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Confirmation — Sacrament of Holiness and Evangelisation

by Adrian Commadeur


Confirmation is an important sacrament in the life of young and new Catholics. But what is its meaning? What effect does Confirmation have on the spiritual lives of children or adults?

Confirmation is the sacrament of holiness and evangelisation. It should be an experience of the Holy Spirit, one that brings about significant spiritual effects. A renewed understanding of the reality of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation and a renewed pastoral approach could make this Sacrament much more effective.

The Holy Spirit in the Scriptures

Stained glass window of the Holy Spirit as a doveJesus promised his disciples in Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” This promise was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2), and the first apostles and disciples never stopped boldly proclaiming the gospel of salvation in Jesus.

The Holy Spirit did more than give power and boldness to preach. The Holy Spirit was to be a guide, counsellor and teacher (cf. John 14:26). The Holy Spirit was also to produce holiness through the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22). The fruit of the Holy Spirit stands in sharp contrast to the works of the flesh observed in the world: including fornication, impurity, enmity, strife, anger, selfishness, envy and drunkenness (Gal 5:20–21). The Holy Spirit also brought about a community of faith and love (Act 2:42–47). Jesus, when he ascended into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit from the Father, to accompany us in a life of holiness and evangelisation in the community of the Church.

Confirmation and the Holy Spirit through the Ages

From the day of Pentecost, the Apostles and first Christian disciples preached salvation in Jesus by faith and conversion. The external sign of faith and conversion was baptism with water, and the prayer for receiving the Holy Spirit followed. Peter said: “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Thus, there were two complementary phases in the process of becoming followers of Jesus: Baptism, and the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament gives evidence of the distinction between Baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Examples include Acts 6:16–17 (Peter and John in Samaria), and 19:5–6 (Paul in Ephesus). Spiritual gifts like miracles, healings, tongues, prophecy and faith became manifest upon receiving the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.

In the early Church, the process of Baptism and initiation into the life of Christ and the Church became a ritual. The priest anointed and baptised the candidate in one room and then led the candidate into the Church building into the presence of the bishop who laid on hands and anointed the person to receive the Holy Spirit. Later, it became the custom that the priest baptised the candidate, often with the bishop absent. On a separate occasion, the bishop would anoint and lay hands on the candidate for the receiving of the Holy Spirit. It also became the custom to baptise infants, and Confirmation (a term introduced about the fourth century) took place later in life.

Frs Kilian McDonnell OSB, and George Montague SM, carefully researched their book called Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit. They conclusively show that, in the first eight centuries, the ceremonies of water baptism and anointing and laying on of hands were the experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. There was an expectation that the candidate would receive various spiritual gifts or charisms for the purpose of building up the Church community, and for the work of evangelisation.

After the eighth century, the expectation of the New Testament gifts of the Holy Spirit disappeared. The loss of the spiritual gifts associated with the prayer for the Holy Spirit in Confirmation occurred for a variety of reasons, including possible abuse or misuse of the gifts, the development of infant Baptism (as a child could not be expected to exercise these gifts), and the development of the hierarchical structure in the Church. Some taught that, as the gifts were no longer experienced, they were therefore no longer needed in the Church.

In the end, the prevailing attitude towards Confirmation until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) was that candidates were confirmed to become soldiers for Christ. This idea came as early as the fifth century:

In Baptism we are born to new life; after Baptism we are confirmed for combat. In Baptism we are washed; after Baptism we are strengthened. (Bishop Faustus of Riez, 460)

The main focus of the effects of the sacrament turned from 1 Cor 12–14 with its clear explanations on the nature and purpose of the spiritual gifts or charisms, to the Old Testament text of Isaiah 11:2–3, which is recalled in the prayer for Confirmation:

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

The loss of any reference to the charismatic gifts weakened the expectations that Confirmation could effect in the candidate the graces of holiness and effective witnessing.

The Second Vatican Council and After

The Council sought the restoration of the Sacraments of Initiation, as they had been experienced in the early Church. As a result, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) was constituted for adult converts, and re-established the order of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. In some dioceses, the order is also used for children making their Confirmation and First Communion at the age of 10 or so.

On 15 August 1971, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation called Divinae Consortium Naturae. In this document, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 1300) he taught: “The sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the 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’.” He also insisted that Confirmation ‘perpetuates the grace of Pentecost.’

The Catechism makes an extraordinary statement: “It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (para 1302). Therefore, the graces of Confirmation are the same as those experienced by the Apostles. The first Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit to evangelise, charisms to build the community, the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in daily life, membership of a loving community, and finally holiness of life in the Spirit.

The Catechism also teaches that “Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace.” This includes “a deeper level of intimacy with God the Father; closer union with Jesus; increase of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; a more perfect bond with the Church; and special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly and never be ashamed of the Cross” (para 1303).

The testimony of many in Catholic Charismatic Renewal is exactly as described in the New Testament and in the Catholic Catechism. They experience a deep love of the Father, a greater intimacy with Jesus, openness to the action, presence and power of the Holy Spirit, boldness in witnessing to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, and a deeper bond with the Church, especially through the Sacraments. (At the same time, most would admit to being imperfect and needing to grow in the fruit of the Spirit). This experience comes from the prayer for the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit,’ or ‘release of the Holy Spirit.’ It often takes place in groups, after prayerful preparation and teaching, for receiving the release of the Holy Spirit (for example, in a Life in the Spirit Seminar). As they repent of sin, renew their faith in the saving work of Jesus, and determine to change their way of life, they are readied to receive a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Having developed an intense desire for a new outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit, those around them lay their hands upon them in prayer. The usual effect is an experience of deep intimacy with God, one of love and joy. There is no denial of the reality of the graces already received in Baptism and Confirmation, but a desire to receive their effects in their fullness.

Pastoral Practices

The Church is in great need today of a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all Catholics, especially in view of the increasing godlessness in society. The institutions and practices of the Church seem generally unable to reverse this trend. St Paul reminds us as he did the Romans (8:6): “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Pope John Paul II reflected: “At times one sees not only grave religious ignorance in the young generations but, what is even sadder, a certain moral vacuum and a marked lack of the transcendent meaning of life” (Address to Argentinian Bishops, 12 February 2002).

Future pastoral practice of the Sacrament of Confirmation could greatly contribute to the dynamism in the Church. All Catholics need the power of the Holy Spirit. As Fr McDonnell and Montague showed, “The baptism in the Spirit is the whole rite of initiation” (p. 315). It is an integral part of the felt experience of becoming Christian, and of being Catholic. In those circumstances, the following suggestions are made in the hope that a more effective pastoral practice will develop in the Church:

  1. That the Church recognise that the prayer for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (which may also be called outpouring or release) is the normal fulfilment, actualisation or realisation of the Sacrament of Confirmation.
  2. That there be an annual preparation for the feast of Pentecost, whereby the homilies of the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost could be a catechesis on the role, gifts and fruit coming from the Holy Spirit. Further, the focus could be on the Holy Spirit as the source of holiness and ‘principal agent of evangelisation.’ On Pentecost all parishioners could be invited to freely come forward for the prayer for a further release of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation. The priest(s) could lay hands on each parishioner (possibly assisted by appropriate lay people). This practice would emulate the renewal of baptismal promises during the Easter celebrations.
  3. That consideration be given to how the prayer for the release of the Holy Spirit could be applied in the RCIA program, as well as whether Confirmation might be deferred for children so that they are better disposed to receive the graces of the Holy Spirit.
  4. That regular Life in the Spirit Seminars be offered in parishes as a means of re-evangelisation. The climax could be the prayer for the release of the Holy Spirit already received in Confirmation.


Bishop Joseph McKinney, of Grand Rapids, USA, has said: “The new Pentecost of the new Millennium may well be fueled by better preparation for Confirmation. There are three sacraments that make the complete disciple. They are Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. There is something missing when Confirmation does not get its rightful place. It is like having the Blessed Trinity without the Holy Spirit. Something pivotal is missing. It is a case of inserting the Holy Spirit where he belongs” (ICCRS Newsletter, July 1998).

The Holy Spirit given in Confirmation and released through the baptism in the Holy Spirit is ‘the principal agent of evangelisation.’ The Sacrament of Confirmation, with the prayer for the release of the Holy Spirit, is therefore the Sacrament of Evangelisation. The Holy Spirit, imparting the fruit of holiness, empowers Catholics as a community to boldly proclaim with word and deed the saving work of Jesus through his death, resurrection and ascension.

Could we in the Catholic Church do better than foster a longing for, and an expectation of the Holy Spirit in all Catholics? Would not the call to holiness and evangelisation be heeded more effectively when Catholics experience the Holy Spirit in a new way through the prayer for the baptism of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation? Would not our schools and parishes become greater schools of prayer and centres of mission and service? Could such a renewal not set Catholics on fire with a new zeal for the gospel? “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).

The prayer for the release of the gift of the Holy Spirit received at Confirmation would truly make it the sacrament of holiness and evangelisation.