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May 19, 2019 - 5th Sunday of Easter

This weekend our parish celebrates the Sacrament of Confirmation and it is always the occasion of a visit from one of the bishops of our Archdiocese.  This year we are delighted to welcome the newly-ordained Bishop Alex Aclan to our parish for the celebration.

The tradition of a bishop coming to the local community of faith to confirm is longstanding in our church, and goes back to a time when the church was growing rapidly, spreading from urban centers to more rural areas.  This coincided with the normalizing of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine.  Up until this time, people were initiated in the Church through the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist during the Easter Vigil.  This celebration was presided over by the bishop.

As the Church grew, it became impossible for the local bishops to be present everywhere to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation.  In the Latin church (of the West) the bishops delegated the responsibility to baptize to the presbyters (priests) of the local communities.  However, the bishops continued to reserve the laying on of hands and anointing to themselves.  They would do this when they visited the local communities.  In the Eastern Church, the bishops delegated the full initiation of the faithful to the presbyters, maintaining their connection to the sacraments by blessing the oil with which the faithful were anointed.  In these ways the tradition of the bishop’s role in the initiation of the faithful was preserved.  So while the Church of the East preserved the tradition of celebrating all three Sacraments of Initiation together, in the Latin Church there arose a tradition which saw Confirmation separated from Baptism.

At different times in the Church’s history, the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation took place at different ages. Again, as the church grew, bishops laid hands and anointed (Confirmed) whenever they visited with local communities.  By the Middle Ages, this increasingly took place in adolescence, and theologians began to write about Confirmation as a sacrament of maturation in the faith, corresponding to a physical and social development in the life of young men and women. Those who were confirmed were understood to be capable of living active and responsible Christian lives.  During this time, there also arose a language that suggested those to be confirmed were capable of defending the faith and of being “soldiers for Christ.” Interestingly, the tradition of slapping the face of those to be confirmed served to remind the confirmed that life’s battles were going to be challenging, and required a firm spiritual rigor.

Throughout this time, the Sacraments of Initiation continued to be celebrated in their original order: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.  However, in 1910 Pope St. Pius X moved the age for the reception of First Eucharist to the age of reason (7 years old,) and so Confirmation came to be celebrated later. Some of us may remember being confirmed in seventh or eighth grade, and since the mid ‘80’s, here in Los Angeles, the practice came to be the celebration of Confirmation in tenth or eleventh grade. Occasional debates about the most appropriate age for celebrating Confirmation take place from time to time, but it is important to remember that our understanding of the sacrament is grounded always in our initiation into life in Christ.

To celebrate Confirmation in our lives, individually and as a community, is to acknowledge that we are in a constant process of growing deeper and deeper in our relationship with Jesus.  Confirmation is less about “graduating” into some sense of ‘adulthood’ in the faith and it is more about committing ourselves to come to know Jesus better through reading the gospels and learning how to walk in His footsteps.  It is less about ‘finishing’ our sacraments, and more about deepening our awareness of how we encounter Jesus in and through the full sacramental life of the community of believers, the Church.  In a very real sense, Confirmation is the direct opposite of a ‘graduation’ in that it is about opening ourselves up to growing into life in Christ as one among many pilgrims on the journey of life.  We’re never ‘done,’ but rather, we are always ‘becoming’ better and better witness to Christ in how we choose to live in our words and in our actions.

Congratulations to our newly confirmed and to their families.  May the continuing journey into life in Christ ever be blessed.

 

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