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  • Amy MacKinnon

Sacrament of Confirmation

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

What is the sacrament of confirmation, and what does it do?

If you ask most people what happens at confirmation, or what the purpose of that sacrament is, you’ll get a variety of answers. You may hear:

  • It’s one of the sacraments of initiation

  • That’s when we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit

  • We become adults

The first one is right, it is definitely one of the sacraments of initiation, along with baptism and First Communion. But we don’t receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit when we’re confirmed—we get those at baptism, so we already have them when we’re confirmed.

We don’t become adults, either, but there is a particular grace that we receive with this sacrament that sometimes gets explained in a way that makes people think that we do automatically become adults.

In this post, you’ll see:

  • Why teaching this sacrament can be so hard

  • Why Catholics get confirmed

  • What confirmation is

  • Why it’s a sacrament of initiation

  • What happens when we’re confirmed

Why Teaching Confirmation Is So Hard

The sacrament of confirmation is probably the hardest sacrament to teach, and it's been called "the sacrament without a theology." That's not true, but there has been a lot of confusion about what confirmation does and why we need it.

If you ask most Catholics what it is, they’ll likely tell you that it’s “the sacrament of adulthood” or that “it makes you an adult in the Catholic Church” or (hopefully jokingly) that it’s like “graduation” in the Faith.

When we receive the sacrament, we know that it’s associated with the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles at Pentecost, so it’s easy to think that this is when we actually receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

That isn’t quite what happened to the apostles though.

What Did Happen at Pentecost?

One of the reasons that it’s hard is that it’s associated with Pentecost, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles while they were hiding out in the Upper Room.

We’re used to hearing this when we read it in the Bible or hear it read aloud at Mass on Pentecost Sunday, but sometimes we’re so used to it that we don’t really think any more about it or how the Apostles changed when they received it.

So let’s look at this a little more closely.

This is how the Descent of the Holy Spirit is described in Acts 2:1-3:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.

There are a lot of things that God is showing us in this passage:

  • The outpouring of the Holy Spirit

  • What look like “tongues of flame” rested on each of the Apostles

  • The birth of the Church

What did they do immediately after this? The Apostles left the Upper Room and went out to preach on the streets. They had been hiding out because they were afraid that they would be persecuted and crucified just as Jesus had been, because they were known to be His followers. Judas had already abandoned them, so there were only 11 Apostles present, along with the Blessed Mother.

They knew who Jesus was and what He’d taught them for the past 3 years. They also knew that He’d risen from the dead and ascended into Heaven. But Jesus promised that He would send the Holy Spirit to guide them, and this is what happened at Pentecost.

There was an immediate change in the Apostles!

Peter, who had been so afraid that people would recognize him as a follower of Jesus that he denied Christ and then later hid in the upper room. That same man, the Apostle Peter, stood on in the street and publicly proclaimed the Word of God.

And what happened when he did that? Acts 2:41:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

This is the moment when the Apostles received the sacrament of confirmation. They had already received the gifts of the Holy Spirit when they were baptized, but they were still afraid to act publicly on God’s behalf when Jesus wasn’t with them in person.

Now, they act very boldly. All of them—except for St. John, who died of old age—died as martyrs because they would truly rather have died than deny Christ again.

What changed?

They received the sacrament of confirmation.

What Happens at Confirmation

Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders all place a mark or seal on our soul. This is why those sacraments can only be received once. Each of those sacraments has a different effect on us.

The seal from the sacrament of Confirmation gives us an “increase and deepening of baptismal grace” (CCC 1303) because this is the sacrament that strengthens us, and gives us the ability to fully live out our faith. It also “perfects the common priesthood of the faithful, received in Baptism, and ‘the confirmed person receives the power to profess faith in Christ publicly and as it were officially (quasi Ex officio)’” (CCC 1305).

We already have the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but too often we lack the courage to put them into practice. This is what confirmation allows us to do—when we allow it to—by putting our faith in to practice.

This is what the Catechism lists as the effects of this sacrament:

  • It roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, "Abba! Father!"

  • It unites us more firmly to Christ

  • It increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us

  • It renders our bond with the Church more perfect

  • It gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross

Who is it that’s supposed to have the courage of their convictions?

Not children, but adults

Why Do Catholics Get Confirmed?

When we talk about confirmation as the “sacrament of adulthood,” we don’t mean that we now have the status of an adult either in the Church or in our society.

This sacrament gives us the grace to grow into an adult faith in God. We become soldiers, or warriors, for Christ and put on the armor of God. The Bible uses military language because we’re fighting against evil and sin, along with His grace which guides and strengthens us.

That is where it seems the confusion about the effects of this sacrament and adulthood come from. We don’t “become adults” because it’s not the type of initiation that many cultures have for celebrating the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Blog Series: Teaching Grace, the Sacraments, and the Church

How to Teach the Sacrament of Confirmation (this post)

How to Teach the Sacrament of Marriage

How to Teach the Sacrament of Holy Orders

How to Teach the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

How to Teach About the Catholic Church

How to Teach About Sacramentals

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