Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sacrament of Confirmation -- CCD Class One

A new year of CCD begins today. We have approximately eight weeks to prepare for Confirmation, which is scheduled for mid-November.

It is fair to say that Confirmation is one of the least understood and, therefore, most overlooked of the sacraments. Holy Communion (the Eucharist) is a great mystery, but at the same time it is fairly easy to grasp – it is the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Likewise, Baptism is easy to understand, it essentially wipes away Original Sin, while Confession wipes away our individual sins. Each of these confers graces upon us. The ultimate meaning of these sacraments is said to be unfathomable, but most of us can understand the essentials fairly quickly. But what of Confirmation?

What is the Sacrament of Confirmation all about? Why is it a sacrament? And what does it do? Why should one need or want to receive the sacrament? The Catechism says that Confirmation completes what began in Baptism, bringing an increase and deepening of graces, and a fullness of the Holy Spirit. What does that mean?

This description points us in the right direction, but it often only raises more questions. Don’t we already receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism? And don’t we receive graces all the time simply by praying to God for such assistance? What does Confirmation give us that we don’t already have or can’t get elsewhere?

It is fair to say that, today, most Catholics could not tell you the meaning of Confirmation. Some might give you the above description from the Catechism without understanding what it means, others might tell you that it is an entrance into adulthood, a kind of Catholic bar mitzvah, and others might have no idea about the meaning of Confirmation. Many will simply scratch their heads and admit that they do not understand why the Church says it is so important. As a result, many Catholics today, if not most, do not fully benefit from the Sacrament of Confirmation. The graces received simply sit there, unused due to lack of understanding.

To understand why Confirmation is so very important, so crucial and imperative to us, not simply as one of those religious or cultural milestones in life, like a high school graduation, but so very important to us in our everyday lives, to arrive at a correct answer to the mystifying question of what Confirmation is, as an example, it might be helpful to consider in context how it changed the faithful at Pentecost.

In the book of Acts, we read that the Holy Spirit descended on the faithful at Pentecost. Before then, the Apostles and disciples had largely abandoned Jesus – they ran away when Jesus was arrested, and they hid in fear when Jesus was tried and crucified. Even after the resurrection, they were afraid to go out in public. Also, before then, the Apostles and disciples often struggled with understanding the teachings that Jesus handed on to them. More than once, Jesus had to correct them.

But after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost, after their “confirmation,” they were given the grace and strength and perseverance to go out and spread the Good News and even endure persecution. With these graces of the Holy Sprit, especially the gift of fortitude, they were able to do what they otherwise could not do on their own. It is by such graces of the Holy Spirit that the Apostles and others were even able to endure sufferings, tortures, and martyrdom on behalf of the love and truth of Christ. And it was after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost that the Apostles and disciples began to fully comprehend the teachings of Jesus, even remembering small details, so that they could faithfully preach the Gospel to the world, as well as to write these details down, which we now know as the New Testament. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Faith was able to spread despite fierce persecution and opposition.

So, too, your Confirmation will change you if you allow it to be so. Your reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation will strengthen you, and you will be made “soldiers of Christ” in order to fulfill your duty of witnessing to and defending the Faith, and fighting against evil. Just as when the Spirit descended upon the faithful at Pentecost, we too are given the strength and grace and perseverance to go out and spread the Good News and withstand hardship.

Now, it may also appear after receiving the Sacrament that nothing has happened, that you are the same as before. If no one breaks out speaking in tongues like they did at Pentecost, you may be tempted to conclude that you have not received any graces. But do not be misled by such superficial appearances. By the Sacrament, your very being is altered in a fundamental way, the essence of who and what you are is changed. As with the Eucharist, you may look the same, but you are radically transformed; an indelible spiritual mark or seal is left. This seal of the Holy Spirit marks our total belonging to Christ. We may not notice because sin and the contemporary world have so corrupted us that we cannot always immediately recognize God’s presence within us. But He is present nonetheless.

If even only as a seed, the Holy Spirit, if you accept Him at Confirmation and throughout your life, will dwell within you and graces will grow within you, and, like the Apostles, disciples, martyrs, and saints, you will be able to do that which is impossible to do on your own.

Again, the Holy Spirit allows us to do the impossible. Not only did He allow the weak and terrified Apostles to come out of hiding and bravely and loudly proclaim the Gospel, not only did He allow the persecuted, such as Saints Lawrence and Polycarp and Perpetua and Felicity, to gladly endure the suffering of martyrdom — something that otherwise would be unthinkable and not humanly possible — the grace of the Holy Spirit allows us to what we otherwise could not humanly do, including that which is perhaps the most impossible thing to do at times — forgive the unforgiveable, forgive the debt that can never be paid.

Sometimes it is, for all practical purposes, impossible for us to forgive. Some hurts are just too large, some injuries are just too great (or sometimes we allow ourselves to get so self-centered that even little injuries seem great) that it is humanly impossible for us to forgive. But with God, all things are possible, and by His grace, we can do that which is impossible too.

An excellent example of this is told by Immaculee Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide while the rest of her family was hacked to death, along with hundreds of thousands of others. Eventually, the man who had led the group that killed members of her family was caught, and the jailer who held him allowed Immaculee to confront him (and take her revenge). But, as the murderer knelt before her, she wept at the sight of his suffering. And when the jailer shouted at the killer and hauled him to his feet, Immaculee touched his hands lightly and quietly said, “I forgive you.”

The forgiveness she gave did not come entirely from Immaculee. She wrote that her book, Left to Tell, “is the story of how I discovered God during one of history’s bloodiest holocausts.” And this discovery, this lesson, forever changed her. “It is a lesson that, in the midst of mass murder, taught me how to love those who hated and hunted me — and how to forgive those who slaughtered my family.”

Forgiveness is sometimes easy for us, but sometimes it is impossible for us. Some crimes are simply too great. But God gives us the power to do the impossible. The graces of the Holy Spirit allow us to endure and withstand hardship and carry those crosses which are far too heavy for humans to carry. These graces allow us to do the impossible of accepting suffering, so as to transform it by the power of the Cross.

Because we are tainted by sin, we tend to love only imperfectly. Our concept of love is often interfused with selfishness. But the graces of the Holy Spirit that we receive in Confirmation allow us to do what is humanly impossible – love as God loves, truly, perfectly, and fully. These graces allow us to overcome our temptations and control those passions that we cannot otherwise control, so that we may more easily fulfill our purpose of pursuing a life of love and truth. These graces allow us to more easily see, not as humans see, but as God sees.

If you accept in your heart and cooperate with the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit that are imparted by the Sacrament, you will be affected in a particular way, that is, by working with the gifts given to you, you will bear certain “fruits” of the Holy Spirit. By embracing the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, we are more able to experience the fruits of love (charity), joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Likewise, these gifts help a person attain sanctification and bring to perfection virtues -- both the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance).

But a gift, any gift, is not completed and is completely useless unless it is accepted by the recipient. If a gift is returned to sender, or is simply put in a closet, unopened, it is as if it was never received. This ability to “do the impossible” is not automatic. Rather, it is necessary that you accept those graces and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Although Confirmation alters our very nature by leaving an indelible spiritual mark upon us, grace from God presupposes nature, it does not replace it. In conferring grace, God does not simply wipe out our humanity; He does not impose Himself upon us against our will and treat us as puppets. Rather, grace builds on our nature and works within it to heal, perfect, elevate, and transform that nature.

We must allow the Holy Spirit and gift of grace to come into our hearts, and not simply set that grace aside and ignore it. If we resist and ignore those graces, if we shut ourselves off from the Truth and Love which are the Holy Spirit, then life becomes much harder and unsatisfactory. If we turn away from the Light, it is much more difficult to find our way through life in the darkness.

As St. Ambrose wrote, “Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God's presence. Guard what you have received. God the Father has marked you with his sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed his pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts.”

The chrism oil that is the sign of this sacrament is sanctified by Jesus and the Cross. Indeed, the word “Christ” means “anointed one,” and in Confirmation, we too are anointed, so that we are made fully Christian ourselves. Confirmation does not mark the end of the process of religious education; Confirmation instead radically changes us, such that it is the beginning of a new life in the Faith.

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