Thursday, 16 September 1999

Understanding Sacraments - Week 3 - Confirmation

The various forms of confirmation which developed through Christian history can be put into three distinct historical groupings. The first was linked to the conclusion of the rite of baptism by the bishop, and involved both anointing and laying on of hands. It is particularly associated with the Roman practice during the patristic area. By the early 5th century, it was associated with a specific imparting of the Holy Spirit.

The second development occurred when Gallic bishops in the fifth century ratified baptisms which they had not done, in conjunction with the laying on of hands as in the Roman practice. It was here in Gaul that the word 'confirmation' was first used to name the post-baptismal rite, and it was used in the sense of the bishop confirming the earlier baptism.

The third development comes from the Reformation, when confirmation was used as a rite to conclude a period of catechical study. This included personal affirmation of baptism and was followed by admission to Eucharist.

The Roman ritual of baptism described in the Apostolic traditions, contained two post-baptismal anointings with chrism oil. The first was performed by the presbyter, deacon or deaconess, and occurred in a private room where the actual water baptism took place. The second was performed by the bishop in the church in sight of the assembly. Various historical factors were, however, at work. The number of catechumens and their geographical distribution grew more rapidly than the number of bishops - it became increasingly more difficult for a bishop to be present at every baptism. So the practice grew of performing the water baptism and first anointing some little time, sometimes years, before the second anointing, while considering that someone who had received only the first was baptised. The ritual associated with the second anointing became more elaborate than its original function of episcopal confirmation and bridging between baptism and Eucharist required. Thus, in people's eyes, the two parts were increasingly seen as different, but the second was remembered to be a sacrament. Thus the double post-baptismal anointing become a significant contributing factor in the gradual development of 'confirmation' as a separate sacrament from baptism, which was firmly in place by the end of the 11th century.

Another driving force behind saying confirmation was a separate sacrament arose from the difficulty in convincing parents to actually take their children to the bishop for the final part of the ceremony of baptism. Given that the children were already baptised, it was not clear why involvement of the bishop was necessary. Bishop Faustus of Riez explained the need by saying that confirmation was needed by people baptised as children to provide a kind of 'strengthening', or growth in grace. This idea was picked up by the Psuedo-Isodorean Decretals and attributed it to earlier popes and thus given a degree of authority which it did not necessarily deserve.

In the Church's understanding of the sacraments today, there are three sacraments involved in the process of initiation. The first is baptism. The second is confirmation. And Eucharist the one which completes the process - a person who is entitled to receive Eucharist is fully a member of the Church. Further, Eucharist is seen as 'food for the journey'. It nourishes the on-going faith of members of the Church. Understanding of the relationship between these three, which seems clear when all are considered, is difficult for people who are accustomed to confirmation occurring some years after both baptism and admission to Eucharist.

In principle, it is dangerous to try to use scriptural passages alone to prove any particular liturgical practice or theological view. Scripture is a produce of its times, and the saying and actions it contains must be interpreted in light of when they were set, and what the written record was intended to convey to its initial audience. This is principle holds with respect to showing the existence of confirmation as a separate sacrament in the first century apostolic Church. There are several passages which look as though they are candidates. Acts 8 tells of Samaritans who had been baptised earlier and to whom Peter and John go to complete the baptism by prayer and laying on hands, thus invoking the Holy Spirit. The stories of Jesus baptism, which contain one part involving baptism with water and a second section involving laying on hands. Neither of these stand up to more detailed scrutiny, however. In the first case, scholars say that the passage is in fact about the need for unity which comes from visible union and communion among all the faithful, and that the stress on the earlier baptism is intended too distinguish baptism in Jesus from other forms of baptism that existed at the time in the minds of the audience. The stories of Jesus own baptism contain the two parts again to emphasis the difference between the earlier baptism by John the Baptist, and Christian baptism.

The statement “Confirmation is a sacrament looking for a theology” is one which is often glibly used without adequate explanation. In fact, Confirmation has (at least) three different theologies , but the Church has particular problems with each. The first (affirmation of baptism by the bishop) is not supported by its implementation, and the second (strengthening in the Holy Spirit) and third (mature commitment) do not sit well with the historical development of confirmation as one of the sacraments of initiation.

Another key insight is that in saying that there are problems surrounding the theology of confirmation, the church is not rejecting the ideas of a sacrament of maturity or strengthening in the Holy Spirit as such. Rather, it is saying that these are not the principal ecclesial effect of confirmation. It may be appropriate for them to be the ecclesial effect of other (as yet undiscovered) sacraments.

The role of the local bishop is also important. This is certainly clear from the sacrament’s historical development, and the role of the local bishop outlined in Lumen Gentium.

A theology course essay from 1999

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