The sacraments of initiation can be compared to climbing up Diamond Head Crater. To do the climb, one needs to be prepared when starting out, primarily by being hydrated. Then one needs the strength to climb up the 3/4-mile path. Finally, one reaches the summit and can enjoy the magnificent view in every direction.
This corresponds to the three sacraments of initiation. The hydration of Baptism starts a Christian on the path. The gift of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation gives the strength needed to make the journey. Then finally, earth is joined to heaven at the summit when one receives first Holy Communion. The first two sacraments of initiation prepare us for the third. As the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says, “The Holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation” (no. 1322).
In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the sacraments are received in the proper theological order, usually at the Easter vigil — Baptism, Confirmation, and then first Holy Communion for those 7 years and older. However, many people may not realize that children baptized as infants usually receive the sacraments out of sequence.
In issuing the revised “Rite of Confirmation,” Blessed Pope Paul VI described the proper order of the initiation sacraments: “The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and finally are sustained by the food of eternal life in the Eucharist. By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity. … Finally, Confirmation is so closely linked with the Holy Eucharist that the faithful, after being signed by holy Baptism and Confirmation, are incorporated fully into the body of Christ by participation in the Eucharist” (Apostolic Constitution, “Divinae Consortium Naturae,” 1971).
The first two sacraments of initiation, Baptism and Confirmation, go hand in hand, like a certificate and its official seal. In Baptism, Christians share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Confirmation, the Holy Spirit comes down upon them as it did on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Baptism and Confirmation are as inseparable as Easter and Pentecost Sundays, the first and last days of the Easter season.
Jesus himself was baptized and then confirmed by his Father with the gift of the Spirit: “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and, behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Many see Confirmation as a rite of passage into adulthood. Yet Confirmation is a sacrament of beginning, of initiation, not a sacrament of becoming an adult. The Catechism states about this: “Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ one must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth. … Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood one can attain spiritual maturity. ‘Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood’ (St. Thomas Aquinas “Summa Theologica III”)” (no. 1308).
In the Eastern Catholic Churches, infants are routinely given Confirmation (called “Chrismation” in the eastern traditions). In the Latin (Roman) Church, any priest may confirm infants in danger of death. At the other end of the age spectrum, if an elderly person is being baptized, then he or she is immediately confirmed. Such a person is not just then becoming an adult. The fact that infants, children, teenagers, young adults and the elderly can all be confirmed shows that Confirmation is not about becoming an adult. It is about being sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Other people might have a sense that Confirmation is like a graduation and will say, “I made my Confirmation,” as if it is something that they earned. However, the baptized do not confirm their own faith in Confirmation. It is God who confirms the faith of the baptized as a free gift. Pope Francis addressed this point in his general audience of Jan. 29, 2014: “Confirmation, like every sacrament, is not the work of men but of God, who cares for our lives in such a manner as to mold us in the image of his Son, to make us capable of loving like him. He does it by infusing in us his Holy Spirit, whose action pervades the whole person and his entire life. … Through the oil called ‘sacred Chrism’ we are conformed, in the power of the Spirit, to Jesus Christ, who is the only true ‘anointed One,’ the Messiah, the Holy One of God.”
On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles knew that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they were still afraid. They were afraid to go out and tell others what they knew to be true. They needed the Spirit. Then there was a strong driving wind that filled the house and tongues of fire came upon them and their fear disappeared. “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them, … ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:14a, 38). After that, the newly baptized community of believers, filled with the Spirit, were sustained by celebrating the Breaking of the Bread (v. 46).
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, received in Confirmation, are wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-2). The Apostles needed courage to spread the faith. Young people need courage and all the gifts of the Spirit to live and spread the faith in today’s world. And they need these gifts, not just when they are nearly done growing up, but as they begin their journey.
Father Gantley is the judicial vicar of the Diocese of Honolulu.