At Pentecost, the Risen Lord gave the apostles the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit and the Church was born.
We are now well into the ‘Confirmation season’. The bishops are busy administering the sacrament in their various parishes. In this article, we will explore the history of the Sacrament of Confirmation and see how it has evolved over the centuries.
At Pentecost, the Risen Lord gave the apostles the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit and the Church was born. After that, the Apostles began to initiate new members into the Christian community. It is worth noting that the early Church celebrated the three Sacraments of initiation, namely Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist in the same ceremony. The candidates to be initiated into the church descended into a pool where they were baptised and when they came out, they were clothed with a white robe, and the bishop laid hands on them and anointed them with oil and greeted them with a kiss of peace. They then received the Eucharist for the first time, which was the climax of the initiation process.
As Christianity began to spread like wildfire, infant baptism became the common practice. Christianity also spread from the cities into the country. So it became no longer feasible for the bishops to preside at every baptism, especially as they had to govern their individual dioceses. The bishops of the East decided to delegate all the Sacraments of Initiation to the priests and this tradition continues to this day. The bishops of the West however delegated the Sacrament of Baptism to the priests, but they continued to confirm the candidates. So… Baptism and Confirmation began to emerge as two separate ceremonies.
Over the course of the next few centuries, Confirmation became more and more separated from Baptism. In the Middle Ages, theologians began to teach that Confirmation was the sacrament of maturity as the candidates were confirmed when they were twelve years of age or so. They were sealed as a witness for Christ and were fortified by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. At this time, the idea that the sacrament made a person a soldier of Christ emerged. The rite even changed in 1789, as the sign of peace was replaced by a gentle slap on the face to indicate that the candidates were ready for life’s battles and willing to suffer for Christ.
Up until the last century, Confirmation preceded First Communion and thus was seen as a preparation to full celebration with the community. However, Pope Pius X, in the year 1910, allowed children at the age of reason to receive Holy Communion. Confirmation then became the last Sacrament of Initiation to be celebrated.
In the sixties, the Second Vatican Council developed new rites of Confirmation. If you attend a Confirmation ceremony today, you will notice that the candidates now renew their Baptismal Promises before they are confirmed and then they receive the Eucharist. Thereby the traditional initiation sequence of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is enacted.
Now, the essence of the Sacrament of Confirmation is that it is a sacrament of initiation in which we receive the fullness of the Spirit. The essence of the Sacrament hasn’t changed since the early church. But as we have seen, the way the Sacrament is celebrated has evolved over the centuries to suit changing pastoral circumstances. It will be interesting to see how it will evolve into the future. For example, with the reduction in the number of people attending Mass on a regular basis, will the Mass continue to be celebrated as part of the ceremony? Will the order of the Sacraments of initiation be restored back to its original order – ie Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist – to highlight the fact that Baptism and Confirmation is orientated towards the Eucharist? Will children be confirmed at the age of reason or will they receive the Sacrament at an age where they can decide for themselves whether they want to become full and active members of the church? I have no doubt that these and many other questions about the sacrament will be pondered and debated in the coming decades. In the next article, I will explore the effects of the sacrament in more depth.
By Fr. Sean Maguire