Catholic Sentinel photos by Gerry Lewin
Kathy and Dean Fessler stand as sponsors for Erik Cid as he is confirmed by Archbishop John Vlazny in Mount Angel.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Gerry Lewin
Kathy and Dean Fessler stand as sponsors for Erik Cid as he is confirmed by Archbishop John Vlazny in Mount Angel.

Hundreds of young Oregon Catholics this spring are taking part in the sacrament of confirmation, being heartened in a call to Christian discipleship that originated with their baptisms.

After a period of learning about their baptismal call, the students stand before the bishop to be anointed in an ancient sign of divine favor and reminded of God's steadfast love.

"Confirmation is another gift from the Lord to support and encourage us in our efforts live our faith intelligently, courageously and proudly," says Archbishop John Vlazny.  "Jesus sends the gift of the Holy Spirit to our confirmation candidates at a time in their lives when they have begun to realize the challenges of discipleship and to experience all the uncertainties and doubts that inevitably arise when they encounter those who are disdainful of faith and religion, especially the Catholic kind."

When he meets young people at confirmations, Archbishop Vlazny enjoys assuring them of their individual worth and God’s great love for each of them.  

"I like to tell them that, in God’s eyes, no matter what others may say or think, not a single one of us is a mistake," the archbishop explains.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner has confirmed about 40,000 young Oregonians over the years. His crozier, the shepherd's staff bishops carry, is held together by screws and tape because altar servers have dropped it over the years.
Bishop Steiner says confirmation candidates these days seem better prepared than in the past and seem to genuinely want the sacrament.

"It is God's gift to us, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and points to the countless gifts and graces of God available to us for the rest of our lives, to help us and guide us always," Bishop Steiner says. This year, he is reminding candidates that confirmation is not the end of their faith formation, but the beginning.

Confirmation, together with baptism and Eucharist, form the Catholic sacraments of initiation. The three are connected. In the sacrament of confirmation, the baptized person is "sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and is strengthened for service to the Body of Christ," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The sacrament is linked to ancient teachings. The prophets of the Old Testament foretold that God's Spirit would rest upon the Messiah to sustain his mission. Then, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus when he was baptized by John the Baptist.

Before he died, Jesus promised that the Spirit would be given to the Apostles and to the entire Church. Those who believed in the apostles' preaching were baptized with water and received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, an act the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the origin of the sacrament of confirmation.  

By the second century, confirmation was also conferred by anointing with holy oil, which came to be called sacred chrism. The anointing emphasizes the name "Christian," which means "anointed" and is derived from Jesus whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit.

"Confirmation enriches the baptized with the strength of the Holy Spirit so that they can better witness to Christ in word and deed," the catechism says.

Three decades ago, theologians saw confirmation as "a sacrament in search of a meaning," says Deacon Owen Cummings, a professor at Mount Angel Seminary. While the timing proper timing of confirmation is still inconsistent diocese to diocese, the theology is starting to coalesce as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"The catechism is out to show that confirmation is a further saturation in the identity that is already given to us by God in baptism," says Cummings. "It's a further growth point."

Confirmation attests to the fact that we are always in need of help in advancing in our baptismal identity, he explains.

In addition, confirmation connects the young Catholic to a larger community. That's one reason the presence of the bishop and the sponsor is so crucial.

"For Catholics, there is no such thing as a private sacrament," Cummings says. "It's an ecclesial thing."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in deference to earliest tradition, has made it clear that the order of the three sacraments of initiation should be this: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. In the first centuries of the church, when it was adults were who ordinarily the ones initiated, this sequence was natural. In the Christian west, St. Augustine's teachings on original sin and the role of baptism in attaining eternal bliss made parents seek baptism for children immediately after birth. All three sacraments were given at an early age — baptism, confirmation and Communion. Both confirmation and Communion were later delayed until adolescence.

The order of the sacraments was interrupted about a century ago when Pope Pius X urged first Communion for younger children, hoping to encourage more frequent reception of the Eucharist. But the pope did not move the age of confirmation earlier, meaning that most Catholics received Communion before confirmation.  

Many priests preferred this scheme, seeing it as a way to keep teens involved in church life. But that idea came from the Reformation and has never been the official Catholic view, Cummings says. He explains that young people can have their faith affirmed with the whole body of believers in rites held at the Easter vigil and other Masses throughout the church year.