One of the marks of a Catholic life are the reception of the Sacraments, from birth right through to death. We begin with baptism – the point at which our lives as Christians begin – and later move on to the sacraments of Reconciliation, first Holy Communion and ultimately Confirmation. Later still, we may receive either the Sacrament of Matrimony or that of Holy Orders. Here in our parish, one of those great Sacraments was celebrated last night – the Sacrament of Confirmation.
This Sacrament of ‘Confirmation’ is the Church’s way of declaring that we have reached a certain maturity in our understanding and practice of the Catholic faith – we are no longer considered to be children, but to have something of the understanding of adults; we know what our faith is, what it demands, and we give our consent to give what is called for. For these reasons, this particular Sacrament is given in the teenage years – unlike, for example, that of first Holy Communion, which is given much earlier. Confirmation begins with a renewal of the Baptismal promises and ends with the anointing with the holy oil of Chrism; both of these feature in Baptism, although for that Sacrament, most often given to a baby or child, the promises are made by the Sponsor – now, however, it is the person receiving the Sacrament who renews those promises and who actively asks for the reception of the Sacrament.
But what is a ‘Sacrament’? At school, we were always taught that a Sacrament “is an outward sign of an inward grace”, that it leaves “an indelible mark upon the soul”. The Catechism tells us that the “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church” (no.1116) and it reminds us that these Sacraments were instituted by Christ during His earthly life, each for a particular purpose. The purpose of Confirmation is to ‘confirm’ – as the name suggests – what was begun in Baptism. As in that earlier Sacrament, there are promises, anointing with holy oil and the invocation and reception of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The Catechism goes on to tell us (no.1121) that “The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or ‘seal’ by which the Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different states and functions.” It adds (no.1123) that “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith.”
So the nature of the Sacraments is a little clearer – they admit us to the life and worship of the Church, whose faith precedes our own and invites us to become part of that life of faith, and so we are admitted to this life of faith in varying ways and degrees. In doing so, they ‘seal’ us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and in some mystical way, they mark us as belonging to Christ and to His Church, in a way that is permanent and which cannot, therefore, be undone.
All of this is a lot to think about – and it explains the need for due preparation before the reception of those Sacraments.
What is clear is that the reception of any Sacrament of the Church is very, very special and unique and it cannot be repeated – the exceptions to this being Confession and Holy Communion which, thankfully, are open to us repeatedly. It is also clear that the major Sacraments – first Holy Communion and Confirmation being prime examples – are much more than rites of passages of cultural occasions. It is all too easy, particularly for first Holy Communion, to think more about everything that surrounds the Sacrament – the dress, the car, the party afterwards – than about the Sacrament itself.
Ultimately, the Sacraments are about divine grace, conferred in a particular form in each Sacrament. One of the prayers of intercession used at the Mass of Confirmation asks God – “Grant that your divine grace, which was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, may now spread through the hearts of those who believe in you.” Particular sacramental grace is conferred upon us – and we are then expected to do something with that grace, to be touched and changed and transformed by it in some way. Otherwise, the Sacraments would have no purpose.
And so for Confirmation specifically, we are now expected to live and to act as mature Christians – or as the Catechism expresses it, “to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God.” Something is expected of us, then, following the reception of this Sacrament. We are expected to become holy, to work to establish the Kingdom of God, and to worship Him. You might say that we are expected to live the Christian life and to participate fully in the life the Church in doing so. Remember, the Sacraments admit us to the life and worship of the Church.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reminded us often of the “universal call to holiness” – an invitation from the Lord to “be holy, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”. The reception of the Sacraments have a very particular place to play in seeking to answer this call, and of giving us the necessary means to do so, which we call sacramental grace.
It is abundantly clear, then, that the Sacraments are far more than mere cultural occasions, or rites of passage; rather, they are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism, no.1131). Sacraments are, in essence, gifts of grace given to us by God through His Church.
All of us who have been given these divine gifts of grace would do well to pause from time to time, to recall what we have been given and the promises we made in requesting these gifts, and to consider how well we have complied with this divine grace and made use of these gifts. And to thank the Lord for this enormous gift of His divine grace, given to us through the Sacraments.