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During this season of Easter, many children will complete their initiation into the Church through the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist.
Celebrating Confirmation together with, or just prior to, first Communion - in accordance with the official Rite of Confirmation - has been the practice in the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1989 and is the pattern followed in most Australian dioceses and elsewhere around the world. Despite this, some people still do not understand why the Baptism-First Communion-Confirmation order of their own childhood has changed.
In the early Church, initiation was one continuous rite consisting of immersion in water, laying on of hands and anointing with chrism by the bishop, and finally joining the community for the first time at the Lord’s table.
When large numbers of people became Christians after the Peace of Constantine in 313, there simply weren’t enough bishops to be present at all initiation ceremonies. In the western Church, presbyters (priests) were given permission to baptise, but the laying on of hands and final anointing with chrism – later known as Confirmation – were reserved for the bishop.
So it became usual for baptism and confirmation to be separated, especially when infant baptism became the norm. Over the centuries this ‘gap’ became longer, but the order of the sacrament of initiation remained the same – Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist. Confirmation was the renewal of one’s baptismal promises before admission to the Eucharistic table.
It was only in the first part of the 20th century that this pattern of initiation altered in the Catholic Church. Pope Pius X’s efforts to encourage more frequent reception of Communion included lowering the age for first Communion. However Confirmation got left where it was and the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation was disrupted. Because Confirmation had lost its purpose as the sacrament linking Baptism and Eucharist, new meanings such as becoming a soldier of Christ and even signing the pledge were assigned to it.
The Second Vatican Council called for the Sacrament of Confirmation to be revised so that its connection with the whole of the Christian initiation would be stronger. In the new Rite of Confirmation issued in 1971, initiation is described as “reaching its culmination in the Communion of the body and blood of Christ” (RC13).
I often receive calls asking why children no longer take a Confirmation name. It surprises people to learn that the Church has never required a person to take on the name of a saint at Confirmation and that it is not mentioned in either the current or former Rite. The practice is not “banned”; it is just not mentioned.
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. If a confirmation name is chosen, it should be used in addition to the baptismal name, not in place of it.
Putting too much emphasis on peripheral matters like a confirmation name, or on dress, photos, certificates, and so on can detract from the focus of the celebration which is the laying on of hands and anointing with chrism before sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time.