by Stephen Dean
THE reform of the liturgy was taken a step nearer its completion when the revised rite of Confirmation appeared last summer. The advent of this particular new rite prompts some reflections on the relation of liturgy and dogma to life.
Liturgy, after all, is the time when we live and make vocal the faith which is worked out by experience and speculation, and which we carry around with us wherever we go. Ideally, then, we should make the liturgy. At the present time of reform it is truer to say that it is making us; the fortunate few who have had theological training are passing on the fruits of their work.
However, the fact that we go to church and perform certain actions should mean that we are aware of what is going on. In the case of confirmation it is not all that certain if we do. Oh yes, it is a special event; the visit of the bishop provides a diversion, the children are glad to be in the limelight. This, however, is all I can remember of my own confirmation, except for a few of the laboriously memorised catechism answers. Since the big day I have hardly thought about it at all, and I imagine this is the experience of most people.
To compare this apparent non-event with Pentecost seems ludicrous, and yet this is one of the models for our understanding of the Holy Spirit, and thus of confirmation. The fact is that we are unlikely to have a Pentecost in our lives, and if we are lucky enough to do so, it will be an unasked-for
experience, the time of whose occurrence we cannot control.
We must look beyond the drama in the story of Pentecost to see the significance of it. It shows the coming of the Spirit (promised by Jesus) to be a definite event in the lives of the first Christians, raising them out of the inaction which was taking hold of them. Before, they had no comprehension of what they were to do; afterwards, they immediately began to preach to the populace, with stunning results, the very first proclamation of the Christian message.
This event, the coming of the Spirit, is described elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles in the case of individual believers. What we have come to call Confirmation is thus, like the other sacraments, the re-enacting of some event or truth.
So we look to Pentecost as the most outstanding manifestation of the corning of the Spirit; and the best way of understanding our task seems to be to proclaim the love and truth of God which we have seen in Jesus. But "maturity," as far as we are concerned, is not possible in the twinkling of an eye, or with the rush of a mighty wind. It is the painful, lengthy process by which every human being has to pull himself out of his childhood -into adult -life.
The introduction to the new rite thus presents Confirmation in the context of growing up. Just as we are not born fully men, so we are not baptised fully Christians. Not until we have shared in the Eucharist are we fully members of the body of Christ, and not until the Spirit has moved us can we take part in the outgoing activity of the Church. These three truths are enshrined in what are called the Sacraments of Initiation; and the Council in its brief to the liturgists stressed that it should be made clear that Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist should be thought of together as part of the same progress.
The first words of the Pope's Apostolic Constitution which prefaces the rite arc as follows: "The sharing in the divine nature which is granted to men through the grace of Christ has a certain likeness to the origin, development and nourishing of the natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation and finally are sustained by the food of eternal life in the Eucharist. By means of these sacraments of Christain initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of divine life and advance towards the perfection of charity."
Details of the rite itself strengthen this link; for instance the renewal of baptismal promises with which it begins, and the fact that the candidate's godparents can also act as sponsors at confirmation.
So far this is quite clear; we grow up as men, we grow up as Christians. Confusion arises as soon as we have to decide more or less arbitrarily when to celebrate these events. Baptism at infancy has been the custom since time immemorial. As the individual's faculties and capacity for understanding develop he is initiated further into his religion; but when? In the East, confirmation takes place immediately after infant
baptism, but in the west it has become separated and since about the 13th century has been fixed at seven years or the "Age of the use of reason."
The climate of opinion in the Church has led to some dissatisfaction with Confirmation at such an early age. Mere adherence to religion is not encouraged; we talk in terms of commitment. Confirmation is seen as an opportunity to express this commitment, when we start our full Christian life with our eyes open. The new rite does not attempt to end this divergence of opinion; it keeps the age at seven but allows bishops' conferences to decide on a later date if they wish.
If the difficulty of the age of seven is that it does not permit full understanding on the child's part, this is not, however, removed except in part by changing the age to 12, 14 or even 17. In faot the only way of making the sacrament correspond to the occasion of full commitment would be to give up the attempt to fix an age at all, because commitment cannot be forced on anybody. We would ask for Confirmation when we wanted it.
What we rather need, if we are to keep the present practice, is to drop the language of "soldiers of Jesus Christ" etc. as referring to children who obviously cannot commit themselves as such, and present Confirmation in the light of a help on the way to maturity. As the new document says, quoting Tertullian, "The body is signed, that the soul too may be fortified; the body is overshadowed by the laying-on of hands, that the soul too may be enlightened by the Spirit." To do this we need a better understanding of the Holy Spirit as part of the life of the Christian. The words of the new rite, borrowed from the Eastern church, are very significant: "Receive the gift of the seal of the Holy Spirit." It may be many years after confirmation before we reach a state corresponding to that of the apostles at Pentecost, if we ever do, but the Spirit is working all the time. Rather than telling people that they are committed, should we not acknowledge that God gives us his Spirit to bring us to such a state, to form our minds to utter that commitment?
This leads to further ques tions still, about the nature of freedom itself. Many people never in fact attain freedom as individuals and their commitment, if they make it, is in complete (even if they are not aware of this.) This is so even if the gift of the Spirit is working in them.
Confirmation is not magic, therefore, nor is giving it to
children or adolescents a
sinister indoctrination, unless we over-emphasise our own part. The freedom of the individual is a matter between himself and God and only on this basis can -it develop.
Our practice of confirmation can only thus be made sense of if we concentrate on looking out for the presence of the Spirit, something which we are relatively untrained for. The
Church's job is to pass orf the Spirit, the free gift of God, and
from then on to live in an at mosphere of the Spirit. This means carrying the memory of our confirmation with us instead of relegating it to the past.