If you ask most people what the Sacrament of Confirmation is all about, they will usually say that it is an opportunity for people make their own commitment to God, a commitment that was made for them by their parents and godparents at their baptism. You’ll hear this kind of explanation from just about everybody, including bishops, little children, and everyone in between.
Now, that’s not entirely wrong (it is true that most people are baptized as infants, and most people are confirmed many years later), but that’s not what confirmation is really about. At most, it’s just a consequence of the different ages when baptism and confirmation are usually celebrated, but that age difference isn’t always present. Some people receive these two sacraments together. For example, when adults convert to Catholicism, they’re baptized and confirmed on the same day, and in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, infants receive baptism and confirmation together as well. Consequently, there isn’t always a large gap between baptism and confirmation, so there has to be something more to this sacrament.
To find out what that something more is, let’s look at the Scriptural roots of the sacrament and see what those roots can teach us. The Bible doesn’t say much about it, but the little it does say sheds tremendous light on the purpose of confirmation and can help us to understand it much better. Specifically, let’s look at two passages in the Acts of the Apostles that describe a post-baptismal reception of the Holy Spirit, a rite that we recognize today as the roots of the sacrament of confirmation:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to 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)
On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all. (Acts 19:5-7)
The Spirit After Baptism
In these passages, we see people receive the Holy Spirit in a special rite at some point after baptism, but the exact relationship of this rite to baptism isn’t immediately obvious. In the first passage, it seems like the Holy Spirit doesn’t come upon people when they’re baptized, but that’s not what Acts says elsewhere. Earlier in the book, after the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, Peter gives the first recorded Christian sermon, and he closes by telling his audience, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
So we see that baptism clearly does impart the Holy Spirit. Why, then, do some people seem to not receive the Holy Spirit when they’re baptized? It’s tough to figure out exactly what Luke (the author of Acts is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke) is trying to tell us, but he most likely means that this second rite somehow completes the reception of the Holy Spirit that began at baptism. In other words, these people’s baptisms were effective, but that was just the beginning. They needed to complete their reception of the Holy Spirit by having the Apostles lay their hands on them. Just like the Church says of confirmation, this laying on of the Apostles’ hands brought “an increase and deepening of baptismal grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1303).
Just Like Pentecost
Now, that’s a bit vague, so let’s look at the second passage to see what specific gifts this post-baptismal rite confers on people. In that episode, we see about twelve people receive the Holy Spirit and then speak in tongues and prophesy. If you’re familiar with Acts, this might call to mind the story of the first Christians receiving the Holy Spirit Pentecost. At that time, Jesus’ followers, about 120 in total (Acts 1:15), were gathered together when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to “speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:4). Then, Peter got up and preached the first recorded Christian sermon, the same one that we briefly looked at earlier.
However, there are a few key differences as well. At Pentecost, there were a lot more people, and nobody gave any prophecies. This might make us think that there is no meaningful comparison to make between these two events, but if we dig a bit deeper, we see that these apparent differences are actually similarities in disguise.
Twelve Times Ten
Let’s take the number of people first. At Pentecost, there were about 120 people, but in the confirmation passage, there are only twelve. While these are clearly different numbers, they’re related to each other. 120 is twelve times ten, which makes it a very symbolic number. See, in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was composed of twelve tribes, but by the time of Jesus, only a few of them remained (the others were exiled away from the land and assimilated into the Gentiles).
In the first century, the Jews were anxiously awaiting the restoration of all twelve tribes, and that’s one of the things Jesus came to accomplish (as symbolized by his choice of twelve Apostles). Consequently, when we see 120 people gathered together at the very beginning of the Church, it symbolizes a number of people (ten, to be exact) from every tribe; Luke is telling us that the Church is the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. Then, when we look at the confirmation passage, we see that there are twelve people there. This is obviously a much smaller group, but the number is still symbolic of the restoration of the twelve tribes, just like we see at Pentecost.
And in case there is any doubt, this is confirmed by the fact that in both instances, Luke tells us that he’s giving an approximation of the number of people present. At the beginning of Acts, he says that “the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15), and in our confirmation passage he says, “There were about twelve of them in all” (Acts 19:7). There weren’t exactly 120 people at Pentecost, and Paul didn’t lay his hands on exactly twelve people, but Luke rounds to these numbers because they’re highly symbolic (especially twelve; 120 is a nice, round number, but twelve is a weird one to round to). So when we understand the symbolic significance of these two numbers, we can see that they both symbolize the same thing: the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel.
But what about the second difference? We don't see anybody prophesying at Pentecost, so that seems to be a real difference. To understand what’s going on here, we need to know a bit about biblical prophecy. When we think of prophecy today, we normally think of telling the future, but that’s not necessarily what a prophet does in the Bible. That’s part of it, but there’s more to it than just that. In the Bible, a prophet is someone who speaks on God’s behalf, someone who communicates God’s will to people, and when we look at it this way, we can see that there clearly was prophecy at Pentecost.
After the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, Peter preached the Gospel in the first recorded Christian sermon. He spoke about what God had done in Jesus Christ and how God wanted people to respond to this good news, and that’s prophecy. So again, we see that what at first looked like a difference between Pentecost and the second confirmation passage is in fact another similarity: people prophesied at both events.
A Mini Pentecost
Once we understand all this, we can clearly see that Luke is in fact modeling this second confirmation passage on the events of Pentecost, which implies that when Paul laid his hands on these people and they received the Holy Spirit, this event was a mini Pentecost. Everything that happened to them also happened at Pentecost, so their reception of the Holy Spirit mirrored that of Pentecost as well. In other words, as the Church puts it in her teaching about confirmation, they received “the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1302).
This leaves us with one final question: what was Pentecost all about? To answer that, we need to go back to the first few verses of Acts, where Jesus tells his Apostles what to expect after he ascends into heaven. He tells them, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to empower them to witness to Jesus and spread the Gospel, so that’s also the special gift that people received when Paul and the Apostles lay their hands on them.
And that’s what confirmation is about as well. It’s not simply an opportunity to make our own commitment to God (although that is definitely part of it). No, this sacrament has its own purpose, one that has nothing to do with whether we made our own baptismal commitment or it was made for us by others. When we are confirmed, we experience our own mini Pentecost, and we receive a special gift of the Holy Spirit that completes the grace we were given at baptism and strengthens us to witness to Jesus Christ and spread the Gospel. As the Catechism puts it, confirmation gives us “a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1303).