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Confirmation: A Bishop's Dilemma

by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

Since becoming a bishop nineteen years ago I have confirmed something like 40,000 candidates, so one might confidently expect that I would have crystal clear ideas concerning what I am doing. Sadly, this is not the case. The problem lies with the sacrament itself. A number of years ago confirmation was called “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Later it was said that the problem is not that confirmation has no theology, but rather that it has two theologies, one of christian initiation and the other of adult commitment and mission, and that they are mutually exclusive. Choosing either of the two theologies also has its problems, for each of the two appears to borrow parts of the opposing theology in order to sustain itself. I approach this problem from the pragmatic viewpoint that I shall probably confirm many more thousands of young people and I have to say something to them, so I cannot afford to write a learned treatise that leaves the question up in the air. If theology gives me no clear answers, then I shall have to give pragmatic ones.


Originally there was only one ceremony of baptism that contained two elements: a washing with waterConfirmation Dove that signified a washing clean from sin and a laying on of hands together with an anointing with oil that signified the gift of the Spirit. In this there was a consecration of the person into both the death and resurrection of the Son and the coming of the Spirit. It did not occur to anyone that a person could be baptized into the death and resurrection of the Son without also being baptized into the Spirit. In this ceremony   Easter and Pentecost were two parts of the one event. “Conversion to Christ, the opening up of our lives to the power of his redemption, incorporation into the faith community, the declaration of our sonship of the Father, all these are inextricably linked with the indwelling and activity of the Holy Spirit.”1

The problem that arose was pragmatic. At first the bishop alone celebrated the Sunday Mass with his priests gathered around him, and this was seen as a powerful sign of the unity of the Church. As the Church spread out into the villages, the bishop found that he had to permit the priests to celebrate Mass where the people lived rather than join him in the cathedral. In the same way the bishop could not be present at every baptism and had to authorize the priests to celebrate this sacrament.

The Eastern half of the Church authorized its priests to celebrate baptism and kept the link with the bishop only by insisting that the bishop should consecrate the oil the priests used. The Western half of the Church wanted a fuller sign of the unity of the church, so it divided the ceremony: the priest performed the washing with water but the anointing with oil was reserved to the bishop. All later problems began from here and all could be solved by going back to the original practice and reuniting the ceremonies.The new ceremony was given.the name of confirmation, i.e., that which confirms, perfects; or consummates baptism.

The bishop confirmed as he rode around his diocese on horseback, with parents holding up their children to him to be confirmed.2

This created a heavy burden on many bishops; it gave too much importance to this one ceremony in the life of the bishop, Confirmation came to have a disproportionate role in expressing the unity of the diocese. Speaking as a working bishop, I would argue that these facts are still true. The custom would eventually be hardened into a law which said that priests of the Latin Rite could not validly confirm without a special faculty to do so (see canon 882 CIC). I confess that I do not understand how the church can place this limit on the power of orders to confirm which priests undoubtedly possess. The practice ran into difficulties because people could not later remember their own confirmation as small children and no one had any record of who had been confirmed and who had not. It wa, therefore, decided that, if confirmation was to be separated from baptism, the gap between them should be used more creatively and a period of serious catechesis for confirmation should be introduced. The age of about seven was established for confirmation, though the order of baptism-confirmation-Eucharist was still preserved.

Originally, the washing with water by the priest and the anointing by the bishop had been two parts of the one act of receiving a new candidate into the church. From this point on any link with a first reception into the church had been lost. In this process confirmation became the carrier of many different values, some of them close to the idea of an anointing in the Spirit, but others having only a distant connection (e.g., the idea of a sacrament of adult commitment). “The West, as it focused more and more on the separability of confirmation, needed to discover and develop meanings that in a sense justify its existence and make one more comfortable about two rites now separated by the passage of years and presumably distinguishable in their scope and significance.” 3

The crisis for this practice did not come until the early l900s when Pope Pius X introduced the idea of Eucharist for children from the time they reached the age of seven, for this meant that
for many people confirmation now, for the first time, came after first Eucharist. This was the final departure from the original ceremony. It was the step too far that would cause a reaction. It is important to understand that the practice we have inherited is a quite recent one, not an age-old custom. Opposition to the practice grew until it became an issue at the Second Vatican Council and in all subsequent documents. The insistence that confirmation should come before Eucharist has become strong, though far from universal. It has forced a confrontation between the two theologies.


The first theology sees confirmation as one of the sacraments, of initiation. By unanimous agreement, baptism is the first sacrament and the basis of all other sacraments; and Eucharist is the summit of all the sacraments. Confirmation, originally one with baptism, is seen as part of the process of initiation into the Christian faith and community that begins with baptism and culminates in Eucharist. Its place, therefore, is between baptism and first Eucharist. Since the Second Vatican Council, this is the theology of confirmation that has been put forward by virtually all documents coming out of the Vatican. In the minds of some, therefore, it is the only authoritative theology; and all contrary theologies should be abandoned.
The problem I have with this theology is that it is hard to present it without implying some defect in baptism.To present this dilemma clearly, let us consider this example. Close to one another there are two Catholic churches — one is a Latin Rite parish church, the other is an Eastern Rite Catholic church. Two babies are baptized on the same day, one in each church. The child baptized in the Latin church, Andrew, is not confirmed; the child baptized in the Eastern Rite church, Maria, receives both baptism and confirmation in the one ceremony. As they are carried out of their respective churches by their parents, what has Maria received that Andrew has not received? Is there something missing in what Andrew received? Will his membership in the Church be in some manner incomplete until he later receives confirmation?

I find the answers given to these questions by the official documents of the church less than satisfying. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.  (Why, what is incomplete in baptismal grace? What does it mean that Maria has received a complete baptismal grace while Andrew has received an incomplete baptismal grace?)4

The Catechism then quotes the Second Vatican Council's document, Lumen Gentium, “For by the sacrament of Confirmation [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church” (In what way is Maria more perfectly bound to the Church while Andrew is less perfectly bound? What is lacking in his binding to the Church?) “and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit” (Did Andrew receive an ordinary strength of the Holy Spirit while Maria received a special strength? What meaning can such words have?) The quote from Lumen Gentium then concludes," Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by work and deed.5 (Even if we put aside the fact that both Andrew and Maria are still babies, what can it possibly mean that Maria is more strictly bound to spread and defend the faith than Andrew is?)

It is not clear that at this point, in speaking of spreading and defending the faith, even the Vatican Council is borrowing from the other theology of commitment and mission in order to bolster its own position? It insists that confirmation is the middle sacrament of initiation but, after some less than convincing arguments about what confirmation adds to baptism, it feels a need to call on the theology of commitment and mission, even though this theology is rather meaningless for four-week-old babies.

A number of authors appear to be aware of the weakness of these arguments,and they move in a different direction. "Confirmation is not a reaffirmation of a previous baptism; it is not the ritualization of a key moment in the human life cycle. It is, rather, the gift of the Spirit tied intimately to the water-bath that prepares on for the reception of the body and blood of Christ as a full member of the Church."6 Nevertheless, for all of the Churches today, the goal is not simply the liturgical-sacramental rejoining of what has been separated, although this is a crucial and important liturgical step. The primary goal, rather, is to take with the utmost seriousness that Christian baptism is full initiation in water and the Spirit, and that, theologically, confirmation, or whatever we might call it, is but the ritualizing or sacramentalizing of the Spirit gift inseparably connected to the water bath itself. Such a unitive realization of initiation has vast implications for our spirituality, for our life in the Spirit.7

The second writer, a member of a Reformation Church, appears to come very close to saying that confirmation is not a separate sacrament at all, but the ritualizing, within the ceremony of baptism, of the gift of the Spirit. In this understanding there is only one sacrament, baptism. In this sacrament, one is both washed clean of sin and filled with the gifts of the Spirit. Within the one sacrament, the pouring of water ritualizes the washing clean of sin, while the anointing with chrism ritualizes the giving of the gifts of the Spirit. This idea does away with all the problems mentioned above about “completing” baptismal grace, being more perfectly bound to the Church and receiving a special strength of the Spirit. In this understanding both Andrew and Maria received one and the same sacrament, and in both ceremonies there was both a pouring of water and an anointing with chrism. The only difference was the minor one that there were some more formalities about the second ritual element in the case of Maria. This would resolve the difficulties currently encountered in the idea of confirmation as a sacrament of initiation, but it would leave us with the obvious problem that we had done away with a sacrament and were left with only six, not seven. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. It can, however, be added that, as long as the two ceremonies are reunited, the number of sacraments involved would be a theoretical rather than a practical problem.


All official documents coming from the Vatican speak of the theology of initiation in relation to confirmation. In his speeches, however, Pope John Paul II has not always echoed this line. On May, 17 1985, while visiting Belgium, he said, “confirmation is the sacrament of believers who become adults in their faith and who take on their active role in the Church.8 And on April, 1, 1992 the Vatican Information Service reports him in this manner, "Lastly the Pope referred to the different pastoral guideline on the most suitable age to receive confirmation. The important thing in order not to limit this sacrament to a pure formality or external rite is to impart a solid careful preparation to candidates which may enable them to seriously renew their baptismal promises, fully aware of the gift they are receiving and of the obligations they assume.9

It is obvious that both these statements reflect the second theology. When one adds to this the ambivalence found even in Lumen Gentium, it cannot be said that the argument from authority settles the question once and for all in favor of the idea of initiation. The second theology must be considered on its merits.

This theology bases itself on the fact that most people are baptized as infants, when they are quite incapable of understanding the baptismal promises; and so their parent make these promises in place of the infants. Confirmation is then the moment when the growing person “confirms” the promises made at baptism and makes them his or her own. Within this theology confirmation is also called the sacrament of maturity, the sacrament of personal commitment and the sacrament of mission, that is, the moment when the sent out by God and the community to bear witness to the message of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, this is also where the difficulties start. If people are baptized as infants, then they certainly need to make a later personal act of faith, but is it necessary or good that this should be identified with the moment of confirmation? Will it not rather be a gradual process that continues for many years? When does a person become mature? Is that not a process that lasts as long as life itself? When is the moment of commitment? Do we not need to commit ourselves each day and at all important moments of change in our lives? When is the moment of mission? Can a child not become an apostle to other children? Are there not many moments of mission in our lives? Are we ever too old to be sent out again by God on a mission?

If confirmation were to meet all these needs, it would have to be a repeatable sacrament like reconciliation or Eucharist, not a sacrament that confers a once and for all character and cannot be repeated. Any moment chosen for confirmation under this theology would have to be quite arbitrary and could not meet the whole need. In all of this, are we not in danger of what one author calls “placing extraneous tasks on the shoulders of confirmation”?10 It is here that this theology can draw on the theology of initiation to bolster its arguments. In an attempt to find a definite moment rather than many repeatable moments, it can speak of the first moment when we can begin to use the words quoted from Pope John Paul above, at around the age of eleven or twelve. Confirmation then becomes part of initiation, but only by being a kind of Catholic bar mitzvah, the first beginnings of adulthood and adult responsibilities.


Because we have two theologies and because both have their difficulties and tend to draw on each other for support, most of the resulting practice involves compromise between the two theologies. If the first theology is taken on its own without compromise, then logic would take the sacrament back to the time of baptism. If the second theology is taken on its own without compromise, then logic would take the sacrament to a time of true adulthood and, therefore, of at least eighteen years. Then the difference between the two theologies would be crystal clear.

The age of six or seven is a compromise, for it contains a long separation between the washing with water and the anointing with the Spirit and yet cannot be called a sacrament of maturity and only with difficulty a sacrament of personal commitment. The age of eleven is a compromise, for the desires of parents and community pressures are still powerful. The candidates have not yet entered the time when their faith will be put to the test, and much will happen in their lives before they can speak of an adult
commitment. It is a sacrament of initiation only in the sense of a Catholic bar mitzvah.

Many supporters of the theology of initiation are adamant that confirmation should be received together with baptism; and this is, in practice, the only way to avoid compromise. “Confirmation should be placed back where it belongs — as the inseparable concluding seal of the baptismal rite itself whenever baptism takes place. As a consequence, all the debates about knowledge, preparation, and age for confirmation should be terminated.”11


What does a bishop do in between these two unsatisfactory and irreconcilable theologies? The young people keep coming and I have to say something to them. I join with many people in believing that the only complete answer is to recombine confirmation with baptism and then choose other repeatable moments in which to ritualize maturity, commitment and mission. For as long as this is not possible, we must live with compromise and incomplete solutions. From this point on it is legitimate to base our answers on pragmatic as well as theoretical considerations.


(Reprinted from Worship 78 , no. 1 (January, 2004), pp. 50-60.

1 Malcolm P. Fyfe i.s.c., “Confirmation—Chrismation,” Compass Theology Review,
23 (Autumn 1989) 5.

2 St. Hugh of Lincoln was popular because he used to dismount in order to confirm, while most bishops confirmed from the saddle.

3 Fyfe, 6.

4 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1285.

5 Lumen Gentium, no.11.

6 Gerard Austin, The Rite of Confirmation: Anointing with the Spirit (New York: Pueblo 1985) 146.

7 Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999) 372—73.

8 This is taken from a talk given by Pope John Paul in the city of Ghent during a tour of Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The translation from an Italian text is my own.

9 Australian Catholic Bishops conference, National Catholic Media Office, report from Vatican Information Service, April 2,1992.

10 Austin, 145.

11 Johnson, 373.

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