If I were to ask you what a sacrament is, those of you who were educated with the Baltimore Catechism could probably rattle off, “A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” The sacraments were instituted by Christ. We didn’t make them up ourselves; they are as old as the Church itself. When we read the New Testament, we can see proof of that fact. We hear in the first reading that Peter and John went to the fledgling Christian community in Samaria. We are told that the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” So Peter and John “laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” That is, they gave them the Sacrament of Confirmation.
I think a lot of Catholics don’t properly understand the Sacrament of Confirmation. Many people believe that because most of us were baptized as infants, Confirmation is about us choosing to be Catholic. Except I would hope that we chose to be Catholic when we made our First Confession and First Communion. I would hope that we choose to be Catholic every day. Choosing to follow Christ isn’t a one-time thing but a choice we make every minute of every day. In addition, if Confirmation was about choosing to be Catholic, then there wouldn’t be any reason to confirm people who are baptized as adults. For example, why did Peter and John confirm the people in the first reading if Confirmation is just about choosing to be Christians?
I think part of the problem is the name of the sacrament. We hear “Confirmation” and we think, “This is me confirming my faith in Jesus.” But the sacraments aren’t my work; they’re God’s work. This isn’t about me confirming my faith in God, but God confirming me. If you look up the word “confirm” in the dictionary, one of the definitions is, “to make firm or firmer: to strengthen.” That is what the Sacrament of Confirmation is about, God strengthening us, making us firmer in the faith.
And it is God strengthening us for a purpose. Think of Pentecost. After Christ ascended into heaven, the Apostles were afraid. They locked themselves in a room. Then, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon them, and gave them the courage to go preach. That is what Confirmation is about. In Confirmation, God gives us the strength to be His witnesses. Listen to what St. Peter says in our second reading: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” That’s our call, at all times to be able and willing to give testimony to Christ. But that is difficult. Often, when faced with an opportunity to give witness to Christ, we are like the Apostles after the Ascension. We are afraid and nervous; we shrink back in fear. Rather than being bold in preaching the Good News, we hide it away, like the disciples locked in the upper room. If we are going to always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our hope, we need help. We need God’s grace to strengthen us so that we can overcome our insecurity and fear.
And God gives us that grace in Confirmation. God not only gives us grace, but He gives us Himself; He gives us the Holy Spirit. As Christ says in the Gospel today, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth.” That Advocate is the Holy Spirit. He is with us always to fill us with the truth as well as with the courage to bear witness to the truth. That is what God gives us at Confirmation. He strengthens us so that we can be His witnesses.
So if that’s the case, that God has given us the strength to be His witnesses, why are we still afraid at times to do it? Why do we still shrink back in fear and hesitation? Because God’s grace isn’t going to overpower us. God always respects our free will. So while He has given us the strength we need to be bold witnesses to Him, we have to use that grace. When my parents got married, someone gave them a silver tea set. It is an intrinsically very nice and valuable gift. But it has sat in a box in their basement for 40 years, never used. Too often, God’s grace is like that silver tea set. It is something valuable, but we put it on a shelf rather than use it. Likewise, for many of us, the grace of our Confirmation has been sitting on a shelf. If maybe that’s the case for you, I encourage you, ask God to help you use the grace that He has given you. Ask the Holy Spirit to fan into flame the grace of your Confirmation, so that you may be bold witnesses to Christ.
Now, I should add one caveat. Often, when we think of being bold in proclaiming Christ, we can think that means what I call bull-in-a-china-shop evangelizations. I’ve met plenty of people who are very fervent and genuine in their faith and their desire to share the faith, but the way they do it is more likely to push people away rather than draw them in. Listen again to St. Peter in our second reading, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” Confirmation not only gives us the grace to be bold in our witness to Christ, but to also do so with gentleness and reverence. We should be bold in love, courageous in gentleness. That is what it means to truly be witnesses to Christ.
As we approach the celebration of Pentecost in two weeks, let us ask God to strengthen us in the grace of our Confirmation. Let us ask the Spirit of truth to renew His gifts in us, so that we may always be ready to proclaim the Good News of our hope in Christ.