Spring is a busy season for Catholic bishops everywhere. This is the time of year when most Catholic parishes celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation, which, under most circumstances, must be conferred by a bishop.
Confirmation is the sacrament that seals and completes the Christian Initiation of Baptism. That’s why, when adults are initiated at the Easter Vigil, they are baptized and confirmed at the same time. But for people baptized as infants, confirmation happens when they are adolescents. This had lead to some tension between what Confirmation means theologically, and what it means culturally.
Theologically, Confirmation is the sealing with the Holy Spirit. The one being confirmed receives the gifts of the Spirit. That’s it.
Culturally, Confirmation has come to be seen as a rite of passage of sorts; an opportunity to make an adult affirmation of our faith; to symbolize the acceptance of the responsibilities of an adult Catholic. Culturally, we need this sort of rite of passage. The problem is, this cultural need is entirely disconnected from our theological understanding of what happens at Confirmation.
Look at the prayers of the rite itself. There’s really nothing in there about a rite of passage. The ones being confirmed renew their baptismal promises—this is essentially a profession of faith—then there’s a silent laying on of hands, and the confirmands are anointed with sacred chrism as the bishop says, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” They respond “Amen.”
Confirmation is one of those rare areas in which our sacramental theology and our sacramental practice are in some tension. There has been some discussion in recent years about the possibility of rejoining baptism and confirmation, and celebrating them both when infants are baptized. This is the ordinary practice of the Orthodox church, for example. But these are not the sort of changes that the Church would make lightly. For the foreseeable future, we’ll undoubtedly continue with our current practice, and live with the tension.