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Accipe Signaculum Doni Spiritus Sancti: On the Sacrament of Confirmation and the New Translation of the Ritual

The newly-translated English edition of the Order of Confirmation is currently in publication, and goes into effect for the dioceses of the United States beginning Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016, and may be used before. This occasion grants us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the sacrament itself fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, and forty-four years after the promulgation of its revised ritual. Not that the sacrament itself has changed during this time. However, the same cannot be said of its pastoral practice or the faithful’s understanding of its purpose. For many Catholics, the sacrament of confirmation is seen as the opportunity for adolescents, who were baptized as infants, to publicly accept the faith by their own volition. And while this is a necessary – even daily – commitment in every Christian’s life, God certainly has no need to sacramentalize our assent. Rather, this sacrament, like every other one, bestows grace. It is a sacrament of initiation, the second one to be precise. It is also not “a sacrament in search of a theology,” as is sometimes claimed. It has a theology and a purpose in initiating every Christian into the mission of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1316).

Unity in Sacraments

To comprehend properly the lex credendi of confirmation, we must recognize that the paradigm for sacramental initiation is the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. In the RCIA, catechumens are fully initiated: baptized, confirmed, and receive their first holy communion; this is the archetype for sacramental initiation, even if the sacraments are separated in time when bestowed upon children. This process has its roots in the events of the first day that the Church received her breath: Pentecost. After the marvelous events of the Holy Spirit’s descent, the apostles courageously preached in tongues, and moved by St. Peter’s exhortation the first catechumens asked, “What shall we do?” Peter’s response outlines the first Christian initiation in the age of the Church: “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’… So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:38, 41-42).

As each age reflected upon the apostolic tradition, the structure of initiation became more concrete. So by the fourth century, it is clearly delineated in various mystagogical catecheses. For instance, St. Ambrose describes that after baptism, “Next comes the spiritual sealing…. For after what took place at the font it remains to perfect all that has been done. This happens when the Holy Spirit is poured forth at the invocation by the bishop: ‘the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of piety, the spirit of holy fear’” (Ambrose, De Sacramentis, Bk. III, ch. 2, 8).

The sacraments of initiation eventually became separated because of infant baptism and lack of access to the bishop (it was impossible for the bishop to baptize or initiate every soul), but they have always been intended to be understood in reference to each other as a unity. “Baptism incorporates us into Christ and forms us into God’s people…. By signing us with the gift of the Spirit, confirmation makes us more completely the image of the Lord and fills us with the Holy Spirit, so that we may bear witness to him before all the world…. Finally, coming to the table of the Eucharist, we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man so that we may have eternal life and show forth the unity of God’s people…. Thus the three sacraments of Christian initiation closely combine to bring us, the faithful of Christ, to his full stature and to enable us to carry out the mission of the entire people of God in the Church and in the world” (RCIA, General Introduction, 2). This unity is so, because Christian initiation sacramentally inserts the neophyte into the Paschal Mystery of Christ: his life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. In baptism, the catechumen dies and rises with Christ in the waters of new birth. In confirmation, the Holy Spirit strengthens him for the messianic mission as Christ himself was after his baptism in the Jordan, and the apostles at Pentecost. Then in the Eucharist, “which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11), the initiate is substantially united to Christ’s obedient sacrifice to the Father and the glory of the Son’s resurrection.

The Order of Confirmation preserves this unity, for it connects the celebration of confirmation to its antecedent sacrament of baptism by means of renewing the confirmand’s baptismal vows. Furthermore, it understands confirmation as being oriented toward the consummation of initiation in the Eucharist: “As a rule, Confirmation takes place within Mass so that the fundamental connection of this Sacrament with all of Christian Initiation, which reaches its culmination in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, may stand out in a clearer light. The newly confirmed therefore participate in the Eucharist, which completes their Christian Initiation” (Order of Confirmation, 13). And yet completion of initiation does not mean completion in an unqualified sense. This is why the final sacrament of initiation, the Eucharist, is not received only once but continuously from initiation throughout life, since the faithful continue to be ever perfected by grace which was given to them in initiation, but which has still yet to be brought to completion.

Spirit Within and Throughout

If confirmation is an integral part of Christian initiation understood as a unity, then how does it differ from the other two sacraments? After all, is not the Holy Spirit granted to each Christian in baptism? Certainly! But we may say that as the Holy Spirit is given in baptism, he imparts a character of receptivity (ad intra) to the neophyte, whereas in confirmation he is given for the purpose of strengthening the Christian’s character for evangelization (ad extra). “[B]y the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 72, a. 5). This is why “it must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace” (CCC, 1285). In baptism the catechumen receives the Spirit of adoption, which allows him to cry out, “Abba!” (Romans 8:15). Here the Holy Spirit regenerates, cleanses from sin, and makes the neophyte an adopted child of God. These are the ad intra effects of the Holy Spirit at work in baptism. However, in confirmation the recipient receives the Gift of the Spirit himself in a more intimate way. It is a special ad extra strengthening of the messianic Spirit, which binds the baptized to a more perfect union with Christ and his Church for the purpose of being his witnesses in the world, “obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed” (Paul VI, Divinae Consortium Naturae; cf. Lumen Gentium, 11).

While the Christian mission belongs to all the baptized, it is amplified and perfected by the gifts of the Holy Spirit in confirmation. Like baptism, confirmation imparts a sacramental character or seal which cannot be removed or repeated and consecrates the Christian to both service and worship. Confirmation perfects and consummates baptism, but it is also subsequently directed toward its own consummation in the Eucharist which is the “center and goal of all sacramental life” (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritas, 17).

Ancient and New

When the ritual for confirmation was revised by the Consilium after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI clarified the sacramental form and matter. Catholic tradition has always regarded the apostolic practice of laying on of hands as described in Acts 8 as the origin of the sacramental practice of confirmation (CCC, 1288, 1315). But since Christ means “anointed one,” a Christian is also one who has been anointed (CCC,436, 1289). Recognizing that there had been a variety of traditions for the conferral of confirmation throughout the history of the Church, Pope Paul VI exercised his apostolic authority to assert the anointing with chrism as the essential matter (Paul VI, Divinae Consortium Naturae). This decision was not arbitrary, but clearly rooted in holy tradition and provided an ecumenical accord with the Eastern practice. He likewise appropriated the Byzantine form of the sacrament which is derived from scripture: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit” (cf. 2Cor 1:21-22; Eph 1:13-14, 4:30; 1Jn 2:20, 27). Thus, the pope definitively promulgated: “The sacrament of confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of the hand, and through the words: Accipe Signaculum Doni Spiritus Sancti” (Paul VI, Divinae Consortium Naturae). The new translation has not changed this formula – it remains: “N., be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit” (Order of Confirmation, 9, 27).

When considering the effects of the sacrament of confirmation, the most pressing concern is whether or not it is necessary for salvation. Strictly speaking, it is not. But the Church does require both in teaching and in law that her members be c o n f i r m e d . The Catechism insists: “Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the ‘sacraments of Christian initiation,’ whose unity must be safeguarded. It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.” (CCC, 1285, emphasis added). Canon Law adds, “The faithful are obliged to receive this sacrament at the proper time. Parents and pastors of souls, especially pastors of parishes, are to take care that the faithful are properly instructed to receive the sacrament and come to it at the appropriate time” (1983 Code of Canon Law, 890.). In fact, the Church sees this sacrament as so necessary that she not only allows, but requires, priests to administer it to all who are in danger of death, whether infant or adult (cf. 1983 Code of Canon Law, 883, 891).

The fact that the Church extends this duty to priests, who (at least in the Latin Church) may be considered extraordinary ministers of confirmation, signifies just how seriously the Church holds the necessity of this sacrament, since ordinarily it is rightly reserved to bishops. Chapter IV of the Order of Confirmation provides the rite for “Confirmation to be Administered to a Sick Person in Danger of Death.” However, in pastoral practice the rite for “Christian Initiation for the Dying,” which comes from the RCIA, but has been included in the Pastoral Care of the Sick, is probably more often used since it is a continuous rite for administering all three sacraments of initiation to either a catechumen or an infant in danger of death. And while there is a stated disapprobation that confirmation not be celebrated with anointing of the sick (Order of Confirmation, 52), the “Continuous Rite of Penance, Anointing, and Viaticum” in the Pastoral Care of the Sick does allow for the possibility of confirmation to be conferred upon a Catholic adult who has not received it (Pastoral Care of the Sick, 238, 246).

However, if the purpose of confirmation, which has already been stated, is to strengthen Christians “to spread and defend the faith” (Lumen Gentium, 11), how can it do so in the case of infants who are unable to evangelize or for those who are near death? In these cases confirmation is bestowed not as a strengthening for the ecclesial mission of evangelization, but for the perfection of the Christian person, for a greater share in the sanctifying grace bestowed by the sacraments, for the sacramental character that conforms the dying Christian more closely to Christ, and a fuller participation in the divine life of the Son through the Holy Spirit. And these are worthy reasons to facilitate the reception of this sacrament to any and all Christians before they depart this world. Yet, it also reinforces the great dignity and responsibility this sacrament confers to those who do live out of its graces.

Rites and Texts

Turning our attention now to the ritual celebration, the lex orandi of the newly translated Order, the first thing to note is that there are very few changes. Of course, all of the people’s responses have been brought into conformity with the Roman Missal, as have those rubrics which are echoed from the Missal, such as “Bow down for the blessing.” Titles have also been brought into consistency, with the intercessions being named “The Universal Prayer,” and even the title of Chapter I, “The Order for the Conferral of Confirmation Within Mass” (emphasis added), since that is how the Roman Missal titles the corresponding ritual Mass. All of the texts from this ritual Mass, according to the 2011 translation, have been incorporated into the new Order without change, including inserts for Eucharistic Prayers II and III, which were additions to the editio typica tertia. The invitation and prayer at “The Laying on of Hands” has been retranslated, borrowing much of its verbiage from the Roman Missal’s translation of similar phrases in other prayers, as have the petitions of “The Universal Prayer.” Finally, the Gloria is now prescribed for all confirmation Masses in accordance with the rubrics of the Roman Missal (cf. Ritual Masses, I.4).

But the Missal is not the only Church document to affect the new translation of the Order for Confirmation. Two others which did not exist at the time the Order was originally revised are the Catechism and the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Each of these have also introduced small but significant changes into the Order to establish conformity and compliance. The Order for Confirmation’s “Introduction” at n. 5 had to be adapted to reflect canons 874§1.5 and 893, which prohibit parents from acting as sponsors. Likewise, the instruction in n. 18 was changed, which now calls the bishop the “ordinary minister,” (versus “original minister” in the first edition) to reflect the understanding of canon 882 and the Catechism’s paragraph n. 1313, which call the bishop the “ordinary minister of confirmation in the Latin Church.” Finally, when enumerated in the prayer at “The Laying on of Hands,” the gifts of the Holy Spirit have been named according to the Catechism’s denominations: “wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord” (CCC,1831).

The prayers that are most revealing of what we believe about the sacrament of confirmation are the priestly prayers from the ritual Mass. These prayers are clear that confirmation perfects our conformity to Christ, but for the purpose of witnessing to him by this identification: “…grant that, being conformed more perfectly to your Son, they may grow steadily in bearing witness to him…” (Order of Confirmation, 58, “Prayer over the Offerings”); “…that they may constantly show to the world the freedom of your adopted children and, by the holiness of their lives, exercise the prophetic mission of your people” (Or- der of Confirmation, 59, “Prayer after Communion”). The missionary Spirit of the Church is an exitus into the world, but for the purpose of gathering all nations in a reditus back to God. The sacrament of confirmation participates in this movement, for by its grace every Christian is given the missionary mandate to bring others into contact with the living Christ, through cooperation with the Holy Spirit, so that they too may become other Christs.

Time and Age

As a conclusion, a word is necessary about the age at which confirmation may or ought to be conferred—a topic that has been more frequently discussed as of late. Canon 891 states, “The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion unless the conference of bishops has determined another age…”. For the dioceses of the United States the complementary norm governing this can now clearly be found in the front of the new Order of Confirmation. This United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “Decree of Proclamation” from 2001 states that confirmation may be “conferred between the age of discretion and about sixteen years of age, within the limits determined by the diocesan bishop…”, allowing each diocesan bishop to determine the age or ages in which confirmation may be bestowed within his own diocese.

So far, ten dioceses in the United States have restored the order of the sacraments of initiation so that confirmation is conferred before the Eucharist is received, the most recent being the Archdiocese of Denver and the Diocese of Honolulu earlier this year. Besides the theological precedent for such a change, there is also magisterial latitude found in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 document, Sacramentum Caritatis: “…these variations [of the order of the sacraments] are not properly of the dogmatic order, but are pastoral in character. Concretely, it needs to be seen which practice better enables the faithful to put the sacrament of the Eucharist at the center, as the goal of the whole process of initiation…. Bishops’ Conferences should examine the effectiveness of current approaches to Christian initiation, so that the faithful can be helped both to mature through the formation received in our communities and to give their lives an authentically eucharistic direction, so that they can offer a reason for the hope within them in a way suited to our times” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 18).

Even though the new translation of the sacramental ritual for confirmation does not present any major changes, it is always opportune to mystagogically reflect on the graces of this and every sacrament. At this moment in our lives and the life of the Church, the new Order of Confirmation gives us pause to do precisely that as we reread these prayers and begin to use it in our dioceses to share with another generation the unceasing mission of the Church: “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘accipite Spiritum Sanctum’” (Jn 20:21-22).


Fr. John Grant is the parochial vicar of Holy Family Cathedral in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK, and the assistant Director of Worship and Master of Ceremonies for the diocese. As a graduate of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colo, he was ordained in 2012, and more recently earned his Master’s degree from The Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill, last May.

Fr. John Grant

Fr. John Grant is the parochial vicar of Holy Family Cathedral in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK, and the assistant Director of Worship and Master of Ceremonies for the diocese. As a graduate of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colo, he was ordained in 2012, and more recently earned his Master’s degree from The Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill, last May.