Confirmation, like the adolescents it is often conferred upon, is in awkward transition, a moveable feast among the seven sacraments celebrated by the Catholic church. Differing experts say it should be administered at baptism, or when a young person completes ordinary faith formation, or postponed as a rite of passage when a person reaches the maturity to freely choose the identity once accepted for them by others.
Life-stage catechists argue persuasively that confirmation has something to do with the critical threshold that opens human life to adulthood, when passive formation becomes self-direction, submission becomes acceptance of responsibility for the life of the community. As a sacrament, confirmation celebrates the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, God’s grace perfecting our natural gifts for the building up of the church.
For more on confirmation, see NCR's story: Views conflict on what age to confirm
In a culture where adolescence often seems delayed until it overlaps with midlife crisis, the meaning of confirmation gets murky. But one truth remains: Every organization needs adults. Adults are those who can look beyond their own needs to the needs of others, who find their fulfillment in serving goals bigger than themselves, and who are even willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the community.
An adult is an awesome thing, and when a generation of new adults brings fresh creativity and energy to existing structures, change is the result, and change creates tension. This is why a certain ambiguity is preserved in adult acceptance protocols as a way to control innovation even if it deflates youthful idealism. One might question if some institutions really want adults. Lee Judge, editorial cartoonist for The Kansas City Star, captured the dilemma in a recent cartoon depicting the fate of college graduates who are wildly encouraged by commencement speakers to “think outside the box,” only to find that their first job confines them to a cubicle.
In the church, confirmation ought to offer a countercultural message to those who receive it and accept its implications. You are ready for prime time, and we welcome you now to “full conscious, active participation” in the faith and mission of the community. This was the powerful message of the Second Vatican Council, which some equated with a historic confirmation by the Holy Spirit, a contemporary Pentecost intended to produce an adult church. The council breathed in the same intoxicating air of global transformation that ended colonial rule in the developing world, sparked liberation movements over race, gender, militarism and repressive governance. It marked a rite of passage that was celebrated but also rejected by many holding power. The church that gave us a generation of prophets and activists and watershed meetings in Medellín, Colombia, and in Detroit also experienced an internal backlash of control from the status quo.
Those who lived those heady days and the aftermath will leave behind their own witness to what adulthood in the church felt like. Others will record their role in halting its exuberance to restore the established order.
For all of us, something bigger than ourselves is now happening in our world. Whatever our reading of history or our ideological loyalties, this invites us all to a generous adulthood. It is the season for confirmation.
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”