In my last note to you I described the wonderful, simple confirmation ceremony for two young ladies during our meditation hour a week ago Sunday, the 3rd. And in that I mentioned the simple blessing that is the very heart of the rite. I said I wanted to write something about it. So this is it.
First, the Rite we use at Easter is a recent renewal of the really ancient rite to prepare new Christians for their baptism going back to the days of the Roman Empire. We didn’t have them when I was ordained. But they were resurrected and renewed by the Vatican Council in the mid 1960s as a “resource” to be used by the local churches. The prayer that is used in the rite is surprisingly short. It merits comment. And to do that I have to write it out first, which I am doing here. It is addressed to one person, but here I write it out as ‘them’ which is how we do it commonly.
I was lucky enough years ago in my work as an editor in New York to spend a few hours interviewing the German scholar, in the US for a short visit, who actually spent years doing all the scholarly work that went into restoring this wonderful, human and poetic rite, which is now common in this and all countries and looked on as one of the most important actions by the Council.
One of his comments during that interview really stuck with me. He made clear that “this rite is only a resource. A resource to be adapted for local use in a very diverse church. But you Americans, you always seem to turn resources into absolute laws. Everyone has to do it all the same…” Obviously he did not see that as a virtue. He was also fortunate to miss another of our prime American Catholic idiocies, turning the church’s rites into programs. The prime example probably is our turning of this Rite of Initiation into the “RCIA Program,” so instead of being received sacramental into the Church you ‘go through the RCIA.’
So, in my sacramental ministry here I am happy to adapt to the needs of the parish peoples and their obviously different situations. And now, of course, in the face of the restrictions placed on our mobility as a protection against the Coronavirus epidemic that adapting is a daily reality. The prayer I quote here envisages that we are at the very end of the Easter Vigil. And that the people to be confirmed are standing at the altar facing the celebrant, who then addresses them.
“All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit you have freed your sons and daughters from sin and given them new life.
Now send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.”
These gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the blessing are human qualities that mark people who are in the wonderful process of taking charge of their own lives. For the word ‘confirmation’—Latin in its origin—can be understood in our way of speaking as a sort of personal ‘strengthening up’ or ‘getting our lives solidly together.’ Firming up is personal, and because it is personal it is the opposite of going through common rituals as an almost magical way to be fit into someone else’s pre-set system. We had plenty of that Komitet Goz-required initiation into the Komsomol in Lithuania and the Soviet world, and the Hitlerjugend in Germany.
Confirmation is so different. Unlike some church party-line it means taking the challenge that is placed on them as individuals. A challenge to take charge of their own lives—obviously in their own way, since it’s the only one they’ve got. And to figure out how the qualities mentioned in the wonderful prayer, qualities inherent in their own nature, can be ready resources for this newer life. They are tough and demanding resources to exercise. Wisdom, courage, understanding, human knowledge. We hope that they will lead them, who and what each one is, toward a state of readiness for that life that sets humans apart. Apart because in their lives they are more acting than acted upon, in Aquinas’s wonderful image. Making good judgments. Not just judgments—but good judgments. Making good judgments is an individual activity. No one is in our head with us. We make our judgments alone. And that is very different from going with the flow.
As I wrote earlier, when we talk today about ‘getting back to normal’ and all those other ways that assume this whole mess will eventually be behind us, that is not going to happen. Not in the church, not in our families, and not in the places and situations where we work. I suspect that we are going to have to build again. We did it after, the Depression. But we had the War to force us into that building for our very survival. Now the church, especially, will need ears, imagination, and courage.
I believe that this prayer for Confirmation was developed when the Church was still living in the remains of the Roman worlds and their painful persecutions. I hope it can be helpful for us now. For our own world also now has its own gentle tortures that quietly cut away the bases for people’s trust and hope in the humane life they have worked for so long and so hard.