I entered Grade 8 in 1965, during the last months of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II overturned many things in the religious lives of Catholics. One was the approach to catechetics.
To that point, I had been schooled in the rote memorization of the Baltimore Catechism. If you had a question about the Catholic faith, I had the answer. In fact, by the time I reached Grade 8, I had all the answers, all 499 of them. Not that I could remember even half those answers. But at some point along the way, I had "learned" them all.
If you wanted to know what Confirmation was, I could go to question 330 and recite, "Confirmation is the sacrament through which the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way to enable us to profess our faith as strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ."
But in Grade 8, this memorization approach was dropped and we began to learn about something called "witnessing." For some reason, this was a difficult concept for my 13-year-old mind. I preferred getting the answers to this loose, vague talk about being a witness. What does a witness do? Well, just about anything. That is, a witness can do any good act as long as it is done in Christ and is a sign to others of his or her faith in Christ.
Although I didn't immediately glom onto this stuff about witnessing, it was pretty important. In fact, for a Catholic who has received the sacrament of Confirmation, being a witness is a better and fuller description of what we're being called to do than being "a soldier of Christ."
As well, the way I was being called to learn in Grade 8 -- to reflect on how my actions reflect my faith -- was far more appropriate to the education of a confirmed Catholic than was the short-term memorization of 499 truths of the faith.
Writing just after the council, sacramental theologian Colman O'Neill said Baptism allows us to draw life from Christ, while Confirmation enables us to cooperate with Christ in passing it on to others. Through Baptism, we are enabled to receive grace; through Confirmation, we are empowered to give it to others. Baptism gives us a passive "power;" Confirmation makes that power active.
O'Neill notes that before Pentecost, the apostles were concerned only with their personal relationship with Christ. After Pentecost, their attention turned outwards toward others.
He concludes his exposition of Confirmation by saying, "The principal function of the confirmed Christian is to bear witness to Christ as a qualified member of the church in the day-to-day life of society" (Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, p. 160). Further, this power of witnessing comes not just from our own efforts and abilities, but is strengthened and bears fruit through grace given by Christ.
O'Neill's description of Confirmation provides a doorway to understanding Vatican II's teaching on the laity and the apostolate. The council taught that "it is the function of the church to render God the Father and his incarnate Son present and as it were visible" (The Church in the Modern World, 21).
Each member of the church, not just priests and nuns, has a responsibility to do this. We must announce Christ through both our words and actions. In particular, lay people have a responsibility to explain and defend Christian principles and to correctly apply them to the problems of our times.
In last week's article, I noted that Baptism raises us above our nature; it gives us a super-nature. We become adopted children of God. Moral theologian Germain Grisez says Confirmation leads us to more sharply define the way in which we are adopted children: "The confirmed are to live not just as God's adopted children in some general sense, but as children who take part in the family business: the extension of God's kingdom" (Christian Moral Principles, p. 750).
For the confirmed Christian, there is no separation between faith and life. We do not confine our faith to an hour on Sunday and whatever times of prayer we can scrape together during the week. Faith permeates all of life. It leads us to make the commitments we make and shapes how we live out those commitments. It enables us to discover and carry out our personal vocations, vocations which serve to build up Christ's body and to extend his kingdom. Each of us has a unique role to play in this great task.
We live in a society which is on the road to collapse. Greed rules. Many are in economic or psychological bondage so that a few can control society. Others are numbed by a diet of TV or buying and consuming. The awareness of the transcendent -- always a tenuous thing for material beings -- is being eroded still further.
If there is anything our society needs, it is the witness of Christians filled with the grace given to them in Confirmation. We need people who will not allow faith to be separate from any part of life. We need people who have been transformed by God's love and who will extend that love into the corners of society not easily reached by priests and religious. We need people who will be witnesses.
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