostle Paul: “When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (Acts 19:6).

Administration of the Sacrament

Archbishop Joseph Urtasun administers the Sacrament of Confirmation at the Salle d'Avignon school in France in 1961; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe candidates kneel with hands joined before the bishop, who, extending his hands over the ones to be confirmed, says:

“Almighty, everlasting God, Who has deigned to beget new life in these thy servants by water and the Holy Spirit, and has granted them remission of all their sins, send forth from heaven upon them Thy Holy Spirit, with His sevenfold gifts: The spirit of wisdom and understanding. Amen. The spirit of counsel and fortitude. Amen. The spirit of knowledge and piety. Amen. Fill them with the spirit of fear of the Lord, and seal them with the sign of Christ’s cross, plenteous in mercy unto life everlasting. Through the selfsame Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God eternally. Amen.”

Dipping his thumb in holy chrism, he confirms the person saying:

“[Name] I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation. In the name of the Father [making the sign of the cross] and of the Son [making the sign of the cross] and of the Holy Spirit [making the sign of the cross].”

Then he gives the one confirmed a slight blow on the cheek, saying, “Peace be to you.”

Other prayers and a penance follow, all of which are destined to make the Christian a witness, a teacher to an unbelieving world, and even a martyr, if need be, for the Church. Two of the effects and obligations of the Church deserve special consideration, and this follows.

The Sacrament of Combat

Every sacrament is related to the death of Christ, but Confirmation intensifies that resemblance. Baptism gives the Christian a treasure; Confirmation urges him to fight to preserve it against the three great enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The military character of the sacrament is evidenced in the following four symbols or acts:

detail of a line drawing depicting the Sacrament of Confirmation; 1779 by Pietro Antonio Novelli; currently in the Bassenge Gallery; swiped from Wikimedia Commons(1) The forehead is anointed with chrism in the sign of the cross. The cross, by its nature, evokes opposition. The more one crucifies his passions and rejects the false teachings of the world, the more he is slandered and attacked. Calvary united not only the friends of Our Lord; it also united His enemies. Those who were opposed to one another merged their lesser conflicts for the sake of the greater hate. Judas and the Sanhedrin, Pharisees and Publicans, religious courts and Roman overlords – though they despised one another, nevertheless they rained common blows of hammer and nails on the hands and feet of Christ:

“It is because you do not belong to the world, because I have singled you out from the midst of the world, that the world hates you. (John 15:18,19)

When the Little Flower, Saint Therese, prepared herself for Confirmation, she saw that it implied crucifixion:

“I went into retreat for Confirmation. I carefully prepared myself for the coming of the Holy Spirit. I cannot understand why so little attention is paid to the sacrament of love. Like the Apostles, I happily awaited the promised Comforter. I rejoiced that soon I should be a perfect Christian, and have eternally marked upon my forehead the mysterious Cross of this ineffable sacrament. On that day I received the strength to suffer, a strength which I much needed, for the martyrdom of my soul was about to begin.”

(2) The interior grace of the sacrament gives fortitude and other gifts destined for the battle of the Spirit. The Apostles on Pentecost were made witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ, and the word “witness” in Greek means “martyr.” So, in Confirmation, the Christian is marked with power and boldness on the forehead, so that neither fear nor false modesty will deter him from the public confession of Christ. Cattle are often branded with the owner’s name; and slaves or soldiers in the emperor’s service were tattooed so that they could be easily recognized if they ever deserted the service. Plutarch states it was a custom to brand cattle that were destined for sacrifice, as a sign that they were set apart for something sacred. Herodotus tells of a temple in Egypt in which a fugitive might take the right of sanctuary: once he did so, he was stamped, marked, or tattooed as an indication that he was the property of God and, therefore, was inviolable and sacrosanct.

The spiritual significance of marking is anticipated: “…all alike destroy till none is left, save only where you see the cross marked upon them” (Ezechial 9:6). On the last day, the elect will be sealed on their foreheads in the name of the Lamb and of His Father, to protect them from destruction (Apocalypse 7:3). Confirmation, then, is the sealing of a person in the army of the Lord. Saint Paul says: “Do not distress God’s Holy Spirit, whose seal you bear until the day of your redemption comes” (Ephesians 4:30).

(3) A slight blow on the cheek is given the person confirmed to remind him that, as a soldier of Christ, he must be prepared to suffer all things for His sake. To deny one’s faith for a passing carnal pleasure, or to surrender it under ridicule, is far more serious in the eyes of God than a soldier deserting his duty. Peguy, bemoaning a want of spiritual bravery, writes:

“Shame upon those who are ashamed. It is not a question of believing or not believing; it is a question of knowing what is the most frequent cause of loss of faith. No cause can be more shameful than shame – and fear. And of all the fears the most shameful is certainly the fear of ridicule; the fear of being taken for a fool. One may believe, or one may not believe. But shame upon him who would deny his God to avoid being made a mark for witticisms. I have in mind the poor, timorous wretch who looks fearfully on every side to be sure that there is not some high personage who has laughed at him, at his faith, at his God. Shame upon the ashamed. Shame implies a cowardice that has nothing to fall back upon. Shame upon those who are ashamed.”

(4) The combative character of Confirmation is further shown by the fact that its ordinary minister is the bishop, who is, as it were, a general in the military of the Church. Because Confirmation gives an increase of the Holy Spirit over Baptism, it is fittingly administered by the one who has the fullness of the priesthood. When the bishop extends his arms over those confirmed, as a successor of the Apostles, he imitates Peter and John who laid hands on new converts of Samaria, so that “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:1). He also imitates Paul at Ephesus: “When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (Acts 19:6). The bishop is not a hoarder of his authority; he is a dispenser of it, as was Our Blessed Lord Who told His Apostles that they were to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 18:19-20).

The bishop, as the authority in the Church, incorporates the one confirmed into adult responsibilities. From now on, the one confirmed does not lead an individual Christian life: he becomes commissioned in the army. Confirmation is, therefore, the first great manifestation of the relation established between the authority of the Church and Christian personality.

Confirmation Both Personal and Social

Every sacrament has been set as a kind of balance between the individual and the community. The individual is baptized, but his Baptism incorporates him into the community of believers – the Church. The grace descends into the soul of the individual, but the grace is for the perfection of the Mystical Body. This is true also of the sacrament of Confirmation for, even more than Baptism, it orients us toward the community or fellowship of believers. Love is a union by which one escapes from egotism. When one reaches spiritual adulthood, one is open for a wider love. Children live for themselves; adults cease to live exclusively for themselves, particularly those who reach the “perfect age” in the spirit. The combat of Baptism was, we said, a “personal” combat: in Confirmation, the combat is “ex officio” military, and under the orders of the chief. Baptism is principally the battle against invisible enemies: in Confirmation, it is the battle against social enemies, such as the persecutors of the Church.

The mystical death one undergoes in Baptism is individual: in Confirmation, the mystical death is communal. We are prepared to die, to be a martyr, or a witness to Christ for the sake of the “body which is the Church.” Confirmation then relates us to the community; that is why the Spirit was given on Pentecost when all the Apostles were assembled together with Mary in their midst.

Confirmation makes us soldiers of Christ. Soldiers do not come together of and by themselves to constitute an army. Rather, it is the political authority of government which summons the soldiers and constitutes them as an army. So it is in Confirmation. The Church does not have a spiritual military because her members volunteer for service. It is rather that the Church makes them grow spiritually to a point where they can carry spiritual arms and be authorized as her combatants bearing the “breastplate of justice fitted on…the shield of faith…the helmet of salvation…and the sword of the spirit” (Ephesians 6:14,16,17).

The Sacrament of the Lay Apostolate

The laity are summoned by Confirmation to share in the apostolate of the Church, to be witnesses to Christ before those who know Him not, to be prophets or teachers in an unbelieving world and, together with the priesthood, to offer their bodies as a reasonable sacrifice to the Heavenly Father:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people God means to have for Himself; it is yours to proclaim the exploits of the God Who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1st Peter 2:9)

The laity share in the general priesthood of the Church because all are members of Jesus the priest; but they do not share in the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood which comes with Holy Orders, in which there is a personal representation of Christ, such as offering the eucharistic sacrifice and absolving sins.

The laity have a double consecration through Baptism and Confirmation, which gives them a certain participation in the priesthood of Christ.

The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, however, has the third and specific consecration from Holy Orders. There are thus two sorts of priesthood: the first is external and reserved for the hierarchical priesthood; the second is internal and common to all the faithful.

The person who is confirmed always has a personal and, in some instances, a canonical mission. He has a personal mission inasmuch as, through his own personal contact, he must help bring other souls to Christ – just as Andrew brought Peter, Philip brought Nathaniel, the Samaritan woman brought her townspeople, and Philip converted the eunuch of the Ethiopian court.

But the mission given by Confirmation requires a wider outlook than the personal work of witnessing and converting. It is not only individual souls, but also the milieu, the environment – the whole social order in all its political, scientific, journalistic, medical, legal, recreational, and economic structures which also has to be Christianized.

This canonical mission of spiritualizing the world in an organized way is dependent on the hierarchy and the teaching authority of the Church. There is some communication of this teaching office in the ceremony of the imposition of hands. The laity do not participate in the hierarchy, but they participate in the apostolate of the hierarchy. The Apostles and their successors have a divine mission to teach; the laity receive from the hierarchy a canonical mission to teach.

What makes Catholic Action is not the fact that Catholics are organized, but that they have received a mission to bear witness to Christ over and above their own personal witnessing to Christ in the holiness of their lives. The laity are not just the Church taught; they participate in the Church teaching. As Leo XIII said, the laity cannot arrogate to themselves this authority, but when circumstances demand it, they have the right to communicate to others, as echoes of the magisterium of the Church, that which they themselves have learned. And Pope Pius XII addressed a new group of cardinals as follows:

“The laity must have an ever clearer consciousness, not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church; that is, of being the community of the faithful on earth under the guidance of their common leader, the Pope, and the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church.”

“The Acts of Apostles” twice shows that when the disciples were scattered by persecution, the laity immediately began to preach God’s word and increase the Church (Acts 8:4, Acts 9:19), something that is happening today in persecuted lands. Aquilla and his wife, Priscilla, completed the instructions of Apollos (Acts 18:26), and later on became the trusted helpers of Saint Paul (Romans 16:3). Apollos, who never seems to have received any ministerial consecration, was a vigorous preacher of Christ (Acts 18:27,28).

There have even been laymen who taught theology. For example, John d’Andrea was professor of canon law at Bologna from 1302 to 1348. Wilfred G. Ward was professor of dogmatic theology at Saint Edmund’s Seminary of London, England, from 1851 to 1858.

More and more, the Church is emphasizing the teaching mission conferred by Confirmation. In mission lands, catechists number tens of thousands. Abroad and at home, the canonical mission of teaching is conferred implicitly on teachers when the bishops appoint them to parochial schools.

– from These Are The Sacraments, by described by Venerable Fulton John Sheen, 1962; published by Hawthorn Books of New York; Nihil Obstat: William F. Hogan, S.T.D., Censor Librorum; Imprimatur: James A. Hughes, J.C.D., LL.D., P.A., Vicar General, Archdiocese of Newark, 22 October 1962; Scripture quotes are from the Knox translation of The Holy Bible