<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

What Does Confirmation Do?

Audio only:

The sacrament of Confirmation can be baffling to today’s Catholics. What is it? What does it do? And what is the correct age to receive it? Father Hugh Barbour answers all our questions.


CK:
Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Very glad to have you here with us. Sacrament of confirmation, is it possibly the least understood of the seven sacraments or the one that we might fumble around the most for an explanation of. I think it might be and I’m going to ask Father Hugh Barbour, our chaplain and the former Pryor of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County to help us answer that. Hello Father.

FHB:
Hello.

CK:
Okay. So confirmation, sometimes called chrismation. Yes, is it the same one?

FHB:
In the Byzantine rite, yes, eastern rites. Means the same thing.

CK:
It’s like a rite of passage between, I’m only kidding, but we do treat it like-

FHB:
See, you’re beginning to answer the question.

CK:
Okay. Am I beginning to answer the question?

FHB:
No, I mean, you’re beginning to pose the problem.

CK:
Yeah. So, we have this sense of it like it’s a rite of passage for teenagers where they don’t have to go to a catechism class anymore because they got it. You see what I’m saying?

FHB:
Yes, I do.

CK:
And then, you probably have seen the phenomena as well.

FHB:
Yes, I have, yes.

CK:
So, tell me what’s wrong with that.

FHB:
Well first of all, just to say it very simply, the sacrament of confirmation has absolutely nothing, capital N capital O capital T capital H capital I capital N capital G, nothing to do with your age.

CK:
Oh, okay.

FHB:
Nothing.

CK:
Ah.

FHB:
In the natural sense or the bodily sense. It has something to do with your age by comparison in the spiritual sense, but not anything to do with coming into adulthood as a member of human society or anything like that. It certainly has its effects as we get older but it’s not about that. What confirmation is about is the bringing to perfection, which we would call maturity, that’s why it’s sometimes compared to adult age of the life that was begun in baptism. So, just as we are born in baptism and we’re newborn babes in Christ.

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
So in confirmation, we come to sacramental, not physical, sacramental adulthood, not puberty, not teenage, not any of that but sacramental adulthood. And that means, that we are able to not only to be alive in baptism but also to be able to preserve and defend the life we have been given and our relationship also to other people, not just our own life, but those around us.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
And so, that’s more of the sense but it has to do with the sacramental order of things, it doesn’t have to do with our age.

CK:
Well here.

FHB:
And I can explain that in a second once you asked the next question.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
Which I don’t even know what it is, but I think I’ll find out.

CK:
Okay. I think you will find out. It seems to me that we have an attitude about the reception of this sacrament though that has something to do with, “I need to be ready to receive it. I need to be somehow, emotionally and intellectually ready in order for this sacrament to do its thing.”

FHB:
Well, there’s a great truth in that and the one who receives the sacrament has to be, as we say, disposed to receive the grace thereof. The principle disposition we need is not to place the obstacle of sin, so not to be in grave sin. That’s why when you give a sacrament to a baby, there’s no obstacle and they receive the grace immediately. It’s like praying for the souls in purgatory. If you pray for them, they’re not resisting anything. Unlike when you pray for someone who’s alive, you pray for them but it may be a while before they come around.

And so, there is that aspect of the disposition. And of course, the model for the reception of what we call the sacraments of initiation, baptism, confirmation and holy communion, the model to make the different issues clear is the adult convert. That’s where the church began, mostly with adult converts. And so, you have repentance from sin and then washing from sin and reception of grace in baptism and membership in the church. And then, you immediately at the same ceremony as we do today now in the liturgy of the church as it is now, then immediately the gift given you in baptism, the remission of sin and the life of grace and membership of the church, is confirmed, which means strengthened by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which is through the holy chrism, which is the forehead of the baptized is anointed.

Thereby extending and increasing the power, which was given in baptism. Saint Thomas goes so far as to say that the witnessing to one’s neighbor of the truth, the faith and the ability or more like the will to defend the faith is like, he says, “Quasi ex officio,” we say people do things ex officio, that’s their official role. He says with the baptized person, when they’re given that power in baptism, they practically have the office in themselves of defending and promoting the faith which they professed in baptism. So, that connection is right there. You get the life and then you get the ability to defend and promote and expand the life in confirmation. Confirmation means strengthening.

CK:
Okay. So, maybe you don’t want to answer this, but when do you think, like say, you have a baby born into a Catholic family, not a convert, a baby born into a Catholic family and this is in here in our Western society and all things. If Father Hugh was making the decision, if you don’t mind me asking this.

FHB:
I don’t mind at all.

CK:
Oh, okay. When would you say that the child, and I’m just assuming you’re going to say child, should be confirmed.

FHB:
Confirmed. Well, this goes to another point, and that is that, that confirmation first of all, is not a sacrament of physical maturity. It’s a sacrament of sacramental maturity. And it adds to the baptismal life, given the mature life of the Christian so that we have the strength to defend and protect our faith and to promote it. But it has in the strongest sense, an ability to do those things for which we profess our faith and because of which, we want to include others in it. And so, the highest end or purpose of the sacrament of baptism and of confirmation is the character that’s given to us in the sacrament. That is the indelible quality given to our souls, whereby we are able to receive actively like the eye receives light, actively receive, not passively receive the graces that are bestowed in the other sacraments.

Now, this means that the sacrament of confirmation is a kind of “ordination” I put in quotes, to participate fully in the worship of the church particularly in the Holy Mass, which is the in and purpose of all of our graces here below because that’s the sacrifice which gains for us every other grace. So in and of itself, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation because of their character are related to divine worship. The ability to be alive in order to receive the grace of divine worship, the ability to participate in a way which is defensive and offensive, that is to be able to defend and to promote the Mass. I don’t mean offensive in the normal sense of the term, like in football.

CK:
Right, yeah. You can play offense and you can play defense.

FHB:
Right and that’s the last time you’ll ever hear sports [inaudible 00:08:29] any way. And so, I think it’s a historical point. In the early church, the model was the initiation of adults.

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
So consequently, in all of the churches of the early church, the bishop baptized, confirmed and communicated all the new converts at Easter. And then a little bit later, he did a second batch at Pentecost also. And it was the bishop’s job. Now, when the church began to grow because of the monasteries in the countryside and people converted in the countryside and you had little parish churches and whatnot, and the necessity of baptism for the grace of salvation, the church began to allow ordinary priest to baptize. And so, but in the Latin church, the Western church, like from almost the middle of the Balkans like Croatia down through Albania, West, it’s the line set out by Diocletian.

That point on where they followed the Western rite, they still reserved to the bishop the role of confirming. They didn’t want to take from the bishop all of the segmentation because it was so traditional for the bishop to do it. And so the Western church, we developed that custom whereby the bishop comes to confirm but the ordinary priest does not confirm. And the children received their first communion after their confirmation. That’s why in modern Protestant nominations, you see that if you’re raised as a Lutheran, you get confirmed then you go to the Lord’s supper.

CK:
I got you.

FHB:
Because that was the Catholic practice but they preserved that little bit of it because of the order of the sacrament.

CK:
They should have preserved some other parts.

FHB:
Of course, but they preserved the order. It’s not essential to the sacrament but it’s important. And so in my opinion, frankly, we should do now because the church had changed so many things after Vatican II, this is one sensible and radical change that would have been actually helpful instead of disorienting. I won’t talk about disoriented ones because everybody knows what they are. But rather that, why not? Because these are so widespread, the diocese is so enormous, it’s such enormous population, why not just simply do what they do in the Eastern churches and the Byzantine church and the Greek church and the Russian church and the others? A child’s baptized, the child’s immediately confirmed and the child is given his first communion as an infant.

Now, you’ll hear the typical Roman Catholic say, “But they don’t know what they’re receiving when they receive as an infant.”

CK:
Is that how the typical Roman Catholic talks?

FHB:
Yes, it is because they have to be old enough to distinguish the sacrament from ordinary bread. Well, that’s a good idea when they’re older but the fact is, if they can be baptized without knowing what’s happening to them and receive the grace of baptism includes faith, hope, charity, virtues, gifts, Holy Spirit, listen to the previous podcast, all of that, they can also be confirmed, offered I think to be baptized and confirmed. And if they’re confirmed, what do they confirm for? So as to receive the Eucharist and to participate in the Holy sacrifice of the Mass.

And so, I think that’s what we should do is just like, give the babies everything. Now, the Eastern custom developing on Catholics was very reasonable. The infants receive communion while they’re infants, once they begin to show the ability to make choices of their own, they stop receiving communion and are prepared for their first confession and then they go to confession. And then, they have a big solemn “first communion” once they’ve made their first confession. And I think that’s a beautiful way to do it. Baptism, confirmation, the original first communion and then later on, stop that, go to confession and then start receiving communion again.

And then they learn the order of the sacraments. What happened was in the reign of Pius X, the Pope, the Holy Pope, Saint Pius X wanted to make it clear that children should not be kept away from communion because of their age, the same point I’m making. And he said as long as the child could be instructed, they could receive communion. But what they forgot was the theological link between confirmation and communion.

CK:
Right, so they changed the order.

FHB:
The order was changed and it’s not a small matter because the sacraments effect what they signify. So, the communion by a confirmed person is all things being equal, a more efficacious event than one has been simply baptized. The sacraments build on each other. And so, they should have taken care of that and just said, when the bishop confirms, he also gives first communion and that would solve it.

And we could still do that today and if they’re afraid that they’re going to lose the teenagers, they can come up with things for the teenagers to do. For example, the church has ministries. It can make the boys lectors and acolytes. It can make the girls catechists. And in one parish that we have, the girls were all made into ushers. And so, they took care of everything to do with crowd control, programs and all that stuff.

And so, they all had an active role in their teens, so they can actually do these things. That’s not the point but confirmation is not a bar mitzvah and it’s not the way the Protestants do it as a symbol of adulthood. And it certainly should never be postponed ’til after puberty when they need the grace of the sacrament to defend their faith and their virtue. And they’re having kids confirmed at 16 and 17 and 18, that’s an absolute outrage I’d say, if you don’t mind.

CK:
No, I don’t mind that you say that because I actually share that concern with you. I remember years ago, reading a pastoral letter from the bishop in Phoenix. His name is escaping me, I’m sorry but it’s escaping me at the moment, but he confirms at their first communion but that’s at seven years old.

FHB:
That’s exactly what I’m saying. Exactly, seven years old. Exactly.

CK:
So, he confirms then but at that point I remember being very impressed with him in his pastoral letter to his people, it made a great impression on me.

FHB:
[crosstalk 00:14:38] pastoral letters by the way, excellent ones.

CK:
He didn’t say it this way, but essentially what he’s saying is what you said is the sacraments affect what they symbolize. And that these children are growing up in a world that is constantly attacking them from the time that, I mean, really from before they reached the age of reason. And that giving them the sacrament earlier actually will prevent many of the things that we’re trying to cure in their teenage years.

FHB:
Absolutely.

CK:
I think that was perfectly reasonable what he said.

FHB:
Of course, but you have to first be a bishop or a priest who believes that the sacraments actually-

CK:
Well, this is a problem.

FHB:
That actually cause things to happen in the soul of the person. We can get a very formal ceremonial, social view of the sacraments and forget that these sacraments are actually things that we need for our salvation. They aid us to aid is to get to heaven and not to end up eternally lost. And this urgency of the sacraments has been largely lost. And instead, we get a lot of claptrap about liturgy and about maturity and all kinds of other stuff. And people that don’t know anything about the liturgical theology of the church or the sacramental theology or tradition, they’re loudly proclaiming these silly things that they learned in wherever formation they got and it’s very, very sad.

CK:
It is.

FHB:
And the people that have put this in place are going to have to answer for it because they’re depriving souls of graces they need for their happiness, salvation and growth in the mystical life. Even, I mean, there are people who could be holier if they just had these sacraments. It’s mind boggling.

CK:
Well, Thomas Olmsted by the way, is the bishop’s name, I’m sorry.

FHB:
Olmsted, right. Of course, I knew that.

CK:
You knew but I couldn’t remember.

FHB:
He has lovely letters produced for [inaudible 00:16:36].

CK:
And we have many good bishops. I know that we’re very frustrated with bishops but there are men like Bishop Olmsted, who are tremendous bishops-

FHB:
This is an institutional injustice that is being perpetrated in certain parts of the church because of certain kinds of opinions regarding liturgy and sacraments that are simply wrong. And someone needs to say, “Hey, why is it the catechism of the Catholic church puts the sacraments in the traditional order always?”

CK:
But there is a way in which I think part of the misunderstanding or just the lack of understanding of what happens in confirmation is connected both to the fact that we no longer believe in the sacraments. We just don’t have that-

FHB:
Recent events have shown that.

CK:
The sacraments do what they say they’re doing. But there’s also the fact that there’s a kind of analogy in the sacrament of baptism that we understand, analogy of washing. There’s an analogy of eating in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. There’s an analogy of anointing in confirmation. I don’t think modern people, I include myself in that, anointing doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t know what that means.

FHB:
I’m not so sure.

CK:
Okay. Help me with that.

FHB:
If you consider, I mean, the thing is you have baptism is birth. It’s out of the water, it’s easy to understand that. Confirmation is growth to full maturity and full maturity has everything to do with the fulgent of your bodily and intellectual powers. And if you could do it in a modern way you could say, “Well, when do people start fixing their hair and wearing scents and soaps and whatnot?”

CK:
Yeah, as they’re becoming of physical maturity.

FHB:
Right. So, that’s a similar thing we use with the sacrament. It means, if you are an adult, you don’t perfume little babies except just to powder, whatever.

CK:
Yeah. They already smell so good anyways, little babies.

FHB:
But the point is, so baptism is birth, confirmation is maturity but maturity to receive and participate in the graces. And then of course, the anointing of the sick is to take care of any illnesses of the soul. And then the sacrament of penance is an order to remove obstacles to the soul’s progress, that’s more like psychotherapy, but it’s not psychotherapy. You go to the doctor to get a physical illness done and then you take good advice and try to reflect on your life and say you’re sorry and all that in confession.

And finally, then you’re able the most important one, to be nourished. So, you get nourishment, healing, instruction or readjustment and of course, birth itself and maturity. Those are the sacraments. The five that regard the individual.

CK:
Right. But the other reason I think that besides this, and I appreciate your explanation of anointing and what it’s meaning is in the flowering of adulthood. But the other side of this is, I don’t think that we have any sense of how shall I put this, the soul as separate from the feelings. We have this kind of idea of the soul, the holy person is the person who goes through life with no feelings or all the feelings are elevated all the time, which is in a certain sense is true. I mean, there’s something true about that but we don’t understand that holiness and the life of the soul is not always visible or materially perceptible. So we go … Okay, so you made that baby more holy by baptizing that baby?

FHB:
Yes.

CK:
You made that baby more holy by confirming that baby?

FHB:
Yes.

CK:
Well, we don’t get it.

FHB:
That’s an object of faith. That doesn’t mean the baby’s behavior improves.

CK:
No, or feelings improve.

FHB:
Well, not just yet because that’s a lifetime acquisition of the Christian life. But it means that God takes the initiative. I mean, we live in a culture where everyone is saved by grace, not by works. I mean, this is where it really happens. They make you do an altar call and profess and everything and then you’re saved. We say, “No, you don’t even have to do that.” You’re already carrying the church and you have no idea what’s going on. And God chooses you and gives you grace. What’s more evident than God acts first and then we respond then the sacraments of initiation, which show that it’s His action that’s first and not any human action, not even that of conversion, he makes conversion happen.

CK:
So, a lack of belief in the sacraments is in a certain sense, a failure to really believe in grace, to really believe that God does it.

FHB:
Well, there’s an inconsistency. They believe in grace and they emphasize that it’s not your works, it’s just God’s gift. But where is that more clearly indicated than in the baptism of infants? So, the stole of grace on a child who’s not aware but then they’ll say they don’t let their kids be baptized until they’re conscious and aware of what they’re doing like we do with confirmation. We’re basically Baptist but for confirmation. We should call ourselves confirmationists.

CK:
That’s a good one.

FHB:
Yeah. I mean, because it’s all of the same and they keep emphasizing that all three segmentation are one. Well, if that’s the case, the moral requirements and the lecture requirements should also be one and just let the little children come to me.

CK:
Amen.

FHB:
That’s what I say. But that’s a very, I think there are a lot of bishops and priests that would agree with me. But on the other hand, there are a lot who just don’t get it. So, may God bless them.

CK:
Yeah. Right.

FHB:
They probably weren’t confirmed soon enough.

CK:
They needed to get confirmed earlier. So, the primary grace, if I could say it this way, of the sacrament of confirmation is the grace of being better able to receive grace.

FHB:
Well, it’s the difference between when you have your life as an infant, you’re alive and when you’re an adult you’re alive, but when you’re adult, you have more active powers to be able to defend and promote the life you have received. And the life of the Christian is first of all, shown forth and sacred worship and so, you’re able to participate more deeply and richly in the sacred liturgy. And then also in the defense of the faith and his profession before men. So, it has to do also with fortitude, so faith and fortitude, those things.

CK:
I’m going to talk to all the cardinals, we’ll see if we can get you elected Pope and we’ll get this taken care of.

FHB:
Just ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten and inspire.

CK:
Yeah, that’s right.

FHB:
We didn’t even get to when did our Lord institute the sacrament of confirmation or any of that stuff? That’s interesting too.

CK:
Oh yeah, I don’t actually know when the Lord instituted this. I mean, I do, but go ahead.

FHB:
He did in general because the church teaches it. But it’s a sacrament, which He intended to be administered only after his Ascension to heaven. Because he says, Remember, if I do not go away and the peril of pleat cannot come,” and so he wanted the descendant of the Holy Spirit to happen after his Ascension into heaven. And so, that anointing in the spirit, which for the apostles, the sacrament was administered, however, they determined it to be administered.

Then the church later, because we were past the age of the apostles, determined that in this sacrament, in the church, it should be administered by the anointing with chrism and the proper words receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the seal of the Holy Spirit gift to the Father, which is used in both East and West now. The traditional rite has a different form but it’s also equally valid. I confirm you with the sign of the cross. I sign you with the sign of the cross and confirm with the chrism of salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit.

They’re two different forms but they mean the same thing ultimately. And those forms and the manner itself were determined by the usage of the church. Although the apostles certainly made use of the chrism but not always because at that time, the Spirit was manifested in various ways, not only by the odor of the chrism but also mysteriously as we see in the Acts of the Apostles.

CK:
Father Hugh Barbour, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you. I just can’t say it enough. It’s okay to believe in the sacraments. Go ahead and believe in the sacraments. They do what they say.

FHB:
And a very important point, if you’re not confirmed yet and you really earnestly desire to be, if you’re that 14 or 15 or 16-year old that’s not being allowed to be confirmed. St. Thomas says, “You can make an active desire for the grace of confirmation just like you make an active desire for holy communion or baptism.” Baptism of desire, communion of desire to this confirmation of desire, he mentions that. So, ask the Lord for the grace so that when you finally get the sacramental grace, it will be even more fruitful.

CK:
Again, thank you, Father Hugh Barbour. I’m Cy Kellett. Thank you so much for joining us this week on Catholic Answers Focus. If you would give us a like, five stars, wherever you put in the stars where you get the podcast, you can share us with folks at catholicanswersfocus.com. If you would like to support us in a material way, we would appreciate it. And you can do that by going to givecatholic.com. See you next time. Right here. God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate