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BY ANY OTHER NAME
In last week’s column I wrote about the celebration of confirmation and first communion. In the same context, I have had several phone calls from parents and sponsors complaining that their parish priest has “banned” the use of a confirmation name.
People are always surprised when I explain that the choosing of a special name for confirmation is not mentioned in either the current or former rite, although it has been a popular custom in many places in the past.
It’s interesting to look at why the practice began. In the early church those initiated into the Christian community whose given names had strong association with paganism took on a new name which symbolised the new stage of life they were entering. There was precident for this in the biblical history of individuals who had a change of name along with a change of heart and mind. Abram became Abraham, Simon was called Peter and Saul took the name Paul.
In the sixteenth century a diocesan council in Milan recommended that someone whose name was unsuitable for a Christian should be given another name at confirmation. The church however has never required a person to take on the name of a saint at confirmation. It’s hard to imagine any name that these days would be considered incompatible with Christian faith as may have been the case in earlier times. Besides, confirmation is not so much a new stage of Christian life as an opportunity to deepen the graces of baptism, so taking a new name may send an incorrect message about the meaning of the sacrament.
Our given names are a very important part of our identity. Parents usually put a lot of thought into choosing a child’s name so it seems a little strange to call a young person by a different name as the bishop anoints them with chrism at confirmation. If a confirmation name is chosen,perhaps it could be used in addition to the baptismal name, not in place of it.
To use a different name at confirmation from that used at baptism also goes against the call of the second Vatican Council for confirmation to be linked clearly with the whole of Christian initiation. The close connection between confirmation and baptism is emphasised in the current rite by the renewal of baptismal promises and the recommendation that a baptismal godparent fill the role of sponsor for confirmation.
For most of the church’s history, the sacrament of confirmation has been the rite through which we “confirm”for ourselves the baptismal vows made on our behalf by others before we take the ultimate step of full initiation into the Catholic church - sharing in communion.
When the age for first communion was lowered in the early part of the twentieth century, confirmation was left out on a limb and was sometimes called “the sacrament in search of a theology”. Additional rituals such as the signing of the pledge (promising not to drink alcohol until the age of 21 or 25, or even for life!) and the taking of a confirmation name came to assume disproportionate importance. Now that confirmation has resumed its proper place before first communion, these rituals are out of place.
Of course it is still appropriate for young people preparing for confirmation to research a saint who will serve as a model for Christian living. However, putting too much emphasis on a confirmation name, or on dress, photos, certificates, etc, can detract from the focus of the celebration – the laying on of hands and anointing with chrism before sharing in the body and blood of the Lord for the first time.