The history of the Sacrament of Confirmation and the Sacrament of Baptism are intertwined. In the beginning of the life of the Church it was normal for the Sacrament of Confirmation to be celebrated immediately following baptism, which is still the practice today when an adult is baptized, however, since infant baptism is the more prevalent reality, we see confirmation being celebrated later in life, sometimes years after a person has been baptized. This is an historical reality which grew out of the nature of confirmation itself. The ordinary minister of confirmation is the bishop. In the years of the early Church, when the Church was very small, it was the bishop who would do all of the baptisms and thereby all the confirmations in his diocese, but as the Church grew in size and expanded geographically it was no longer possible for the bishop to baptize every single person in his diocese. So, baptisms were celebrated by priests, who were in charge of the local parishes, and when the bishop would visit that town or that parish would confirm whomever was in need of confirmation. Since his visits were sporadic and travel was hard, there was no codified time for confirmation, it would simply happen when the opportunity came. Over time, as travel became easier, the time for confirmation was defined and would take place, usually on an annual visit, when the bishop would make his way to a parish or village and confirm those who were ready for confirmation at that time. We see this practice continued today.
But what of the scriptural roots of Confirmation? We can discern a number of references to a distinct Sacrament of Confirmation in the scriptures. We can begin first with Jesus’ own promise that He would send the Holy Spirit upon believers after His death (cf. John 16.8) and that the Spirit would guide His people “into all truth” (John 16.13). This promise is fulfilled at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends upon the Apostles gathered with the Blessed Mother. This promise however is not only for the Apostles, but for all who walk in the pathways of discipleship. We hear in the Acts of the Apostles of St. Philip the Apostle who makes his way to Samaria and there preaches the gospel and people are baptized. However, it isn’t until later that they receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8.14-17). So we can see that not only does confirmation fulfill the promise of the Lord to send the Holy Spirit to His disciples, but we see that baptism and confirmation are two separate sacraments. Notice too how the Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the laying on of hands and prayer. We will look more closely on how confirmation is conferred in our next article.
(This article is part of a series of articles on The Sacraments which will appear in the bulletin over the course of this year.)