In this column I have frequently referenced findings about the dismal way in which many Catholics look at the sacraments. I think the problem is more than just the usual ranting and ravings about a liberal church, how horrible things are after Vatican II, true as all these clichés are. Instead the problem stems from a lack of clear purpose in our understanding of the sacraments. We can talk with great eloquence about the grace which flows from the sacrament, but seldom spend time talking about why the sacrament exists in the first place, beyond pious bromides about how we are all sinners and in need of sanctifying grace.
The sacrament of Confirmation is no different. We can talk about what the sacrament is (the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a special way on believers), what it does (unites us closer to Christ), and what it provides (the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit), but we almost never talk about why we have the Sacrament in the first place. As is custom in this column, let us turn to the Scriptures for better insight.
When you speak about the outpouring of the Spirit in the Scriptures, the first logical place to go is to the prophet Joel, who devotes most of his brief book in the Bible to this subject. He speaks to a people who are quickly losing hope and trust in God. Their land is desolate, enemies surround them, there seems to be no escaping their coming destruction. Rather than complain, the prophet exhorts the people to a very public display of penance and to once again trust in God. When the people do this (it is implied in his writing that his audience will not repent), God will restore the fortunes of the penitent.
In addition to this restoration, he will pour out His Spirit upon these individuals, in addition to performing various other miracles. Why is this happening? “It shall come to pass, that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:32) The spirit is poured out upon us not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. We are one of the signs that God will use to try to get this fallen world’s attention.
This way of understanding the Spirit is confirmed in the third chapter (3:18), where Joel proclaims a “fountain shall come forth of the House of the Lord” which waters the barren lands surrounding her. On the day of Pentecost, St. Peter applies this verse to his present times (2:16-21), and due to the sign of tongues, the first converts join the Apostles.
How does any of this apply to Confirmation? The first is a call to self-denial. Like the Israelites of Joel’s time, we live in seemingly impossible times. The solution to this is to engage in self-denial, not in a public woe is me display, but in emptying out the bad so that the good can find a home in place of it. This is why (in the West) Confession occurs before Confirmation. Once this occurs, the Spirit is then poured out on us, and will (not can) manifest itself in interesting ways, from the grandiose nature of tongues to the simplest of virtues.
When these gifts manifest themselves, we need to remember why they are doing so. We aren’t given these things because we are special. We certainly don’t deserve these things, since the entire point of the previous penance was an emphatic affirmation that you aren’t worthy. We are given these gifts for others to see. There is no point in receiving this spirit of evangelization if you keep it to yourself or just show it on Sundays with those who already think and believe as you do. If you just do this, congratulations, you’ve wasted a sacrament! These gifts must be seen, and we should be using all the tools at our disposal to make sure they seen. This is also why confirmation is meant to bring us closer to Christ. When the Spirit gives us all these great gifts the world sees, they need to see the one who sent the Spirit. The more people see of us, the less they see of Christ.
I believe this is the call of the New Evangelization in a nutshell. We’ve been given gifts by the Holy Spirit, each and every Christian. We might not speak in tongues, be amazing biblical scholars, or blowhards who write for Catholic websites, but somewhere we have a gift from the Spirit we need to show the world. The call for a New Evangelization is to use every possible means at our disposal to make sure people see these things. Was this call in vain or a joke? In the end, it all comes down to how we make use of what we have received in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Stop waiting on everyone else to evangelize, whether they live in Rome or the small town of Howell, Michigan. You’ve been given that power in the Sacrament, time to make use of it.