At one time in the Western church, Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist were celebrated at the same time. But over the centuries, these sacraments were separated.
Why? The Roman Catholic Church saw it as important both that the bishop be the ordinary minister of the sacrament and that children be baptized as soon after birth as possible. The bishop often was not readily available to confirm these newborns. Often it was many years before the bishop was able to get to the outer reaches of his diocese and confirm those baptized as infants.
The Eastern church, however, strove to maintain the unity of the three sacraments of initiation and enabled the priest to be the ordinary minister of all three.
But in the West, the church wanted the bishop to administer Confirmation. His presence was deemed so important that the unity of Christian initiation was seen as secondary.
This insistence says something important about Confirmation. It shows that the church believes it is essential to have a visible link between this sacrament and the whole Body of Christ. The bishop's presence shows that Confirmation calls one forth into the whole church -- the church which stretches throughout the inhabited earth and through time. Confirmation has an especially strong link with the church of the apostles.
The Second Vatican Council regarded bishops as "transmitters of the apostolic line." They are the chief priests, prophets and kings in the local church because of their special link with the apostolic church.
Moreover, the bishop is more than just a sort of local chieftain. Vatican II taught that the bishop is a bishop not just because of his episcopal ordination, but also because of his communion with "the head and members of the church." The bishop has more than local responsibilities -- "he bears collegially with all his brothers in the episcopacy the solicitude for all the churches" (Catechism, no. 1560).
All this is worth noting because of what it implies about Confirmation. By making the bishop the ordinary minister of Confirmation, the church is implying that Confirmation is meant to undermine parochialism.
Confirmation gives me responsibility in a church which consists of far more than me, my kin and my pals. It unites me with the suffering church of China and the churches of the poor in the Third World. It also unites me with the apostolic church, the church of the fifth century and the church at the time of the Reformation.
Baptism makes us part of this one body which stretches over space and time. Confirmation strengthens that link and makes us adults in the Spirit, people responsible for building up that one body.
The challenge to parochialism is important in any age. To be concerned about the needs of those who are close to me is a natural human tendency. Confirmation helps to stretch that concern beyond the natural. Today, because of modern travel and communications, we may have greater global awareness. But we can be damnably arrogant towards the past and future.
Sometimes we get trapped into believing that if a large majority of Catholics in one place and time (usually the United States on the day before yesterday) want some teaching of the church replaced then the Vatican should snap to attention and obey. We forget the millions of baptized Christians over the centuries who have been faithful to that teaching and who have won eternal life because of their fidelity. Angus Reid and Decima Research are not able to contact those people because they don't have phones, but they are as surely a part of the church as those who do.
We, with our wealth and technology, assume we are wiser than those who came before us. But wisdom has another source and the bishop's presence as the minister of Confirmation is a sign that we must be faithful to the church of all ages, not just the visible church at the dawning of the third millennium.
Pope John Paul has warned of the tendency for us to be "prisoners of the present." This tendency, he says, can be overcome by fidelity to the tradition: "It is tradition that preserves the church from the danger of gathering only changing opinions, and guarantees her certitude and continuity" (Light of the East, 8).
Through Confirmation, we get tied more securely to the global church and to the church of the ages. Confirmation stretches us beyond our natural human tendency. The bishop's role as minister of this sacrament is a sign that we are citizens of an ageless community, ever ancient, ever new. And in our lives we can bear witness to a faith that goes beyond the changing opinions of one time and place.
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