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A sacrament in search of a theology

by Frank Karl

One sure way to change a group of peace-loving, God-fearing, church-loving professional Catholics into brawling Jerry-Springerites is to ask innocently, “At what age should we confirm?” Battles lines are quickly drawn: liturgists vs. youth ministers, RCIA vs. first communion, pastors vs. bishops. Liturgists, even those without terrorist tendencies, argue that the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist) are intrinsically tied together and should be celebrated in that order. Youth ministers maintain that the sacrament of confirmation is the backbone of their ministry programs and that teenagers should have a rite of passage into Christian maturity. This Catholic family feud then disintegrates into arguments about the number of sacraments, the age of baptism, sacraments as rewards for good attendance, and maturity levels of anyone under 40. A little history lesson might help.

In the early days, the Spirit graced the church with such rapid growth that the bishops were no longer able to be the ordinary minister of the sacraments.  When a bishop would finally ride into town, he would complete the post-baptismal rites including anointing. Following Augustine’s battle with the Pelagians, infant baptism became the norm and the two rites separated. Theologies developed that said confirmation renders a gratia ad robu (grace for strength), the armor for each soldier of Christ. However, the order of reception remained “baptism, confirmation, Eucharist” until Pope Pius X decreed that first confession should precede first communion and that confirmation should be celebrated at a later age. The rite of confirmation was revised in 1971 (removing the slap on the face) and episcopal conferences (and individual bishops) were given the option to determine a more appropriate later age for their individual dioceses. So travel around the country and pick an age of reason between 7 and 70.

How do we celebrate this sacrament for whatever age group in the parish? Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” Here are some principles to keep in mind.

is intrinsically
tied to baptism.

Any way to bind these together in the liturgy is helpful (but not every way, lest we end up with an “MGM” liturgy: More Gimmicks at Mass). Perhaps the baptismal godparents could be the confirmation sponsors or somehow related to them. The confirmandi could carry their baptismal candles in procession or light a baptismal candle from the paschal candle. Instead of the flaming red pentecostal clothes, white baptismal robes could be worn (to cover the vagaries of the fashionably hip). The sprinkling rite with liberal amounts of water (or procession to the font) could be optioned during the Introductory Rites.

is not graduation,
but it is a commencement.

Along with Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” we always hear the obligatory oration sending graduates (from kindergarten to doctoral programs) out into the world to begin their “real work.” Those involved in youth ministry know that the real work has already taken place along the journey to confirmation. Yes, youth are the future and hope of our church, but, more important, they are the young church of today. They are neither children nor adults and should not be treated, catechized, or formed as either. Respect the gifts of that age, yet challenge them (and ourselves) to continued conversion.

Confirmation is
its own sacrament.

It is, says Augustine, “a visible sign of invisible grace.” Someday baptism and confirmation may be reunited as one sacrament. You could highlight four signs of a sacrament in the confirmation liturgy: 1) sign of faith, 2) sign of worship, 3) sign of unity of the church, and 4) sign of Christ’s presence.

1Sign of faith

The confirmation liturgy does not occur in a vacuum. The faith of the young people has grown throughout the formation process (catechetical misnomer, “program”). The entire parish should know of the young people through pictures in vestibules, witness at different liturgies, and prayers for them while on retreat. Another misnomer is confirmation “class.” Not only does this project a purely educational or catechetical process, but it lumps individuals into stereotypical groups — and this is a sacrament bestowed on individuals. One modest proposal would be a confirmation vigil the night before the actual liturgy. This could be a night of true individual witnessing before family and friends that could be tailor-made for the confirmandi. All those extraneous additions that sometimes sneak into the liturgy might be better served at this time.

2 Sign
of worship

The candidates and sponsors should be actively involved in the preparation of the liturgy. Is there a theme song, Scripture reference or focus for this particular confirmation process? Is there a representative of the group who could describe the confirmation process to the presider/homilist, be it bishop or pastor? The music for the celebration does not have to be only youth-oriented music, for example, the greatest hits of Tom Booth and LifeTeen. Many young people acknowledge the transcendent nature of God’s grace, which could be reflected in the use of incense and chant.

3 Sign
of unity
of the church

The assembly that gathers for the confirmation liturgy should be aware that it is the church welcoming the candidates into full initiation. The importance of those gathered should be made clear from the invitations sent to family and friends and throughout the entire liturgy. Assembly participation is essential because it is the church: human and flawed yet grace-filled. Yes, Uncle Steve may have come only to see his favorite nephew get “oiled,” but maybe when he realizes that he is there as a sign for all the other young people, he may rise to his responsibility. Another modest proposal: Institute a new ministry of the liturgical photographer. Appoint one person (with a flashless camera) to take pictures. The church should be a place of prayer, not photo ops.

4 Sign
of Christ’s presence

Confirmation is a sign of Christ’s presence beyond the confirmation liturgy. A period of mystagogy (reflection on the mysteries) should follow and be part of the schedule. Ministry leaders should be poised to scoop up the confirmandi and infuse their ministries with the fire and enthusiasm of these Spirit-filled young people. The confirmandi who have been served by the church now become its servers in a true missionary spirit.

The ritual should be respected yet enfleshed. The presentation of candidates should include a proclamation of each individual’s name (pronounced correctly). The renewal of baptismal promises should be done boldly, but only if the significance of these promises was part of the confirmation process. The imposition of hands is a powerful symbol, and it is much more than raised arms in blessing. We need to recover this significant and symbolic gesture of imposition for each individual rather than allow the ubiquitous, generic benediction to become the norm. The anointing should use liberal amounts of chrism, brought forward in procession in a beautiful decanter and the scent of which fills the entire church. This oil is rubbed in and never rubbed off. After the liturgy, members of the assembly can be encouraged to sign themselves with the fresh chrism still on the brows of the newly anointed.

At the beginning of a new century, confirmation has many problems. It may take an act of God or decree from Rome to determine how the church may best serve its young people. Until then, we can pray for grace that is amazing and for the Spirit that blows where’er it wills.

Frank Karl is director of liturgy and music at St. Denis Church in Diamond Bar, Calif. He was the director of youth ministry at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill.

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