Pastoral Letter for Lent 2013: On the Sacrament of Confirmation
Dear faithful of the diocese,
The Bishop of a diocese visits in the parishes from time to time and celebrates, together with the faithful, the holy sacrament of Confirmation. Usually teenaged young Catholics or adults, who have been united with the Catholic Church, receive this sacrament as a group. But, as a matter of fact, all those Catholics, who are united with the Church and who for one reason or another have not been confirmed, may after a time of preparation receive Confirmation. The Church also warmly recommends this, because without the Sacrament of Confirmation membership in the Church remains incomplete.
The main prerequisite for receiving Confirmation is that the person is baptised. In Baptism the Christian becomes a child of God; through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus he receives the fruits of salvation and is gifted with fulfilment of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the strong foundation for our lives as Christians. Confirmation is closely connected with Baptism. It completes the grace of Baptism. The presence and the effects of the Holy Spirit are emphasized more in Confirmation than in Baptism. In Confirmation the baptized are gifted with the so-called overflowing grace of the Holy Spirit.
In Eastern Christianity the sacrament of Confirmation is given immediately after Baptism, and in the West these sacraments are separated by time from one another. In the East the priest who is baptising has always given Confirmation after Baptism. In the West, the distribution of the Sacrament of Confirmation has been reserved to the Bishop, who cannot always be present at Baptism. This practice has continued in the Western Church most of all because it gives the opportunity to instruct those to be confirmed in such a way that they can decide to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation out of their own conviction.
While the main element in Baptism is water, it is something human in Confirmation, the Bishop’s hand. During the sacrament of Confirmation the Bishop places his hand on the top of the head of the one to be confirmed, on whose forehead also he anoints with Holy Chrism and draws a cross. In many world religions there are significant moments when the religious leader places his hand on the believer’s head. In the Old Testament we are told how Jacob placed his hands on the heads of both of Joseph’s sons. This gesture indicates the flow of blessings, dispensation and consecration in some certain stage of life or to some position. Moses ordained Joshua as his successor by placing his hand on Joshua’s head.
Anointing with oil or balsam is an old tradition among the religions of the world. In ancient Egypt the pharaoh himself anointed important officials. The anointed was to radiate honour, glory and might. The kings of Israel were anointed to their tasks. The anointing by the prophets meant the blessing of God and the gifting of the Spirit of God. The last words of David were: “So says David, the anointed of Jacob’s God, the Spirit of the Lord speaks through me.” Anointing with oil is therefore anointing by the Spirit.
The anointed messiah is the great figure of hope and life, which Israel awaited. This great king of the last times was to be full to the core of God’s radiance, strength and holiness. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is that king and messiah. Through Confirmation Christians participate more deeply in the works of Jesus Christ and receive more completely the fulfilment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gifted his disciples with fullness of the Holy Spirit and made them participants of his own life, his radiance and his holiness. This gift of Christ, this pouring down of the Holy Spirit happened in a special way at Pentecost. We believe that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Confirmation to continue the pouring down of the Holy Spirit to the believers of all times. In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that the Holy Spirit was given to some believers, which we can interpret as the Sacrament of Confirmation. Receiving this sacrament is not just a short hardly noticed rite, which we may place among other things that have happened to us in the past. As a gesture it is unembellished in its simplicity, but the words that explain that gesture ”Receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” is a great promise to us. The Third Person of the triune God, the Holy Spirit, comes in all its fullness, strength and gifts into the life of the one confirmed. The seal of the Holy Spirit– a permanent spiritual mark pressed into the soul—means that the Christian belongs entirely to Christ.
In church we name these gifts of the Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge (of the truth), of piety and fear of the Lord. In the early Church many strong and unusual effects of the Holy Spirit were seen and experienced. The sick were cured, demons were cast out and other languages were spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit. These gifts of the Holy Spirit happen in our day. However the Holy Spirit gifts the everyday lives of the Christian who receives Confirmation with the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, forbearance, fidelity, humility and modesty. It is these fruits which nourish and build the person’s own life as well as those of the family, the parish, and the Church. Thus the effect of the holy Sacrament of Confirmation reaches into our whole life. Continually over and over again we can notice the effect of the Spirit of God in our lives.
The Holy Spirit does not, however, work automatically; rather He requires an active openness to it. With His power we can be an authentic witness of Christ by spreading and defending our faith through word and deed. As at Pentecost we must again stir up the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn within us, fire which we have received as a gift from the placing of the bishop’s –or sometimes an appointed priest’s–hand on our heads and by the anointing in Confirmation. We can do it by praying, by participating in the celebration of the Eucharist, by going to confession, by doing good to our neighbour—love is inventive and can be carried out in thousands of ways. And wouldn’t Lent be a good time to let the Holy Spirit cleanse our hearts and renew in us the gifts of the Holy Spirit which we received in the sacrament of Confirmation, and concretely put into practice that which we have received as gift? This would also be appropriate to the idea of the Year of Faith which we are now observing, to courageously proclaim the Gospel.
We are going toward Easter, the feast of the resurrection of Christ. But Easter does not consist purely of the great resurrection of Christ. The ascension of Christ into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost also belong to the Easter mystery. The Holy Spirit is that which strengthens our faith, arouses our joyful hope and with its love achieves in us works of love for our neighbour. May this Spirit give us the strength to witness this to all the people we meet. Amen.
+Teemu Sippo SCJ
Bishop of Helsinki