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Confirmation and the Laity's Role

And More on Rent-a-Priest
by Father Edward McNamara | Source:

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Could you please comment on the following which occurred at an Easter Vigil Mass in my parish at which a number of RCIA candidates were confirmed. At the confirmation the priest asked everyone in the congregation to outstretch their right arm toward the persons being confirmed as we said the "Prayer of Confirming." The words of the prayer were, in summary, "All powerful God, ... send your Holy Spirit upon (names) to be their helper and guide ... fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence. We ask this through Christ Our Lord." After this prayer the priest performed the anointing with chrism on the candidates' foreheads. The outstretching of arms by the congregation made it seem that the laity had some role in conferring the sacrament of confirmation. My understanding of confirmation is that the role is normally the bishop's (or a priest in his place) to emphasize the transmission of the Holy Spirit by apostolic lineage going back to Pentecost. -- D.N., Victoria, Australia

A: There are two elements to be taken into account the laying on of hands and the proclamation of the prayer over the candidates.

During the sacrament of confirmation there is a double laying on of hands. The rite you describe pertains to the first moment, which does not form part of the essential rite of the sacrament. But as Pope Paul VI wrote when he reformed the rite of confirmation (see "Ad Pascendum," Aug. 15, 1971), the first rite should be held in high esteem as it contributes to the integral perfection of the confirmation ritual and gives a better understanding of the sacrament.

What the Church wishes to show is the transmission of the Holy Spirit, by apostolic genealogy going back to Pentecost, through the symbolism of consecrated hands being laid on the head of the confirmands.

In conformity with this principle the rubrics for this first laying on of hands states that when that when the bishop and priest(s) are both celebrating the Mass where confirmation occurs, they lay hands upon all candidates (i.e. extend their hands over the whole group of confirmands). However, the bishop alone says the prayer: "All-powerful God ... send your Spirit upon them. ... We ask this through Christ our Lord."

The practice of laying on of hands is certainly subject to many symbolic meanings. In some cases, such as the sacrament of holy orders and the second imposition with the anointing of confirmation, it is an essential part of the rite without which the sacrament itself would not exist.

In other sacraments such as the anointing of the sick, it forms part of the auxiliary rites performed by the ordained minister.

In other cases it is a sacramental, such as when the priest extends his hands over a person or object in order to impart a solemn blessing.

It may also be used by lay people, such as when parents bless their children. In recent times it has often been used in prayer groups such as the Charismatic Renewal.

Given the symbolic polyvalence of the gesture it is necessary to determine its meaning and importance within the context of each specific rite.

In the rite of confirmation it clearly symbolizes the power of efficaciously invoking the Holy Spirit so as to achieve the effect of the sacrament. This power properly and fully belongs to the bishop.

Priests also possess this power in a latent manner and may exercise it whenever the bishop or general Church law delegates them to do so.

This is why only the bishop and concelebrating priests should extend their hands at this moment. But only the bishop says the prayer, since he actually administers the essential rite of the sacrament.

Even in a very large confirmation, where the bishop is assisted by priests who also administer the sacrament, only the bishop recites the prayer, as the priests receive their authority to administer the sacrament through the bishop.

When a priest confirms alone, as is commonly the case during adult initiation at the Easter Vigil, then all concelebrating priests extend their hands. But only the priest who confirms says the prayer.

Thus in the case of the sacrament of confirmation it is inappropriate for the entire assembly to either extend their hands or to say the prayer, as this gesture would symbolically indicate the possession of a spiritual power which they do not possess as it requires the sacrament of orders.

It is also hard to see exactly what is meant by this change, because the other elements of the rite seem to be respected; it does not appear that it symbolizes that the community is the source of the sacrament.

It might have been introduced as a nice way of having everybody involved, without much thought given to the consequences for the meaning of the rite itself. Modifying the rites in the way described despoils them of the wealth of meaning that they embody.

The reception of this sacrament through the ministry of the bishop -- and in general the need for a minister for any sacrament -- is a necessary element in showing that the grace of our sanctification is primarily God's gift to us through the Church and does not spring from ourselves nor from the community.

This does not mean that the community has no role in the sacraments. On receiving confirmation, a Christian enters, in a way, into the fullness of the common priesthood of the baptized through which Catholics receive the power and capacity to participate in the Church's liturgy and to place their own personal sacrifices alongside that of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration.

However the common priesthood may only be exercised in communion with the ministerial priesthood and can never substitute it in its essential tasks.

This communion and the interplay between the two priesthoods are highlighted by the very rite of confirmation now under discussion, although it entails repeating one or two aspects already mentioned.

Before beginning the prayer of confirmation, the bishop, with the priests who will assist him on either side, says a prayer which invites all present to pray to the Father to send the Holy Spirit.

All then pray silently for a brief moment. This silent prayer is the exercise of the whole body of the faithful and thus for the faithful an exercise of their common priesthood.

After all have prayed, the bishop and priests extend their hands over the candidates while the bishop says or sings alone the following prayer which is redolent of similar priestly prayers of consecration such as the prayers of ordination:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.

Send your Holy Spirit upon them
to be their helper and guide.

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.

Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

To this prayer all give their assent by responding "Amen" in an analogous way to the final amen of the Eucharistic Prayer.

In this way the organization of the rite makes clear that the prayer of the whole assembly is called upon during confirmation although the administration of the sacrament is reserved to the bishop or priest in virtue of the ministerial and hierarchical structure willed by Christ for his Church.

* * *

Follow-up: Cruise Line Rent-a-Priest

As a result of our column on the problem of a "rent-a-priest" on a cruise line (March 16) many readers sent in valuable information showing that this particular case was probably an exception and that most cruise lines take great care in assuring that chaplains are priests in good standing.

The cruise lines are also usually happy to have Catholic priests because in general they are also highly appreciated by non-Catholic passengers.

Several correspondents from Australia and the United States informed me that an initiative to find a viable solution to this problem is under way.

Last October, the U.S. bishops' Office of Migration & Refugee Services sent a letter to every priest in the United States, inviting priests to serve as cruise ship chaplains. The letter was signed by Father John Jamnicky, national director of the Apostleship of the Sea. Father Jamnicky indicated that all the major cruise lines have agreed to allow only those priests who are members of Apostleship of the Sea of the United States to serve as cruise ship chaplains.

The address of Apostleship of the Sea of USA is:

1500 Jefferson Drive
Port Arthur, TX 77642-0646


A correspondent from Houston asked for further information about our statement that "most confessions (of a dispensed or suspended priest) would be invalid although a penitent who is unaware of the priest's status would obtain forgiveness."

He asked: "If someone confesses and discovers the priest's status the next day, must the penitent confess the same sins at a later point?"

In most cases it would not be necessary as this would be a case of "common error" in which the bona fide penitent has no reason to suspect that the priest in question lacks proper faculties for hearing confessions.

In these specific cases the Church supplies the deficiency of faculties in virtue of Canon 144 of canon law so that the penitent may not be deprived of sacramental grace.

There may be some specific cases of sins in which priests would normally have to recur to the bishop or the Holy See before granting absolution, and in this case it would be necessary to confess to another priest. But these cases are usually rare.

Even though the penitent receives grace, it remains a very grave fault on the part of the priest to hear confessions without the proper faculties.


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