Life Illumined


This essay appeared in The Tablet of 23 March

The word ‘confirmation’ means, well, what it says: it denotes an action that strengthens and ratifies. Through this sacrament, God develops and makes definite a gift received in baptism. Candidates for confirmation declare their readiness to receive this gift and to live out its implications. They profess that they are full members of the Church’s communion, prepared to assume responsibility for it. At least in principle. 

In practice, alas, confirmation is often regarded at best as a formality, at worst as the conclusion of a young person’s Catholic trajectory, pursued thus far under parental constraint. There is pertinence in the sour clerical joke which refers to confirmation as ‘the last rite’. It matters all the more to focus on what this rite means, on what it accomplishes. Its significance is spelt out in the formula spoken by the bishop before he confers the sacrament. The liturgical translation is vague, so I venture to provide my own: 

Beloved, let us pray to God, the almighty Father, that he in his goodness would pour out his Holy Spirit on these adopted children of his, already reborn to eternal life in baptism. May the Spirit confirm them with the abundance of his gifts. May the Spirit, by his anointing, perfectly conform them to Christ, the Son of God. 

It is affirmed that rebirth in the Spirit has already taken place. Those awaiting confirmation have been freed from sin’s enslavement. They have by grace received a capacity for life eternal. What is about to take place is a strengthening through the Spirit’s abundant gifts, named in their sevenfold perfection as ‘the Spirit of Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.’ The Spirit’s anointing is enacted by chrism, an ennobling substance whose purpose is configuration to Christ, God’s Son. The outpouring of the Spirit has a Christocentric finality. The confirmed are to become Christlike and Christbearing. They are called to transformation, entrusted with a task. 

How might this call, this mission be articulated? 

The Scriptural text of reference in confirmation Masses is the account of Pentecost from Acts (2.1-13) with its tongues of flames and its speaking in tongues. Wonderful lessons can be drawn from it. Yet the chances are that the Biblically estranged will find these apostolic phenomena too far out, beyond their reach, and possibly quite terrifying. It is helpful, then, to consider how the Apostles’ proto-anointing was prepared and what were its effects, to enquire what Christomorphic life in the Spirit looks like over time. 

We are struck by the new-found courage of the Twelve. After Pentecost, they proclaim the resurrection in the face of brutal sanctions. They say, ‘Obedience to God comes before obedience to men’ (Acts 5.29), a statement made at considerable risk. This courage commands respect. It commands astonishment, too, when we reflect that the same group not long before sat huddled behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 21:19), terrified of meeting the very same authorities they now openly challenge.

The Apostles’ confirmation in the Spirit enabled such parrhesia. But let us not imagine that courage inevitably flows from a sacred rite, then or now.

The Spirit is God. God is no impersonal energy or automatic potency. He is a personal presence. To let a person into our lives, we must make a free decision. 

We may invade another person’s attention and time. We may assail their nerves. But a relationship on these terms remains external. To gain access to another’s heart, I need to be admitted freely; even as I am free to admit, or not, another to my heart. 

Not even God can force his way into my heart if I decide to close it. Our freedom at this level is absolute. That is part of the mystery of faith. No one can force us to love. No one can force us to be loved. And love is the foundation of our relationship with God.

Anointing with the Spirit presupposes the opening of hearts to love. A human heart cannot be prised open. It opens gradually, like a mussel revealing its pearl. The Apostles’ hearts were carefully unsealed during the time between the Pasch and Pentecost. At first, after the trauma of Calvary, they sought to reestablish their lives as they had been before. They went fishing (John 21.3). That is, they returned to what they had been doing before their encounter with Jesus, which they thought had ended in a lamentable flop.

Yet there in the boat, in their reclaimed autonomy, the Lord sought them out. They saw with their own eyes that he who had been dead is alive. They ascertained that he is trustworthy, even in seemingly impossible matters. In the Gospel account, the relief of Peter and his friends is palpable. 

Within their joy, however, floats a dark cloud, Peter’s cloud.

Peter cannot forget that the last time he saw Jesus he publicly said, not just once, but three times: ‘I’ve no idea who he is.’ Nothing is harder to bear than the knowledge that I have betrayed someone I love, who loves me. How can Peter rejoice in the fact that Jesus is alive, and receive his Spirit, when he knows he has let him down cruelly?

Jesus knows what goes on in Peter’s heart. He does not accuse him. Neither does he sweep the matter under an oriental rug. What he does do is this: he touches Peter’s wound in such a way that it can heal. He asks three times, ‘Do you love me?’. Thrice Peter is enabled to annul his denial. Peter comes across nervous, cowed, as if expecting a lash of the whip. What he meets instead is mercy. What is mercy? Readiness to look on others without illusions, conscious of their faults, and yet to love them.

Most of us struggle to believe we can be loved. We suppose that we, in order to be loveable, must first become something we are not. We make masks for ourselves. We try to appear the way we think we ought to be. Our true face we keep out of view. We think: If anyone saw that, they would run a mile, and despise me.

Peter found, on behalf of us all, that it need not be like that. Jesus saw his sin and loved him nonetheless. Thus he let Peter discover that he was still able to love. This was the source of the courage he showed thenceforth, from the day of Pentecost right into old age, when he freely laid down his life at Aquae Salviae.

And this is the essence of what confirmation in the Spirit is about. To be anointed with the Spirit is to be seen and loved in truth for what I am and for what I have it in me to become, in order, then, to base my life on love. Jesus calls the Spirit ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 16.13). To be confirmed is to pledge to found our existence on truth. God seals this purpose with his gift, enabling us to enter a covenant of faithfulness with him.

When life becomes serious, and it does, we need beacons to steer by, criteria to judge by. We need to tell the difference between black and white, truth and falsehood, good and evil. This challenge is urgent in our day. Europe is at war. We hear threats we thought the world would never hear again. No one knows what will happen. We are surrounded by influences wishing to steer and deceive us. We must choose sides, choose whom and what to obey. This holds not least for the young. The choices facing them are momentous. They need to know what they stand for.

In my experience, most of them realise this. They seek reliable coordinates. It is the Church’s task, yours and mine, to bear witness that the grace of confirmation is one such; or rather, that it is the unfailing compass by which we can coordinate everything else. 

I am tired of moans about the lapsing of the young. If the young leave the Church, it is not on account of bad will. It is because the claims of Christians seem irrelevant to the trials that await them. This calls for self-examination on the part of those of us who are adult Catholics. Do we live our Christ-conformed life in such a way that we merit the trust of the young? In this season we should not just observe their confirmation. We should confirm our own anointing, reviving graces received. 

We have declared once for all that we wish to do combat on the side of truth and mercy, under the banner of the Cross, in the power of the Spirit. We received the Spirit’s gift through the Church in the form of a cross traced on our forehead with sacred chrism. Let us be faithful to this sign, manifesting its promise. 

What our time needs is not more mushy rhetoric but confirmed witnesses. 

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, confirm your brethren (Luke 22.31-2).

The repentant St Peter by El Greco, now in The Phillips Collection