Confirmation is a Sacrament in which, through the imposition of the Bishop's hands, unction and prayer, baptized persons receive the Holy Ghost, that they may steadfastly profess their faith and lead upright lives.
This Sacrament is called Confirmation, because it confirms or strengthens the soul by Divine grace. Sometimes it is named the laying on of hands, because the Bishop imposes his hands on those whom he confirms. It is also known by the name of Chrism, because the forehead of the person confirmed is anointed with chrism in the form of a cross.
Frequent mention is made of this Sacrament in the Holy Scripture. In the Acts it is written that "When the Apostles who were in Jerusalem had heard that Samaria had received the Word of God they sent unto them Peter and John, who, when they were come, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Ghost; for He was not yet come upon any of them, but they were only baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." [Acts viii. 14-17.]
It is also related that the disciples at Ephesus "were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and when Paul had imposed his hands upon them the Holy Ghost came upon them and they spoke tongues and prophesied." [Acts xix. 5, 6.]
In his Epistle to the Hebrews St. Paul enumerates Confirmation, or the laying on of hands, together with Baptism and Penance, among the fundamental truths of Christianity. [Heb. vi. 1, 2.]
To the Corinthians he writes: "He that confirmeth us with you in Christ, and that hath anointed us, is God; who also hath sealed us and given the pledge of the Spirit in our hearts." [II. Cor. I. 21.] God confirmeth us in faith; He hath anointed us by spiritual unction, typified by the sacred chrism which is marked on our foreheads. He hath sealed us by the indelible character stamped on our souls, which is indicated by the sign of the cross impressed upon us. He hath given pledge of the Holy Ghost in our hearts, by the testimony of a good conscience, as an earnest of future glory. The Bishop performs the external unction, but God, "who worketh all in all," sanctifies the soul by His secret operation.
It cannot be asserted that the laying on of hands and the graces which followed from it, as recorded in the Acts, were not intended to be continued after the Apostles' times, for there is no warrant for such an assumption. This function of imposing hands formed as regular and imperative a part of the Apostolic ministry as the duties which they exercised in preaching, baptizing, ordaining, etc. Hence the successors of the Apostles in the nineteenth century have precisely the same authority and obligation to confirm as they have to preach, to baptize or to ordain.
Those who were confirmed by the Apostles usually gave evidence of the grace which they received by prophecy, the gift of tongues and the manifestation of other miraculous powers. It may be asked; Why do not these gifts accompany now the imposition of hands? I answer: Because they are no longer needed. The grace which the Apostolic disciples received was for their personal sanctification. The gift of tongues which they exercised was intended by Almighty God to edify and enlighten the spectators, and to give Divine sanction to the Apostolic ministry. But now that the Church is firmly established, and the Divine authority of her ministry is clearly recognized, these miracles are no longer necessary. St. Gregory illustrates this point by a happy comparison: As the sapling, he says, when it is first planted is regularly watered by the gardener, who softens the earth around it, that the sun and the moisture may nourish its roots until it takes deep root and it no longer requires any special care, so the Church in her infancy had to be nourished by the miraculous power of God. But after it had taken root in the hearts of the people and spread its branches over the earth it was left to the ordinary agencies of Providence.
St. Augustine writes also on the same subject: "In the first days (of the Church) the Holy Ghost came down on believers, and they spoke in tongues which they had not learned. ... These were miracles suited to the times. ... Is it now expected that they upon whom hands are laid should speak with tongues? Or, when we imposed hands on these children, did each of you wait to see whether they would speak with tongues? ... If, then, there be not now a testimony to the presence of the Holy Spirit by means of these miracles, whence is it proved that he has received the Holy Spirit? Let him ask his own heart; if he loves his brother, the Spirit of God abides in him." [Tract VI. in Ep. Joan.]
Following in the footsteps of the Apostles we find the Father of the Church, from the earliest age, recognizing Confirmation as a Divine and sacramental institution and proclaiming its salutary effects.
"The flesh," says Tertullian, "is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is marked, that the soul may be fortified; the flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of hands, that the soul may be enlightened with the Spirit." [De Resur. car.]
St. Cyprian, speaking of the Christians baptized in Samaria, says: "Because they had received the legitimate baptism, ... what was wanting, that was done by Peter and John, that prayer being made for them and hands imposed, the Holy Ghost should be invoked and poured forth upon them. Which now also is done amongst us, so that they who are baptized in the Church are presented to the Bishops of the Church, and by our prayer and imposition of hands they receive the Holy Ghost and are perfected with the seal of the Lord." [Epist. lxxiii.]
St. Cyril of Jerusalem compares the sacred Chrism in Confirmation to the Eucharist: "You were anointed with oil, being made sharers and partners of Christ. And see well that you regard it not as mere ointment; for, as the bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, is no longer mere bread but the body of Christ, so likewise this holy ointment is no longer common ointment after the invocation, but the gift of Christ and of the Holy Ghost, being rendered efficient by His Divinity. You were anointed on the forehead, that you might be delivered from the shame which the first transgressor always experienced, and that you might contemplate the glory of God with an unveiled countenance. ... As Christ, after His baptism and the descent of the Holy Ghost upon Him, going forth overcame the adversary, so you likewise, after holy baptism and the mysterious unction, clothed with the panoply of the Holy Ghost, stand against the adverse power and subdue it, saying: 'I can do all things in Christ, who strengtheneth me.'" [Cat. xxi. Mys. iii. De S. Chrism.]
St. Ambrose, commenting on these words of the Apostle, "God ... hath given us the pledge of the Spirit," (II. Cor. I. 22) expressly applies the text to the seal of Confirmation. "Remember," he says, "that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety, the spirit of holy fear. God the Father hath sealed you; Christ the Lord hath confirmed you, and hath given the pledge of the Spirit in your hearts, as you have learned from the lesson read from the Apostle." [De Myst. cvii. n. 42.]
St. Ambrose here speaks of the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Ghost which are received in Confirmation, and every Bishop in our day invokes these same gifts on those whom he is about to confirm.
"Do you know," writes St. Jerome against the sect of Luciferians of his time, "that it is the practice of the churches that the imposition of hands should be performed over baptized persons and the Holy Ghost thus invoked? Do you ask where it is written? In the Acts of the Apostles; but were there no Scriptural authority at hand the consent of the whole world in this regard would have the force of law." [Dial. adv. Lucifer.]
"You willingly understand," says St. Augustine, "by this ointment the Sacrament of Chrism, which, indeed, in the class of visible seals is as sacred as Baptism itself." [L. II., contra lit. Petil.]
The Oriental schismatic churches recognize Confirmation as a Sacrament, and administer the rite as we do, by the imposition of hands and the application of chrism. Now, some of these churches have been separated from the Catholic Church since the fourth and fifth centuries. This fact is an eloquent vindication of the Apostolic antiquity of Confirmation, and is an ample refutation of those who would ascribe to it a more recent origin.
Protestantism, which made such havoc of the other Sacraments, did not fail to abolish Confirmation in its sweeping revolution.
The Episcopal church retains, indeed, the name of Confirmation in its ritual, and even borrows a portion of our prayers and ceremonial. But, in opposition to the uniform teaching of the Catholic, as well as of all the Oriental churches, both orthodox and schismatic, it declares Confirmation to be a mere rite and not a Sacrament.
In violation of the practice of all antiquity it mutilates the rite by omitting the sacred unction. It retains the shadow without the substance.
It raises, indeed, its hands over the candidates; but they are not the anointed hands of Peter or John, or Cyprian or Augustine, to whom it is said: "Whatsoever thou shalt bless, let it be blessed; whatsoever thou shalt sanctify, let it be sanctified." [Roman Pontifical.] Their hands were lifted up with authority and clothed with supernatural power; but the hands of the Episcopal Bishops are spiritually paralyzed by the suicidal act of the Reformers, and they expressly disclaim any sacramental efficacy in the rite which they administer.