Three years. That’s how long the apostles were with Jesus. That’s how long they spent taking in his teaching and watching him perform amazing miracles.
Storms were calmed, dead people came back to life, demons were routed, and bread was multiplied. For three years, they learned about turning the other cheek, about loving one another, about God’s overflowing mercy, and about the promise of eternal life. They even went out two-by-two and performed miracles and healings themselves in Jesus’ name! Clearly they had experienced a profound conversion and were dedicated to God.
But as godly as the apostles were, the story of Jesus’ passion tells us that they still had a long way to go. At the Last Supper they argued over which one of them was the greatest. Later that night, they slept right through Jesus’ agony in the garden. And when he was arrested, they all ran away. Peter even denied that he had ever met Jesus!
So how did these well-trained but still frail men become the fearless pioneers we see in the Book of Acts? How did they find the courage to preach the gospel and build the church in the face of fierce opposition? The answer is twofold. First, they saw Jesus, the risen Lord, on Easter Sunday. And second, the Holy Spirit was released in their lives on Pentecost Sunday.
“Something More.” This twofold answer can help us understand the Sacrament of Confirmation. Like the disciples, we may have met Jesus and learned many things from him. We may have been baptized into his church and had some experiences of his love. But we still need the power of his Spirit—the grace of confirmation— if we want to live out his teachings faithfully. We still need his Spirit released in our lives if we want to experience all the joy, hope, and power that Jesus promised to give us.
This release of the Holy Spirit changed the apostles’ lives. It empowered and emboldened them. And not just the twelve: Many other people were filled with the Holy Spirit that day. In fact, the apostles considered this release of the Spirit to be so important that they made it a central part of their preaching. For example, in the Book of Acts, St. Luke tells us about believers in Samaria who had been baptized and converted. They had accepted Jesus and began to live together as a church. But when the apostles heard about this, they sent Peter and John to Samaria to lay their hands on the people and pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).
A few years later, when Paul traveled to Ephesus, he found some disciples who had heard of the preaching of John the Baptist but had yet to hear about Jesus. So Paul told them the rest of the story, and Luke tells us that Paul baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). But he didn’t stop there. Luke continues: “And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:6).
So even here, in the earliest days of the church, we see the roots of the Sacrament of Confirmation as a rite that was distinct from baptism. From the very beginning, the apostles and their successors took up the role of praying with new converts for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Outward Signs and Inner Changes. The church teaches that baptism is the sacrament of spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:5). At baptism the stain of original sin is removed, and we are made into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). But the church also teaches that baptism is just the beginning, and that confirmation is needed “for the completion of baptismal grace” (Catechism, 1285). It is through the Sacrament of Confirmation that the gifts we received in baptism are released in our lives. It is the Sacrament of Confirmation that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit that we received at our baptism.
As with all the other sacraments, confirmation is an outward sign that both signifies and brings about an inner change. What are the outward signs? We have already mentioned the laying on of hands and the prayer— gestures of solidarity with the bishop and the church as a whole. But before this happens, candidates are called upon to renew their baptismal vows, making their own clear proclamation of faith in Jesus and everything he has done. A final sign is the anointing with oil, or sacred chrism, as the bishop says: “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Following the Old Testament tradition, the oil is used to mark the candidates and set them apart for the Lord. What are the inner changes? As we said above, confirmation is meant to be a release of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and with this release comes the grace both to live the Christian life and to become witnesses for the Lord, proclaiming the gospel and defending the faith. Like the apostles on Pentecost, we are empowered and emboldened to build the kingdom of God.
Unpacking the Gift. It’s one thing to talk about being empowered and emboldened, but it’s another to look at how the Spirit gives us this power and courage. We can’t think that he simply turns on a switch and magically transforms us into superapostles! No, the Spirit works more deeply and intimately than that. And he does it by giving us different gifts that help build a godly character in us—gifts that propel us out into the world with the good news of the gospel.
Chief among these gifts are the seven “sanctifying gifts” that are mentioned in Isaiah 11: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2-3). Through four of these gifts—wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel—the Spirit helps us to think as God thinks. They help us take on “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). He gives us the other three gifts—courage, piety, and fear of the Lord—to help us make choices that are pleasing to God and that help build up his church.
Throughout the Book of Acts, we see the apostles and others displaying these gifts. Peter and John, for instance, caught the elders of Jerusalem off-guard by their bold and passionate preaching of the gospel. Here were two “uneducated” men speaking clearly about Jesus and healing people in his name (Acts 4:13). Paul demonstrated the gifts of wisdom and knowledge every time he visited a new town and began preaching and establishing a new church (Acts 13:14-49; 17:10-12). James demonstrated counsel and fear of the Lord when he helped settle an early dispute about Gentile Christians and cleared the way for non-Jews to become Christians (15:13-22). It seems as if everyone in the church allowed these gifts of the Spirit to influence them and help them preach the gospel!
St. Paul probably summed it up the best when he told the believers in Corinth that it is next to impossible to grow in holiness or bear witness to Christ if we rely only on our own wisdom and abilities. We need to think with God. We need to be taught by his Spirit. We need the Spirit’s gifts. We need him to give us the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:9-16).
An Abundance of Gifts. If there’s one thing that Scripture makes clear, it’s that the gifts of the Spirit are not limited to these seven! In his Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote about gifts like prophecy, service, teaching, encouragement, generosity, and leadership (Romans 12:6-8). He told the Ephesians that God “gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12). And the author of Hebrews tells of how God confirms the preaching of the gospel with “signs, wonders, various acts of power, and distribution of the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4).
In addition to these gifts, Paul also identifies another set of spiritual gifts, which have come to be called charismatic gifts. Paul says that the Spirit gives these gifts specifically for the building up of the church and the common good of all people. Though not an exhaustive list, Paul names nine of these gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
Just think about how generous the Holy Spirit is! He pours out all of these gifts, and even more, so that we can take a firmer hold of what Jesus did for us on the cross and share his good news with the people around us. He pours out gift upon gift so that everything we received at baptism can come to life for us. He gives us all these gifts so that we can experience life as a new creation and become his ambassadors in this world.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving. Confirmation may be a one-time event, a kind of rite of passage into adulthood. But the gifts and grace that God gives us in this sacrament are meant to stay with us and grow stronger all the time. As we play our part each day and learn how to yield to the Holy Spirit, we will find his gifts unfolding more and more in our lives. We will find ourselves maturing in our faith. And we will find ourselves ready, willing, and empowered to build his kingdom.