Feb 18, 2016
Just a few days ago, I had the enormous privilege of performing my first confirmation as a bishop. It took place at Holy Cross Parish in Moor Park, California, a large, bustling, and bi-lingual parish in my pastoral region. I told the confirmandi-and I meant it-that I would keep them in my heart for the rest of my life, for we were connected by an unbreakable bond. In preparation for this moment, I was, of course, obliged to craft a homily, and that exercise compelled me to do some serious studying and praying around the meaning of this great Sacrament.
It is sometimes said that Confirmation is a sacrament in search of a theology. It is indeed true that most Catholics could probably give at least a decent account of the significance of Baptism, Eucharist, Confession, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick, but they might balk when asked to explain the meaning of Confirmation. Perhaps they would be tempted to say it is the Catholic version of a Bar Mitzvah, but this would not even come close to an accurate theological description.
A survey of the most recent theologizing about Confirmation-the Documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, etc.-reveals that this is the sacrament of strengthening, as the term itself ("confirmare" in Latin) suggests. First, it strengthens baptized people in their relationship with the Lord Jesus and then it further strengthens them in their capacity to defend and spread the faith. The roots of it, of course, are in the great day of Pentecost when, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, eleven timorous and largely uneducated men became fearless evangelists, ready and able to spread the Gospel far and wide. Keep in mind that to proclaim Jesus publicly in that time and place was to take one's life in one's hand-and the disciples knew it. And yet, on the very day of Pentecost, they spoke out in the Temple and in the public squares of Jerusalem. With the exception of John, they all went to their deaths boldly announcing the Word. I told those I confirmed that they are, in a certain sense, successors of those first men upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and that they have the same fundamental task. Their Confirmation, I further explained, is therefore not really for them; it is for the Church and the wider world.
Now what makes this transformation possible is the third person of the Holy Trinity, who comes bearing a variety of powers, which the Church calls the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These include wisdom, knowledge, understanding, fortitude, counsel, piety, and fear of the Lord. In order to understand these more fully, we must keep in mind their relationship to evangelization and apologetics, to spreading and defending the faith. As I have argued often, a dumbed-down, simplified Catholicism is not evangelically compelling. We have a smart tradition, marked by two thousand years of serious theologizing by some of the masters of Western thought: Origen, Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Joseph Ratzinger. If one is going to defend the Catholic faith, especially at a time when it is under assault by many in the secular culture, one had better possess (and cooperate with) the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.