Sacrament of Confirmation
A sacrament in which the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.
It has been variously designated: bebaiosis or confirmatio, a making fast or sure; teleiosis or consummatio, a perfecting or completing, as expressing its relation to baptism. With reference to its effect it is the "Sacrament of the Holy Ghost", the "Sacrament of the Seal" (signaculum, sigillum, sphragis). From the external rite it is known as the "imposition of hands" (epithesis cheiron), or as "anointing with chrism" (unctio, chrismatio, chrisma, myron). The names at present in use are, for the Western Church, confirmatio, and for the Greek, to myron.
Present practice and doctrine
In the Western Church the sacrament is usually administered by the bishop. At the beginning of the ceremony there is a general imposition of hands, the bishop meantime praying that the Holy Ghost may come down upon those who have already been regenerated: "send forth upon them thy sevenfold Spirit the Holy Paraclete." He then anoints the forehead of each with chrism saying: "I sign thee with the sign of the cross and confirm thee with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Finally, he gives each a slight blow on the cheek saying: "peace be with thee". A prayer is added that the Holy Spirit may dwell in the hearts of those who have been confirmed, and the rite closes with the bishop's blessing.
The Eastern Church omits the imposition of hands and the prayer at the beginning, and accompanies the anointing with the words: "the sign [or seal] of the gift of the Holy Ghost." These several actions symbolize the nature and purpose of the sacrament: the anointing signifies the strength given for the spiritual conflict; the balsam contained in the chrism, the fragrance of virtue and the good odor of Christ; the sign of the cross on the forehead, the courage to confess Christ, before all men; the imposition of hands and the blow on the cheek, enrollment in the service of Christ which brings true peace to the soul. (Cf. Summa Theologiæ III.72.4).
The bishop alone is the ordinary minister of confirmation. This is expressly declared by the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, De Conf., C. iii). A bishop confirms validly even those who are not his own subjects; but to confirm licitly in another diocese he must secure the permission of the bishop of that diocese. Simple priests may be the extraordinary ministers of the sacrament under certain conditions. In such cases, however, the priest cannot wear pontifical vestments, and he is obliged to use chrism blessed by a Catholic bishop. In the Greek Church, confirmation is given by simple priests without special delegation, and their ministration is accepted by the Western Church as valid. They must, however, use chrism blessed by a patriarch.
Matter and form
There has been much discussion among theologians as to what constitutes the essential matter of this sacrament. Some, e.g. Aureolus and Petavius, held that it consists in the imposition of hands. Others, with St. Thomas, Bellarmine, and Maldonatus, maintain that it is the anointing with chrism. According to a third opinion (Morinus, Tapper) either anointing or imposition of hands suffices. Finally, the most generally accepted view is that the anointing and the imposition of hands conjointly are the matter. The "imposition", however, is not that with which the rite begins but the laying on of hands which takes place in the act of anointing. As Peter the Lombard declares: Pontifex per impositionem manus confirmandos ungit in fronte (IV Sent., dist. xxxiii, n. 1; cf. De Augustinis, "De re sacramentaria", 2d ed., Rome, 1889, I). The chrism employed must be a mixture of olive oil and balsam consecrated by a bishop. (For the manner of this consecration and for other details, historical and liturgical, see CHRISM.) The difference regarding the form of the sacrament, i.e. the words essential for confirmation, has been indicated above in the description of the rite. The validity of both the Latin and the Greek form is unquestionable. Additional details are given below in the historical outline.
Confirmation can be conferred only on those who have already been baptized and have not yet been confirmed. As St. Thomas says:
Confirmation is to baptism what growth is to generation. Now it is clear that a man cannot advance to a perfect age unless he has first been born; in like manner, unless he has first been baptized he cannot receive the Sacrament of Confirmation (Summa Theologiæ III.72.6).
They should also be in the state of grace; for the Holy Ghost is not given for the purpose of taking away sin but of conferring additional grace. This condition, however, refers only to lawful reception; the sacrament is validly received even by those in mortal sin. In the early ages of the Church, confirmation was part of the rite of initiation, and consequently was administered immediately after baptism. When, however, baptism came to be conferred by simple priests, the two ceremonies were separated in the Western Church. Further, when infant baptism became customary, confirmation was not administered until the child had attained the use of reason. This is the present practice, though there is considerable latitude as to the precise age. The Catechism of the Council of Trent says that the sacrament can be administered to all persons after baptism, but that this is not expedient before the use of reason; and adds that it is most fitting that the sacrament be deferred until the child is seven years old, "for Confirmation has not been instituted as necessary for salvation, but that by virtue thereof we might be found well armed and prepared when called upon to fight for the faith of Christ, and for this kind of conflict no one will consider children, who are still without the use of reason, to be qualified." (Pt. II, ch. iii, 18.)
Such, in fact, is the general usage in the Western Church. Under certain circumstances, however, as, for instance, danger of death, or when the opportunity of receiving the sacrament is but rarely offered, even younger children may be confirmed. In the Greek Church and in Spain, infants are now, as in earlier times, confirmed immediately after baptism. Leo XIII, writing 22 June, 1897, to the Bishop of Marseilles, commends most heartily the practice of confirming children before their first communion as being more in accord with the ancient usage of the Church.
an increase of sanctifying grace which makes the recipient a "perfect Christian";
a special sacramental grace consisting in the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost and notably in the strength and courage to confess boldly the name of Christ;
an indelible character by reason of which the sacrament cannot be received again by the same person.
A further consequence is the spiritual relationship which the person confirming and the sponsor contract with the recipient and with the recipient's parents. This relationship constitutes a diriment impediment to marriage. It does not arise between the minister of the sacrament and the sponsor nor between the sponsors themselves.
Regarding the obligation of receiving the sacrament, it is admitted that confirmation is not necessary as an indispensable means of salvation (necessitate medii).
On the other hand, its reception is obligatory (necessitate præcepti) "for all those who are able to understand and fulfill the Commandments of God and of the Church. This is especially true of those who suffer persecution on account of their religion or are exposed to grievous temptations against faith or are in danger of death. The more serious the danger so much greater is the need of protecting oneself". (Conc. Plen. Balt. II, n. 250.) As to the gravity of the obligation, opinions differ, some theologians holding that an unconfirmed person would commit mortal sin if he refused the sacrament, others that the sin would be at most venial unless the refusal implied contempt for the sacrament. Apart, however, from such controversies the importance of confirmation as a means of grace is so obvious that no earnest Christian will neglect it, and in particular that Christian parents will not fail to see that their children are confirmed.
The Church prescribes under pain of grievous sin that a sponsor, or godparent, shall stand for the person confirmed. The sponsor should be at least fourteen years of age, of the same sex as the candidate, should have already received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and be well instructed in the Catholic Faith. From this office are excluded the father and mother of the candidate, members of a religious order (unless the candidate be a religious), public sinners, and those who are under public ban of interdict or excommunication. Except in case of necessity the baptismal godparent cannot serve as sponsor for the same person in confirmation. Where the opposite practice obtains, it should, according to a decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council, 16 Feb., 1884, be gradually done away with. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866) declared that each candidate should have a sponsor, or that at least two godfathers should stand for the boys and two godmothers for the girls (n. 253). See also prescriptions of the First Council of Westminster. Formerly it was customary for the sponsor to place his or her right foot upon the foot of the candidate during the administration of the sacrament; the present usage is that the sponsor's right hand should be placed upon the right shoulder of the candidate. The Holy Office decreed, 16 June, 1884, that no sponsor could stand for more than two candidates except in case of necessity. The custom of giving a new name to the candidate is not obligatory; but it has the sanction of several synodal decrees during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Fifth Council of Milan, under St. Charles Borromeo, insisted that a candidate whose name was "vile, ridiculous, or quite unbecoming for a Christian" should receive another at Confirmation" (cf. Martène).
It is clear from the diversity of practice at the present day, that there is much uncertainty as to the doctrine concerning confirmation. It is certain that the sacrament is validly and lawfully administered in the Church; but this does not solve the theological questions regarding its institution, matter, form, and minister.
At the time of the Council of Trent the difficulty was felt to be so great that the assembled Fathers contented themselves with only a few canons on the subject. They defined that confirmation was not "a vain ceremony but a true and proper sacrament"; and that it was not "in olden days nothing but a sort of catechism in which those who were entering upon youth gave an account of their faith in the face of the Church" (can. i). They did not define anything specific about the institution by Christ; though in treating of the sacraments in general they had already defined that "all the sacraments of the New Law were instituted by Christ our Lord" (Sess. VII, can. i). Nothing whatever was said about the form of words to be used; and regarding the matter they merely condemned any one who should maintain "that they who ascribe any virtue to the sacred chrism of confirmation offer an outrage to the Holy Ghost" (can. ii). The third and last canon defined that the "ordinary" minister of the sacrament is a bishop only, and not any simple priest.
This guarded language, so different from the definite canons on some of the other sacraments, shows that the council had no intention of deciding the questions at issue among theologians regarding the time and manner of the institution by Christ (direct or indirect institution), the matter (imposition of hands or anointing, or both), the form ("I sign thee", etc., or "the seal", etc.), and the minister (bishop or priest).
Elsewhere (Sess. VII, can. ix) the council defined that in confirmation a character is imprinted in the soul, that is, a certain spiritual and indelible sign on account of which the sacrament cannot be repeated; and again (Sess. XXIII) the council declared that "bishops are superior to priests; they administer the Sacrament of Confirmation; they ordain the ministers of the Church; and they can perform many other things over which functions others of an inferior rank have no power".
Concerning the administration of the sacrament from the earliest times of the Church, the decree of the Inquisition (Lamentabili sane, 3 July, 1907) condemns the proposition (44): "There is no proof that the rite of the Sacrament of Confirmation was employed by the Apostles; the formal distinction, therefore, between the two sacraments, Baptism and Confirmation, does not belong to the history of Christianity". The institution of the sacrament has also been the subject of much discussion as will appear from the following account.
The Sacrament of Confirmation is a striking instance of the development of doctrine and ritual in the Church. We can, indeed, detect much more than the mere germs of it in Holy Scripture; but we must not expect to find there an exact description of the ceremony as at present performed, or a complete solution of the various theological questions which have since arisen. It is only from the Fathers and the Schoolmen that we can gather information on these heads.
Confirmation in the Bible
We read in the Acts of the Apostles (8:14-17) that after the Samaritan converts had been baptized by Philip the deacon, the Apostles "sent unto them Peter and John, who, when they were come, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost; for he was not yet come upon any of them, but they were only baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus; then they laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost".
Again (19:1-6): St. Paul "came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples; and he said to them: Have you received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? But they said to him: We have not so much as heard whether there be a Holy Ghost. And he said: In what then were you baptized? Who said: In John's baptism. Then Paul said: John baptized the people with the baptism of penance . . . Having heard these things, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had imposed his hands on them, the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied".
From these two passages we learn that in the earliest ages of the Church there was a rite, distinct from baptism, in which the Holy Ghost was conferred by the imposition of hands (dia tes epitheseos ton cheiron ton Apostolon), and that the power to perform this ceremony was not implied in the power to baptize.
No distinct mention is made as to the origin of this rite; but Christ promised the gift of the Holy Ghost and conferred it. Again, no express mention is made of anointing with chrism; but we note that the idea of unction is commonly associated with the giving of the Holy Ghost. Christ (Luke 4:18) applies to Himself the words of Isaias (61:1): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, wherefore he hath anointed me to preach the gospel". St. Peter (Acts 10:38) speaks of "Jesus of Nazareth: how God anointed him with the Holy Ghost". St. John tells the faithful: "You have the unction (chrisma) from the Holy One, and know all things"; and again: "Let the unction [chrisma], which you have received from him, abide in you" (1 John 2:20-27).
A striking passage, which was made much use of by the Fathers and the Schoolmen, is that of St. Paul: "He that confirmeth [ho de bebaion] us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God, who also hath sealed [sphragisamenos] us, and given us the pledge [arrabona] of the Spirit in our hearts" (2 Corinthians 1:20-21). No mention is made of any particular words accompanying the imposition of hands on either of the occasions on which the ceremony is described; but as the act of imposing hands was performed for various purposes, some prayer indicating the special purpose may have been used: "Peter and John . . . prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost". Further, such expressions as "signing" and "sealing" may be taken as referring to the character impressed by the sacrament: "You were signed [esphragisthete] with the holy Spirit of promise"; "Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby you are sealed [esphragisthete] unto the day of redemption" (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). See also the passage from Second Corinthians quoted above.
Again, in the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:1-4) the writer reproaches those whom he addresses for falling back into their primitive imperfect knowledge of Christian truth; "whereas for the time you ought to be masters, you have need to be taught again what are the first elements of the words of God" (Hebrews 5:12). He exhorts them: "leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, let us go on to things more perfect, not laying again the foundation . . . of the doctrine of baptisms, and imposition of hands", and speaks of them as those who have been "once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost". It is clear that reference is made here to the ceremony of Christian initiation: baptism and the imposition of hands whereby the Holy Ghost was conferred, just as in Acts 2:38. The ceremony is considered to be so well known to the faithful that no further description is necessary. This account of the practice and teaching of the Apostles proves that the ceremony was no mere examination of those already baptized, no mere profession of faith or renewal of baptismal vows. Nor was it something specially conferred upon the Samaritans and Ephesians. What was done to them was an instance of what was generally bestowed. Nor was it a mere bestowal of charismata; the Holy Ghost sometimes produced extraordinary effects (speaking with divers tongues, etc.), but these were not necessarily the result of His being given. The practice and teaching of the Church at the present day preserve the primitive type: the imposition of hands, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the privileges of the episcopate. What further elements were handed down by tradition will be seen presently.
In passing from Holy Scripture to the Fathers we naturally expect to find more definite answers to the various questions regarding the sacrament. From both their practice and their teaching we learn that the Church made use of a rite distinct from baptism; that this consisted of imposition of hands, anointing, and accompanying words; that by this rite the Holy Ghost was conferred upon those already baptized, and a mark or seal impressed upon their souls; that, as a rule, in the West the minister was a bishop, whereas in the East he might be a simple priest.
The Fathers considered that the rites of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist) were instituted by Christ, but they did not enter into any minute discussion as to the time, place, and manner of the institution, at least of the second of these rites.
In examining the testimonies of the Fathers we should note that the word confirmation is not used to designate this sacrament during the first four centuries; but we meet with various other terms and phrases which quite clearly refer to it. Thus, it is styled "imposition of hands" (manuum impositio, cheirothesia), "unction", "chrism", "sealing", etc. Before the time of Tertullian the Fathers do not make any explicit mention of confirmation as distinct from baptism. The fact that the two sacraments were conferred together may account for this silence.
Tertullian (On Baptism 6) is the first to distinguish clearly the three acts of initiation: "After having come out of the laver, we are anointed thoroughly with a blessed unction [perungimur benedictâ unctione] according to the ancient rule . . . The unction runs bodily over us, but profits spiritually . . . . Next to this, the hand is laid upon us through the blessing, calling upon and inviting the Holy Spirit [dehinc manus imponitur per benedictionem advocans et invitans Spiriturn Sanctum]."
Again (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 8): "The flesh is washed that the soul may be made stainless. The flesh is anointed [ungitur] that the soul may be consecrated. The flesh is sealed [signatur] that the soul may be fortified. The flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of hands that the soul may be illuminated by the Spirit. The flesh is fed by the Body and Blood of Christ that the soul may be fattened of God."
And (Against Marcion 1.14): "But He [Christ], indeed even at the present time, neither rejected the water of the Creator with which He washes clean His own, nor the oil with which He anoints His own; . . . nor the bread with which He makes present [repræsentat] His own very body, needing even in His own sacraments the beggarly elements of the Creator," Tertullian also tells how the devil, imitating the rites of Christian initiation, sprinkles some and signs them as his soldiers on the forehead (signat illic in frontibus milites suos — The Prescription Against Heretics 40).
Another great African Father speaks with equal clearness of confirmation. "Two sacraments", says St. Cyprian, "preside over the perfect birth of a Christian, the one regenerating the man, which is baptism, the other communicating to him the Holy Spirit" (Epistle 72).
"Anointed also must he be who is baptized, in order that having received the chrism, that is the unction, he may be anointed of God" (Epistle 70).
"It was not fitting that [the Samaritans] should be baptized again, but only what was wanting, that was done by Peter and John; that prayer being made for them and hands imposed, the Holy Ghost should be invoked and poured forth upon them. Which also is now done among us; so that they who are baptized in the Church are presented to the bishops [prelates] of the Church, and by our prayer and imposition of hands, they receive the Holy Ghost and are perfected with the seal [signaculo] of the Lord" (Epistle 73).
"Moreover, a person is not born by the imposition of hands, when he receives the Holy Ghost, but in baptism; that being already born he may receive the Spirit, as was done in the first man Adam. For God first formed him and breathed into his face the breath of life. For the Spirit cannot be received except there is first one to receive it. But the birth of Christians is in baptism" (Epistle 74).
Pope St. Cornelius complains that Novatus, after having been baptized on his sickbed, "did not receive the other things which ought to be partaken of according to the rule of the Church--to be sealed, that is, by the bishop [sphragisthenai ypo tou episkopou] and not having received this, how did he receive the Holy Ghost?" (Eusebius, Church History VI.43).
In the fourth and fifth centuries the testimonies are naturally more frequent and clear. St. Hilary speaks of "the sacraments of baptism and of the Spirit"; and he says that "the favor and gift of the Holy Spirit were, when the work of the Law ceased, to be given by the imposition of hands and prayer" (In Matt., c. iv, c. xiv).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem is the great Eastern authority on the subject, and his testimony is all the more important because he devoted several of his "Catecheses" to the instruction of catechumens in the three sacraments which they were to receive on being initiated into the Christian mysteries. Nothing could be clearer than his language: "To you also after you had come up from the pool of the sacred streams, was given the chrism [unction], the emblem of that wherewith Christ was anointed; and this is the Holy Ghost. . . This holy ointment is no longer plain ointment nor so as to say common, after the invocation, but Christ's gift; and by the presence of His Godhead, it causes in us the Holy Ghost. This symbolically anoints thy forehead, and thy other senses; and the body indeed is anointed with visible ointment, but the soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit . . . . To you not in figure but in truth, because ye were in truth anointed by the Spirit" (Mystagogical Catechesis 3).
And in the seventeenth catechesis on the Holy Ghost, speaks of the visit of Peter and John to communicate to the Samaritans the gift of the Holy Ghost by prayer and the imposition of hands. Forget not the Holy Ghost", he says to the catechumens, "at the moment of your enlightenment; He is ready to mark your soul with His seal [sphragisai] . . . He will give you the heavenly and divine seal [sphragisai] which makes the devils tremble; He will arm you for the fight; He will give you strength." Christ, says St. Optatus of Mileve, "went down into the water, not that there was what could be cleansed in God, but the water ought to go before the oil that was to supervene, in order to initiate and in order to fill up the mysteries of baptism; having been washed whilst He was held in John's hands, the order of the mystery is followed . . . . Heaven is opened whilst the Father anoints; the spiritual oil in the image of the Dove immediately descended and rested on His head, and poured on it oil, whence He took the name of Christ, when He was anointed by God the Father; to whom that the imposition of hands might not seem to have been wanting, the voice of God is heard from a cloud, saying, This is my Son, of whom I have thought well; hear ye him" (De schism. Donat., I, iv, n. 7).
St. Ephraem Syrus speaks of "the Sacraments of Chrism and Baptism" (Serm. xxvii); "oil also for a most sweet unguent, wherewith they who already have been initiated by baptism are sealed, and put on the armour of the Holy Spirit" (In Joel.)
St. Ambrose addressing the catechumens who had already been baptized and anointed, says: "Thou hast received the spiritual seal, the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding . . . . Keep what thou hast received. God the Father has sealed thee; Christ the Lord has confirmed thee; and the Spirit has given the pledge in thy heart, as thou hast learned from what is read in the Apostle" (On the Mysteries 7.42).
The writer of the "De Sacramentis" (Inter Op. Ambros., lib. III, c. ii, n. 8) says that after the baptismal immersion "the spiritual seal [signaculum] follows . . . when at the invocation of the bishop [sacerdotis] the Holy Ghost is infused".
The Council of Elvira decreed that those who had been baptized privately in case of necessity should afterwards be taken to the bishop "to be made perfect by the imposition of hands" (can. xxxviii, Labbe, I, 974).
And the Council of Laodicea: "Those who have been converted from the heresies . . . are not to be received before they anathematize every heresy . . . and then after that, those who were called faithful among them, having learned the creeds of the faith, and having been anointed with the holy chrism, shall so communicate of the holy mystery" (can. vii). "Those who are enlightened must after baptism be anointed with the heavenly chrism, and be partakers of the kingdom of Christ" (can. xlviii, Labbe, I, col. 1497).
The Council of Constantinople (381): "We receive the Arians, and Macedonians . . . upon their giving in written statements and anathematizing every heresy . . . . Having first sealed them with the holy ointment upon the forehead, and eyes, and nostrils, and mouth, and ears, and sealing them we say, 'The seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost"' (can. vii, Labbe, II, col. 952).
St. Augustine explains how the coming of the Holy Ghost was companied with the gift of tongues in the first ages of the Church. "These were miracles suited to the times . . . .
Is it now expected that they upon whom hands are laid, should speak with tongues? Or when we imposed our hand upon these children, did each of you wait to see whether they would speak with tongues? and when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so perverse of heart as to say 'These have not received the Holy Ghost?' (Tractate 6 on the Gospel of John).
He also speaks in the same way about anointing: the sacrament of chrism "is in the genus of visible signs, sacrosanct like baptism" (Against Petilian 2.104; see Serm. ccxxvii, Ad Infantes in P.L., XXXVII, col. 1100; On the Holy Trinity 15.46); "Of Christ it is written in the Acts of the Apostles, how God anointed Him with the Holy Ghost, not indeed with visible oil, but with the gift of grace, which is signified by that visible unction wherewith the Church anoints the baptized".
The most explicit passage is in the letter of Pope Innocent I to Decentius: "As regards the sealing of infants, it is clear that it is not lawful for it to be done by anyone but a bishop [non ab aliis quam ab episcopo fieri licere]. For presbyters, though they be priests of the second rank (second priests), have not attained to the summit of the pontificate. That this pontificate is the right of bishops only--to wit: that they may seal or deliver the Spirit, the Paraclete is demonstrated not merely by ecclesiastical usage, but also by that portion of the Acts of the Apostles wherein it is declared that Peter and John were sent to give the Holy Ghost to those who had already been baptized. For when presbyters baptize, whether with or without the presence of the bishop, they may anoint the baptized with chrism, provided it be previously consecrated by a bishop, but not sign the forehead with that oil, which is a right reserved to bishops [episcopis] only, when they give the Spirit, the Paraclete. The words, however, I cannot name, for fear of seeming to betray rather than to reply to the point on which you have consulted me."
Saint Leo in his fourth sermon on Christ's Nativity says to the faithful: "Having been regenerated by water and the Holy Ghost, you have received the chrism of salvation and the seal of eternal life" (chrisma salutis et signaculum vitae æternæ, — P.L., LIV, col. 207).
The Blessed Theodoret commenting on the first chapter of the Canticle of Canticles says: "Bring to thy recollection the holy rite of initiation, in which they who are perfected after the renunciation of the tyrant and the acknowledgment of the King, receive as a kind of royal seal the chrism of the spiritual unction (sphragida tina basiliken . . . tou pneumatikou myron to chrisma) as made partakers in that typical ointment of the invisible grace of the Holy Spirit" (P.G., LXXXI, 60).
Among the homilies formerly attributed to Eusebius of Emesa, but now admitted to be the work of some bishop of southern Gaul in the fifth century, is a long homily for Whitsunday: "The Holy Ghost who comes down with a life-giving descent upon the waters of baptism, in the font bestows beauty unto innocence, in confirmation grants an increase unto grace. Because we have to walk during our whole life in the midst of invisible enemies and dangers, we are in baptism regenerated unto life, after baptism we are confirmed for the battle; in baptism we are cleansed, after baptism we are strengthened . . . . confirmation arms and furnishes weapons to those who are reserved for the wrestlings and contests of this world" (Bib. Max., SS. PP., VI, p. 649).
These passages suffice to show the doctrine and practice of the Church during the patristic age.
Early Middle Ages
After the great Trinitarian and Christological controversies had been decided, and the doctrine of Divine grace had been defined, the Church was able to devote attention to questions regarding the sacraments, the means of grace. At the same time, the sacramentaries were being drawn up, fixing the various rites in use.
With precision of practice came greater precision and completeness of doctrine. "Chrisma", says St. Isidore of Seville, "is in Latin, called 'unctio' and from it Christ receives His name, and man is sanctified after the laver [lavacrum]; for as in baptism remission of sins is given, so by anointing [unctio] the sanctification of the Spirit is conferred. The imposition of hands takes place in order that the Holy Spirit, being called by the blessing, may be invited [per benedictionem advocatus invitetur Spiritus Sanctus]; for after the bodies have been cleansed and blessed, then does the Paraclete willingly come down from the Father" (Etym., VI, c.xix in P.L., LXXXII, col. 256).
The great Anglo-Saxon lights of the early Middle Ages are equally explicit. "The confirmation of the newly baptized", says Lingard (Anglo-Saxon Church, I, p. 296), "was made an important part of the bishop's duty. We repeatedly read of journeys undertaken by St. Cuthbert chiefly with this object . . . . Children were brought to him for confirmation from the secluded parts of the country; and he ministered to those who had been recently born again in Christ the grace of the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands, 'placing his hand on the head of each, and anointing them with the chrism which he had blessed (manum imponens super caput singulorum, liniens unctione consecratâ quam benedixerat; Beda, "Vita Cuth.", c. xxix, xxxii in P.L., XCIV, Oper. Min., p. 277)."
Alcuin also in his letter to Odwin describes how the neophyte, after the reception of baptism and the Eucharist, prepares to receive the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands. "Last of all by the imposition of the hands by the chief priest [summo sacerdote] he receives the Spirit of the seven-fold grace to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to fight against others" (De bapt. cæremon. in P.L., CI, col. 614).
It will be observed that in all these passages imposition of hands is mentioned; St. Isidore and St. Bede mention anointing also. These may be taken as typical examples; the best authorities of this age combine the two ceremonies.
As to the form of words used the greatest variety prevailed. The words accompanying the imposition of hands were generally a prayer calling upon God to send down the Holy Ghost and confer upon the neophytes the seven gifts. In the Gregorian Sacramentary no words at all are assigned to the anointing; but it is clear that the anointing must be taken in connection with the words belonging to the imposition of hands. Where special words are assigned they sometimes resemble the Greek formulary (signum Christi in vitam æternam, etc.), or are indicative, like the present formula (signo, consigno, confirmo), or imperative (accipe signum, etc.), or deprecatory (confirmet vos Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus, etc.). St. Isidore is clearly in favor of a prayer: "We can receive the Holy Ghost, but we cannot give Him: that He may be given, we call upon God" (De Off. Eccl., II, c. xxvi in P.L., LXXXIII, col. 823).
In contrast with this diversity as to the form there is complete agreement that the sole minister is a bishop. Of course this refers only to the Western Church. The writers appeal to the Acts of the Apostles (e.g. St. Isidore, "De Off. Eccl.", II, c. xxvi; St. Bede, "In Act. Apost." in P.L., XCII, col. 961; "Vit. Cuth.", c. xxix); but they do not examine the reason why the power is reserved to the bishops, nor do they discuss the question of the time and mode of the institution of the sacrament.
The teaching of the Schoolmen shows a marked advance upon that of the early Middle Ages. The decision as to the number of the sacraments involved the clear distinction of confirmation from baptism; and at the same time the more exact definition of what constitutes a sacrament led to the discussion of the institution of confirmation, its matter and form, minister, and effects, especially the character impressed.
We can follow the development through the labors of Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm his successor, Abelard, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Lombard (Sent., IV, dist. vii); then branching out into the two distinct schools of Dominicans (Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas) and Franciscans (Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus). As we shall see, the clearness with which the various questions were set forth by no means produced unanimity; rather it served to bring out the uncertainty with regard to them all. The writers start from the fact that there was in the Church a ceremony of anointing with chrism accompanied with the words: "I sign thee with the sign of the cross", etc.; this ceremony was performed by a bishop only, and could not be repeated. When they came to examine the doctrine underlying this practice they all admitted that it was a sacrament, though in the earlier writers the word sacrament had not yet acquired a distinct technical meaning. So strongly did they insist upon the principle Lex orandi, lex credendi, that they took for granted that the anointing must be the matter, and the words "I sign thee", etc., the form, and that no one but a bishop could be the valid minister. But when they came to justify this doctrine by the authority of Scripture they encountered the difficulty that no mention is made there either of the anointing or of the words; indeed nothing is said of the institution of the sacrament at all. What could be the meaning of this silence? How could it be explained?
(a) The institution of the sacrament
Regarding the institution there were three opinions. The Dominican School taught that Christ Himself was the immediate author of confirmation. Earlier writers (e.g. Hugh of St. Victor, "De Sacram.", ii, and Peter Lombard, "Sent.", IV, dist. vii) held that it was instituted by the Holy Ghost through the instrumentality of the Apostles. The Franciscans also maintained that the Holy Ghost was the author, but that He acted either through the Apostles or through the Church after the death of the Apostles. St. Thomas says,
Concerning the institution of this sacrament, there are two opinions: some say that it was instituted neither by Christ nor by His Apostles, but later on in the course of time at a certain council [Meaux, 845; this was the opinion of Alexander of Hales, Summ., iv, q. 9, m.], whereas others said that it was instituted by the Apostles. But this cannot be the case, because the institution of a sacrament belongs to the power of excellence which is proper to Christ alone. And therefore we must hold that Christ instituted this sacrament, not by showing it [exhibendo] but by promising it, according to the text (John 16:7), "If I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you." And this because in this sacrament the fullness of the Holy Ghost is given, which was not to be given before Christ's resurrection and ascension, according to the text (John 7:39), "As yet the Spirit was not given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." (Summa Theologiæ III.72.1).
It will be noticed that the Angelic Doctor hesitates a little about the direct institution by Christ (non exhibendo, sed promittendo). In his earlier work (In Sent., IV, dist. vii, q. 1) he had said plainly that Christ had instituted the sacrament and had Himself administered it (Matthew 19). In this opinion the saint was still under the influence of his master, Albert, who went so far as to hold that Christ had specified the chrism and the words, "I sign thee", etc. (In Sent., IV, dist. vii, a. 2).
The opinion of Alexander of Hales, referred to by St. Thomas, was as follows: the Apostles conferred the Holy Ghost by mere imposition of hands; this rite, which was not properly a sacrament, was continued until the ninth century, when the Holy Ghost inspired the Fathers of the Council of Meaux in the choice of the matter and form, and endowed these with sacramental efficacy (Spiritu Sancto instigante et virtutem sanctificandi præstante). He was led to this extraordinary view (which he states as merely personal) by the fact that no mention is made in Holy Scripture either of the chrism or of the words; and as these were undoubtedly the matter and the form they could only have been introduced by Divine authority.
His disciple, St. Bonaventure, agreed in rejecting the institution by Christ or His Apostles, and in attributing it to the Holy Ghost; but he set back the time to the age of "the successors of the Apostles" (In Sent., IV, dist. vii, art. 1). However, like his friendly rival St. Thomas, he also modified his view in a later work viloquium, p. vi. c. 4) where he says that Christ instituted all the sacraments, though in different ways; "some by hinting at them and initiating them [insinuando et initiando], as confirmation and extreme unction". Scotus seems to have felt the weight of the authority of the Dominican opinion, for he does not express himself clearly in favor of the views of his own order. He says that the rite was instituted by God (Jesus Christ? the Holy Ghost?); that it was instituted when Christ pronounced the words, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost", or on the day of Pentecost, but this may refer not to the rite but to the thing signified, viz. the gift of the Holy Ghost (In Sent., IV, dist. vii, q. 1; dist. ii, q. 1). The Fathers of the Council of Trent, as said above, did not expressly decide the question, but as they defined that all the sacraments were instituted by Christ, the Dominican teaching has prevailed. We shall see, however, that this is capable of many different meanings.
(b) The question of matter and form
The question of the institution of the sacrament is intimately bound up with the determination of the matter and form. All agreed that these consisted of the anointing (including the act of placing the hand upon the candidate) and the words, "I sign thee", or "I confirm thee", etc. Were this action and these words of Divine, or of Apostolic, or of merely ecclesiastical origin? St. Albertus held that both were ordained by Christ Himself; others that they were the work of the Church; but the common opinion was that they were of Apostolic origin. St. Thomas was of opinion that the Apostles actually made use of chrism and the words, Consigno te, etc., and that they did so by Christ's command. The silence of Scripture need not surprise us, he says, "for the Apostles observed many things in the administration of the sacraments which are not handed down by the Scriptures" (Summa Theologiæ III.72.3).
(c) The reservation of the rite to the bishops
In proof of the reservation of the rite to bishops the Schoolmen appeal to the example of Acts 8; and they go on to explain that as the sacrament is a sort of completion of baptism it is fitting that it should be conferred by "one who has the highest power [summam potestatem] in the Church" (Summa Theologiæ III.72.11). They were aware, however, that in the primitive Church simple priests sometimes administered the sacrament. This they accounted for by the fewness of bishops, and they recognized that the validity of such administration (unlike the case of Holy orders) is a mere matter of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. "The pope holds the fullness of power in the Church, whence he can confer upon certain of the inferior orders things which belong to the higher orders . . . . And out of the fullness of this power the blessed pope Gregory granted that simple priests conferred this sacrament" (Summa Theologiæ III.72.11).
The Council of Trent
The Council of Trent did not decide the questions discussed by the Schoolmen. But the definition that "all the sacraments were instituted by Christ" (Sess. VII, can. i), excluded the opinion that the Holy Ghost was the author of confirmation. Still, nothing was said about the mode of institution--whether immediate or mediate, generic or specific. The post-Tridintine theologians have almost unanimously taught that Christ Himself was the immediate author of all the sacraments, and so of confirmation (cf. De Lugo, "De Sacram. in Gen.", disp. vii, sect. 1; Tournély, "De Sacram. in Gen.", q. v, a. 1). "But the historical studies of the seventeenth century obliged authors to restrict the action of Christ in the institution of the sacraments to the determination of the spiritual effect, leaving the choice of the rite to the Apostles and the Church." (Pourrat, La théologie sacramentaire, p. 313.) That is to say, in the case of confirmation, Christ bestowed upon the Apostles the power of giving the Holy Ghost, but He did not specify the ceremony by which this gift should be conferred; the Apostles and the Church, acting under Divine guidance, fixed upon the imposition of hands, the anointing, and the appropriate words. Further information on this important and difficult question will be found in the article SACRAMENTS.
Confirmation in the British and Irish Churches
In his famous "Confession" (p. clxxxiv) St. Patrick refers to himself as the first to administer confirmation in Ireland. The term here used (populi consummatio; cf. St. Cyprian, ut signaculo dominico consummentur, Epistle 73, no. 9) is rendered by nocosmad, cosmait (confirmabat, confirmatio) in a very ancient Irish homily on St. Patrick found in the fourteenth century, "Leabar Breac". In the same work (II, 550-51) a Latin preface to an ancient Irish chronological tract says: Debemus scire quo tempore Patriacius sanctus episcopus atque præceptor maximus Scotorum inchoavit . . . sanctificare et consecrare, et consummare, i.e. "we ought to know at what time Patrick, the holy bishop and greatest teacher of the Irish, began to come to Ireland . . . to sanctify and ordain and confirm".
From the same "Leabar Breac" Sylvester Malone quotes the following account of confirmation which exhibits an accurate belief on the part of the Irish Church: "Confirmation or chrism is the perfection of baptism, not that they are not distinct and different. Confirmation could not be given in the absence of baptism; nor do the effects of baptism depend on confirmation, nor are they lost till death. Just as the natural birth takes place at once so does the spiritual regeneration in like manner, but it finds, however, its perfection in confirmation" (Church History of Ireland, Dublin, 1880, I, p. 149).
It is in the light of these venerable texts, which quite probably antedate the year 1000, that we must interpret the well-known reference of St. Bernard to the temporary disuse of confirmation in Ireland (Vita Malachiæ), c. iv, in Acta SS., Nov., 1I, 145). He relates that St. Malachy (b. about 1095) introduced the practices of the Holy Roman Church into all the churches of Ireland, and mentions especially "the most wholesome usage of confession, the sacrament of confirmation and the contract of marriage, all of which were either unknown or neglected". These Malachy restored (de novo instituit).
The Welsh laws of Hywel Dda suppose for children of seven years and upwards a religious ceremony of laying on of hands that can hardly be anything else than confirmation. Moreover, the Welsh term for this sacrament, Bedydd Esgob, i.e. bishop's baptism, implies that it was always performed by a bishop and was a complement (consummatio) of baptism. Gerald Barry notes that the whole people of Wales were more eager than any other nation to obtain episcopal confirmation and the chrism by which the Spirit was given.
The practice in England has already been illustrated by facts from the life of St. Cuthbert. One of the oldest ordines, or prescriptions for administering the sacrament, is found in the Pontifical of Egbert, Archbishop of York (d. 766). The rite is practically the same as that used at present; the form, however, is: "receive the sign of the holy cross with the chrism of salvation in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting." Among the rubrics are: modo ligandi sunt, i.e. the head of the person confirmed is to be bound with a fillet; and modo communicandi sunt de sacrificio, i.e. they are to receive Holy Communion (Martène).
It was especially during the thirteenth century that vigorous measures were taken to secure the proper administration of the sacrament. In general, the councils and synods direct the priests to admonish the people regarding the confirmation of their children. The age limit, however, varies considerably. Thus the Synod of Worcester (1240) decreed that parents who neglected to have their child confirmed within a year after birth should be forbidden to enter the church. The Synod of Exeter (1287) enacted that children should be confirmed within three years from birth, otherwise the parents were to fast on bread and water until they complied with the law. At the Synod of Durham (1217? Cf. Wilkins, loc. cit. below) the time was extended to the seventh year.
Other statutes were: that no one should be admitted to Holy Communion who had not been confirmed (Council of Lambeth, 1281); that neither father nor mother nor stepparent should act as sponsor (London, 1200); that children to be confirmed must bring "fillets or bands of sufficient length and width", and that they must be brought to the church the third day after confirmation to have their foreheads washed by the priest out of reverence for the holy chrism (Oxford, 1222); that a male sponsor should stand for the boys and a female sponsor for the girls (Provincial Synod of Scotland, 1225); that adults must confess before being confirmed (Constitution of St. Edmund of Canterbury, about 1236).
Several of the above-named synods emphasize the fact that confirmation produces spiritual cognation and that the sacrament cannot be received more than once. The legislation of the Synod of Exeter is especially full and detailed (see Wilkins, Concilia Magnæ Brittanniæ et Hiberniæ, London, 1734).
Among the decrees issued in Ireland after the Reformation may be cited: no one other than a bishop should administer confirmation; the Holy See had not delegated this episcopal function to any one (Synod of Armagh, 1614); the faithful should be taught that confirmation cannot be reiterated and that its reception should be preceded by sacramental confession (Synod of Tuam, 1632).
In the American colonies
Previous to the establishment of the hierarchy, many Catholics in North America died without having received confirmation. In some portions of what is now the United States the sacrament was administered by bishops from the neighboring French and Spanish possessions; in others, by missionary priests with delegation from the Holy See.
Bishop Cabezas de Altimirano of Santiago de Cuba, on his visitation of Florida, confirmed (25 March, 1606) a large number, probably the first administration of the sacrament in the United States territory. In 1655, Don Diego de Rebolledo, Governor of Florida, urged the King of Spain to ask the pope to make St. Augustine an episcopal see, or to make Florida a vicariate Apostolic so that there might be a local superior and that the faithful might receive the Sacrament of Confirmation; but nothing came of the petition. Bishop Calderon of Santiago visited Florida in 1647 and confirmed 13,152 persons, including Indians and whites. Other instances are the visitations of Bishop de Velasco (1735-6) and Bishop Morel (1763). Subsequently, Dr. Peter Camps, missionary Apostolic, received from Rome special faculties for confirmation.
In New Mexico, during the seventeenth century, the custos of the Franciscans confirmed by delegation from Leo X and Adrian VI. In 1760, Bishop Tamaron of Durango visited the missions of New Mexico and confirmed 11,271 persons. Bishop Tejada of Guadalajara administered (1759) confirmation at San Fernando, now San Antonio, Texas, and Bishop de Pontbriand at Ft. Presentation (Ogdensburg, N.Y.) in 1752.
The need of a bishop to administer the sacrament in Maryland and Pennsylvania was urged by Bishop Challoner in a report to the Propaganda, 2 Aug., 1763. Writing to his agent at Rome, Rev. Dr. Stonor, 12 Sept., 1766, he says: "there be so many thousands there that live and die without Confirmation"; and in another letter, 4 June, 1771: "It is a lamentable thing that such a multitude have to live and die always deprived of the Sacrament of Confirmation." Cardinal Castelli wrote, 7 Sept., 1771, to Bishop Briand of Quebec asking him to supply the need of the Catholics in Maryland and Pennsylvania. In 1783 the clergy petitioned Rome for the appointment of a superior with the necessary faculties "that our faithful living in many dangers, may be no longer deprived of the Sacrament of Confirmation . . . . " On 6 June, 1784, Pius VI appointed Rev. John Carroll as superior of the mission and empowered him to administer confirmation (Shea, Life and Times of Archbishop Carroll, New York, 1888; cf. Hughes in Am. Eccl. Review, XXVIII, 23).
Confirmation among non-Catholics
The Protestant Reformers, influenced by their rejection of all that could not be clearly proved from Scripture and by their doctrine of justification by faith only, refused to admit that confirmation was a sacrament (Luther, De Capt. Babyl., VII, p. 501). According to the Confession of Augsburg, it was instituted by the Church, and it has not the promise of the grace of God. Melanchthon (Loci Comm., p. 48) taught that it was a vain ceremony, and was formerly nothing but a catechism in which those who were approaching adolescence gave an account of their faith before the Church; and that the minister was not a bishop only, but any priest whatsoever (Lib. Ref. ad Colonien.).
These four points were condemned by the Council of Trent (supra I; cf. A. Theiner, Acta Genuina SS. Œcum. Conc. Trid., I, p. 383 sqq.). Nevertheless the Lutheran Churches retain some sort of confirmation to the present day. It consists of the examination of the candidate in Christian doctrine by the pastors or members of the consistory, and the renewal by the candidate of the profession of faith made for him at the time of his baptism by his godparents. How the pastors properly ordained can alone be said to "give" confirmation does not appear. The Anglican Church holds that "Confirmation is not to be counted for a sacrament of the Gospel . . . for it has not the like nature of sacraments [sacramentorum eandem rationem] with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for it has not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God" (Art. xxv). But, like the Lutheran Churches, it retains "the Confirmation of children, by examining them of their knowledge in their articles of faith and joining thereto the prayers of the Church for them" (Homily on Common Prayer and Sacraments, p. 300). The rite of confirmation has undergone various changes in the different prayer books (see BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER). From these it can be seen how the Anglican Church has varied between the complete rejection of the Catholic doctrine and practice, and a near approach to these. Testimonies could easily be quoted for either of these opinions. The wording of Art. xxv left a loophole which the Ritualistic party has made good use of. Even some Catholics, as stated above, have admitted that confirmation "has not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God"; the imposition of hands, the anointing, and the words used being all of them "ordained of" the Apostles of the Church.
(Scannell, Thomas. "Confirmation." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4.)