1. The Council of Trent examined and condemned the opinion that confirmation was once no more than a catechesis of Christians nearing adolescence which equipped them to give an account of their faith before the Church. The Council insists instead that confirmation is a sacrament really distinct from baptism (see DS 1628/871). The Church firmly believes that confirmation is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Jesus.
2. The sacrament is normally administered by a bishop or by a priest specially authorized for the task, by anointing with chrism as a seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit (see DS 1317–18/697).1 Concerning this sealing the Council of Florence teaches: “The effect of this sacrament is that the Holy Spirit is given in it for strength just as he was given to the apostles on Pentecost, in order that the Christian may courageously confess the name of Christ. And therefore, the one to be confirmed is anointed on the forehead, where shame shows itself, lest he be ashamed to confess the name of Christ and especially his cross . . .” (DS 1319/697). In speaking of confessing the name of Christ, the Council is referring to the specific aspect of Christian life which this sacrament consecrates (see S.t., 3, q. 72, a. 9).
3. Vatican develops and clarifies this. In a passage in which it moves from its treatment of baptism to confirmation, the Council teaches concerning the baptized: “Reborn as sons of God, they must confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church. Bound more intimately to the Church by the sacrament of confirmation, they are endowed by the Holy Spirit with special strength, and hence are the more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith both by word and by deed as true witnesses of Christ” (LG 11; translation amended).
4. At the end of the first sentence just quoted, Vatican II refers to St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on sacramental character. According to Thomas, this is a spiritual power by which one shares as an instrument in the Lord Jesus’ priestly act and so participates in worship according to the rite of Christian religion (see S.t., 3, q. 63, a. 2). This spiritual power is either passive (that of receiving divine gifts) or active (that of handing them on). Thomas makes it clear in a subsequent passage that baptism belongs on the “passive” side of this division and confirmation on the “active” side. In baptism one is made like an infant in divine life, with the capacity to do what is necessary for one’s personal salvation. By confirmation one is made mature, with the power of professing the faith publicly, even before Jesus’ enemies. Thus confirmation presupposes baptism (see S.t., 3, q. 72, aa. 5–6).
5. In sum, confirmation is a principle of the whole of Christian life considered under a certain aspect, namely, as a share in the Lord Jesus’ revelatory mission which exists in the life of the Church as it communicates or hands on divine truth and love. The confirmed are to live not just as God’s adopted children in some general sense, but as children who take part in the family business: the extension of God’s kingdom (see S.t., 3, q. 72, a. 5).
Vatican II develops the concept of witness when it prescribes as a remedy for atheism a proper presentation of the Church’s teaching and “. . . the integral life of the Church and her members. For it is the function of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit who renews and purifies her ceaselessly, to make God the Father and his Incarnate Son present and in a sense visible. This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith . . .. This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer’s entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy” (GS 21). This passage does not mention confirmation, but it does develop the concept of witness of faith which is central to this sacrament. Elsewhere, the Council teaches explicitly that Christians must show by the example of their lives as well as by their words the power of the Spirit by whom they were strengthened through confirmation (see AG 11).
In such statements, Vatican II continues the New Testament’s teaching that life in the Spirit is a life of mercy, for the law of Jesus is fulfilled not merely by saving one’s own soul, but by bearing one another’s burdens (see Gal 6.2) and preaching the gospel through one’s deeds (see 1 Pt 2.12, 15). The Christian is not only to have divine life, but to communicate it, as Jesus himself does—to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (see Mt 5.13–16; Mk 4.21–22; Lk 8.16).
Sts. Irenaeus and Cyprian of Carthage distinguish two functions of the Spirit, one of bringing to new birth, the other of bringing to maturity. They connect the second to the Spirit of prophecy, with which the Church must be endowed for the promulgation of the gospel. With this distinction, the effect of the laying on of hands is distinguished from the effect of baptism. St. Augustine ties the gift of the Spirit in confirmation to the growth of charity and the seven gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah.2 These ideas are altogether consistent with the concept that confirmation commissions the faithful to share in the life of the Church handing on divine truth and love. For prophecy is a concrete work of continuing the communication of divine revelation. To accept responsibility for cooperating with the Spirit in handing on the faith is to grow in charity.
The teaching of St. Thomas that confirmation confers the power of doing what belongs to the spiritual fight against enemies of the faith has been criticized. It is claimed that the distinction between confirmation and the other sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist, remains unclear. The Eucharist also nourishes divine life while baptism also confers the Spirit, and both also confer strength.3
However, there is nothing unclear about the teaching of Thomas on this matter, although his military conception of the profession and spreading of the faith is somewhat restricted. If one grants that confirmation is the “sacrament of the mysterious influence of the Paraclete upon the life of each Christian enabling him to bear witness to Christ,”4 one implicitly grants that the sacrament gives the power to fight enemies of the faith, for one cannot bear witness to Jesus without confronting and struggling against those who reject him. Baptism and the Eucharist do not specifically assign and strengthen Christians to fight enemies of the faith.
1. See The Rites of the Catholic Church, trans. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (New York: Pueblo, 1976), 296.
2. See Austin P. Milner, O.P., Theology of Confirmation, Theology Today, 26 (Hales Corners, Wis.: Clergy Book Service, 1972), 98–99.
3. Ibid., 70–73.
4. Ibid., 101.