There are only a handful of birthdays that we celebrate in the liturgical life of the Church. The first, of course, is the Nativity of our Lord. But then we also celebrate the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist as well. That’s pretty much it for nativities on the calendar, but it’d definitely be fitting to recognize one more feast as a day of birth. This Sunday we’ll be celebrating what we could rightfully call the “birthday” of the Church, at least in one sense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:
“The Church was made manifest to the world on the day of Pentecost by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the ‘dispensation of the mystery’ the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, ‘until he comes.’ In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments in what the common Tradition of the East and the West calls ‘the sacramental economy’; this is the communication (or ‘dispensation’) of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s ‘sacramental’ liturgy.” (CCC 1076)
In light of this, it’s fitting that one of these sacraments is also celebrated around this time of year. One’s first reception of the Holy Eucharist usually takes place during the end of the Easter season, but this isn’t the sacrament I’m referring to. Indeed, all sacraments point to the Eucharist, but our focus will be on another sacrament of initiation; one where we most plainly see “the outpouring of the Holy Spirit”. Let’s delve into the connection between the sacrament of confirmation and this holy day of Pentecost.
Preparing for the Spirit
When preparing for confirmation in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, we are often reminded of how the Holy Spirit will soon make his dwelling among the confirmandi. In the Church’s liturgy, we hear ourselves chanting “Veni Sancte Spiritus” as those waiting to receive the sacrament enter the Church. “Come Holy Spirit”. It’s the Holy Spirit that carries the work of sanctification on in our lives, and he’s been doing that since that first Pentecost nearly two thousand years ago.
Of course, the Holy Spirit has been present in human history prior to the Incarnation. We can see that in the various manifestations of God in the Old Testament. When we read those books of the Old Testament, we look for what the Holy Spirit is telling us about Christ. For those who read those books during ancient times, they were being prepared for the time of the Messiah by the Holy Spirit. But now since our Lord has been born in time, and has walked the earth, we find ourselves equipped with sacramental signs. All those types, figures, and signs that the Jewish people received during Old Testament times find themselves fully realized in the seven sacraments of the Church in our present age. All those signs find themselves fully realized in Christ Jesus.
Jesus Gave Us the Model
Now with Ascension Day behind us, we eagerly await the Holy Spirit to come. Just as Jesus cleansed the waters for us at his baptism, giving us a model for our own baptisms, he also gave us an example and model for our own confirmation in the Holy Spirit. The apostles were the first to have reaped this benefit in the upper room on Pentecost. The rest of us receive the Holy Spirit in this special way thanks to the service of the apostles and their successors. The Catechism explains this a bit more in depth:
“The descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at his baptism by John was the sign that this was he who was to come, the Messiah, the Son of God. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit; his whole life and his whole mission are carried out in total communion with the Holy Spirit whom the Father gives him ‘without measure”
“This fullness of the Spirit was not to remain uniquely the Messiah’s, but was to be communicated to the whole messianic people. On several occasions Christ promised this outpouring of the Spirit, a promise which he fulfilled first on Easter Sunday and then more strikingly at Pentecost. Filled with the Holy Spirit the apostles began to proclaim ‘the mighty works of God,’ and Peter declared this outpouring of the Spirit to be the sign of the messianic age. Those who believed in the apostolic preaching and were baptized received the gift of the Holy Spirit in their turn” (CCC 1286-1287).
Now while baptism also imparts the Holy Spirit, as mentioned above, the sacrament of Confirmation makes that bond with the Church much more complete due to an increased strengthening of the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what happened to the Apostles on Pentecost! Jesus had promised the Apostles that the he would send them the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:18, 26), and he kept his word. This is why we still recognize confirmation as a sacrament of initiation. The Christian begins his journey with baptism, but he is not yet fully initiated into the Church until he receives the indelible seal of confirmation and sustenance in the Holy Eucharist.
Why Baptism and Confirmation Are Needed
The distinction between baptism and confirmation is clearly seen in Sacred Scripture, particularly when the region of Samaria is being evangelized in the Acts of the Apostles. Philip the Evangelist, one of the Church’s first seven deacons, preaches and baptizes while the apostles Peter and John come in afterwards to lay their hands on the new Christians, imparting the Holy Spirit to them (cf. Acts 8:5-17). We also see St. Paul laying hands on the newly baptized a bit later (cf. Acts 19:6).
In a 1998 audience on the sacrament of confirmation, Pope St. John Paul II shows us that:
“The unbreakable bond between the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is expressed in the close connection between the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.” —Pope St. John Paul II
This is why it was common in earlier centuries for baptism and confirmation to be conferred together as a kind of “double sacrament”. This is still done in many of the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church. But the two sacraments are certainly distinct.
As Blessed Pope Paul VI pointed out in his 1971 Apostolic Exhortation on confirmation, Divinae Consortium Naturae:
“From that time on [Pentecost] the apostles, in fulfillment of Christ’s will, imparted to the newly baptized by the laying on of hands the gift of the Spirit that completes the grace of Baptism… The imposition of hands is rightly recognized by the Catholic tradition as the origin of the sacrament of Confirmation, which in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.” —Blessed Pope Paul VI
It’s clear that only bishops, as they are the successors of the apostles, have the right and ability to confer the sacrament of confirmation. The bishops are the ones that bless the sacred chrism and oil to be used in the anointing for this sacrament, and only in grave situations (particularly in the Latin Rite) should this be delegated to a priest. As St. Ignatius of Antioch points out, we see “the bishop as a type of the Father”. We rightfully regard our bishops as fathers in faith and as our shepherds, and this is why the duty of confirming falls upon him.
Why the Bishop Ordinarily Administers the Gift
In the early Church, it was easy for the bishop to confer confirmation immediately after baptism, as seen above. Christians lived closer together and the bishops didn’t need to travel large swaths of territory. This changed over time, especially after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire. With Christianity booming, it became difficult for the bishop to keep up with all the baptisms. So over time, at least in the Latin Rite, we see that the conferring of the sacrament of confirmation was delayed until the bishop could be present. Just as the apostles laid hands on those newly baptized men and women in the New Testament, so do we try to ensure that the successors of the apostles are also the ones that call down the Holy Spirit today.
As it usually does, the Catechism shines more light on the reasons why we believe the bishop can confer confirmation, and why he should be the minister to ordinarily do so:
“In the Latin Rite, the ordinary minister of Confirmation is the bishop. If the need arises, the bishop may grant the faculty of administering Confirmation to priests, although it is fitting that he confer it himself, mindful that the celebration of Confirmation has been temporally separated from Baptism for this reason. Bishops are the successors of the apostles. They have received the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The administration of this sacrament by them demonstrates clearly that its effect is to unite those who receive it more closely to the Church, to her apostolic origins, and to her mission of bearing witness to Christ” (CCC 1313).
In the Creed, we profess that we are one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Seeing the bishop confer this sacrament of confirmation strengthens the apostolicity of the Church. Indeed, it’s biblical. But the only way for us to see a necessity for the bishop in the calling down of the Holy Spirit, is to understand that Christ instituted a priesthood. A sacramental priesthood. Many other non-Catholic Christians believe the Holy Spirit can be called down at their beck and call. While we can always call upon the Holy Spirit in prayer, we have to realize that the bishops have a real authority in Jesus’ name. As the successors to the apostles, their office was instituted by Jesus Christ, and the ontological change that they experience in the sacrament of Holy Orders allows them to confer the other sacraments (including confirmation) to the people of God.
Just as the apostles received the grace of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we also see this grace perpetuated by their successors in the sacrament of confirmation. The link between this great sacrament, and this “birthday” of the Church are extremely close. As we enter into Pentecost this year, we should reflect back to our own confirmations and remember that just as the apostles were filled with Holy Spirit, we were too. We have to use the apostles as role models, and be sure that we carry the message of Jesus Christ to all peoples, just as they did. After all, we share in the same Spirit. Veni Sancte Spiritus!