Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. A Catholic convert by way of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Worker movement, Rick has studied theology at Evangelical institutions as well as Franciscan University of Steubenville. He currently serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel University, Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing at God-Haunted Lunatic.
It is like when you throw a stone into a pool
and the concentric waves spread out further and further.
Who knows where it will end?
Confirmation is such a lost sacrament, isn’t it?
We try and try to make it relevant, but no matter how many hyped catechetical textbooks or fancy-schmancy digital media we throw at our adolescent confirmandi, they by and large simply don’t get it.
The problem isn’t the sacrament itself, of course. Confirmation is a fantastic infusion of sanctifying grace that elevates the baptized to the status of full-fledged warriors for God’s kingdom. It’s not a coming-of-age, but rather an intensification, and the spiritual evolution involved helps clarify the original order of Christian initiation: Baptism gets you into the family; Confirmation equips you to get to work; and the Eucharist sustains you as you get on with it. It’s an order that was suggested by St. Paul himself in a different context when he wrote to the Thessalonians that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat – no freeloaders in the Church, in other words.
Nowadays, in contrast, we start gorging ourselves on Jesus in second grade, years before most will be commissioned in Confirmation to fully take up the mantle of a Cross-carrying Christ-follower. That’s not a problem in itself, mind you, for the Church grants tremendous latitude in the scheduling of the rites of initiation. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that more and more Catholic leaders are lobbying for a return to the ancient order – a sacramental sequence that our brethren and ecclesial cousins in the Eastern rites never abandoned.
It’s not only tradition – it’s just plain logical. Baptism and Confirmation are really two halves of an integrated supernatural plunging into Jesus, yet in the West we not only separate them for cradle Catholics by a decade or more, we also stick another sacrament in between – first Eucharist, a sacrament we’ll receive over and over again. Too often, this schedule makes the reception of Confirmation almost an afterthought for Catholic families – “This is just what we do!” comes the answer to teens’ objections – and it frequently marks a literal end to formal catechetical formation and even sacramental reception altogether.
Plus there’s this: The teens who are receiving Confirmation these days have little experience with delayed gratification, and so they expect immediate results. They grew up with the internet, social media, and Netflix, and thus waiting is something that grandma does – not for them! Not when they can have seemingly anything at the click of a button – from the height of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) to streaming TV on demand to a pair of live Madagascar hissing cockroaches delivered right to their doorstep – within two business days!
Confirmation, though, like the rest of the sacraments, doesn’t work that way. Although the grace itself sinks in right away – *snap!* – our appropriation of that grace generally t_a_k_e_s s_o_m_e t__i__m__e. “Grace perfects nature” goes the Thomistic soundbite, and for most of us, grace has some pretty stubborn nature to beat into shape. “Spiritual progress,” the Catechism teaches us, “entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (CCC 2015, emphasis added). That’s why Jesus gives himself to us so frequently in the Eucharist – our “daily bread” as the Our Father reminds us – because we’re constantly vacillating between pushing ahead toward holiness and falling back into our self-centered foibles and laughable, petty sins.
Even so, if we regularly get to Mass and receive the Eucharist, we can sometimes get a sense of how God’s grace is operating in our lives, especially if we’re also going to Confession on a routine basis. Confirmation, however, is a one-time deal – the second of the three sacraments that confer a permanent change in character. Most of us received the first, baptism, in our infancy, so we don’t have any recollection of being without its powerful effects. And relatively few of us will receive Holy Orders, the third sacrament that seals a permanent change in character.
Thus, for the majority of Catholics, Confirmation will be a singular conscious experience of obtaining a new sacramental character – but nothing will seem to happen! Our teens get duded up, the bishop anoints them with oil and says a few words, and then everybody goes out to Red Lobster for a big family dinner – done! On Monday, everything will feel pretty much the same, and Confirmation will be relegated to the “been there, done that” column.
It’s a tragic mistake – but what to do? Here’s a suggestion: Talk to your teens about Avignon!
Confirmation is generally administered in the eighth grade in our diocese, which included our Cecilia recently. She and her siblings all go to Catholic schools, where they receive fine catechetical and spiritual formation, but because my wife and I are religious educators ourselves, they also get a heaping dose of Catholic culture at home – whether they want it or not. Here’s an example: When it came time to choose a Confirmation saint, Cecilia diligently researched a variety of candidates, and even asked my wife and me for our opinions. I was pleased when she decided on Catherine of Siena as her namesake – a remarkable woman of faith, intellect, and holy valor.
“She’s a doctor of the Church,” Cece proudly informed us, after reading up on her saint.
“Yes, I know.” I replied. Then, as if we were in a GEICO commercial, I added, “But did you know that she nagged a wayward Pope into returning to Rome?”
It’s true – it was a bumpier time than normal for the Church.
Catherine lived during the Avignon Papacy (1309-1377), when the Holy See was the locus of more political machination than piety, and the papal court had been transferred to France to be kept under closer watch by King Philip. Eventually, in part due to St. Catherine’s insistence, Pope Gregory XI restored the papal court to Rome, but when he died a year later, the infighting among the College of Cardinals resulted in a decisive split – beginning what is now known as the Great Western Schism. One group of Cardinals sided with Gregory’s Italian successor, Urban VI, but another group sided with Clement VII, the papal nominee preferred by the French crown. When the latter group failed to dethrone Urban VI, they packed their bags and headed back to Avignon again.
Since there was no outside arbiter that could adjudicate the matter, all of Europe simply lined up behind their favored papal candidate, and it mattered little whether they did so out of political maneuvering or sincere conviction. The Church was in a mess, and the situation was further exacerbated when a splinter group of Cardinals in Pisa, Italy, elected yet another pope, Alexander V, in 1409 – three papal contenders in all!
Once again, St. Catherine of Siena entered the fray, along with a number of other saints. Catherine, Cecilia’s confirmation heroine, along with St. Catherine of Sweden, vociferously defended the Roman papal line, while St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Colette sided with the Avignon popes. Each had their arguments, yet each was running blind – who was right? Who was wrong? Not even the saints agreed!
Finally, in 1417, the ecumenical Council of Constance brought the whole episode to a close. The Pisan and Roman popes resigned, and the council deposed the stubborn Avignon claimant. Then, a reunited College of Cardinals elected Pope Martin V, and he initiated, in collaboration with the Constance Council, a series of much needed reforms. With hindsight, the Church now identifies the Roman line of papal claimants during this period as the legit heirs to the throne of Peter, and so Catherine of Siena had it all over St. Vincent in the Petrine point spread – but only in hindsight – and that’s my point.
Saintliness, it’s evident, isn’t to be equated with being right or being successful in temporal terms. It’s not even about being gentle or kind or nice – though those traits help. Saintliness, it seems, is mainly about getting up off our duffs and making an effort. It’s about absorbing what we can about Church teaching, taking the sacraments seriously, trusting in the Holy Spirit, and then giving the virtuous life a go – even if we fall on our faces.
We know that’s the case because of how the faith of the Apostles was “confirmed” after the Resurrection. “It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (CCC 1302). But have you ever read the Book of Acts? The Apostles receive that Confirmation-equivalent in the Upper Room, and then at once they’re transformed into a first-century vaudeville act, stumbling and bumbling their way in establishing the Church and spreading the Gospel, and then tripping over themselves toward their individual martyrdoms. Only in hindsight do we see the hand of the Lord at work in their lives; only in hindsight can we know that grace was functioning through their all too human efforts.
We can assure our teen confirmandi that we’re in the same boat. Baptized and confirmed, we head into the fog of spiritual warfare with little confidence in our ability to fight, and no guarantee that we’re making any difference at all. Regardless, saints, and those who aspire to sanctity – those who are confirmed, that is – follow the Master’s call and march on. We have what we need for the battle; let’s leave the outcomes (and hindsight) to God.