The Sacrament of Confirmation by Saint Thomas Aquinas

Imposition of the hands during Confirmation ceremony.

We publish here extracts of St. Thomas Summa about Confirmation. In preparation of the ceremony of confirmations to come, it might be useful for all to review the doctrine about this great sacrament.

Saint Thomas teaches on the sacraments in the third part of the Summa Theologicae. Confirmation is treated in Question 72.

Is Confirmation a Sacrament?

One receives spiritual life in Baptism, which is a spiritual regeneration: while in Confirmation one arrives at the perfect age of the spiritual life.

Christ instituted Confirmation not by bestowing, but by promising the Holy Ghost. And this was because in Confirmation the fullness of the Holy Ghost is bestowed, which was not to be given before Christ's Resurrection and Ascension.

All the sacraments are in some way necessary for salvation; some, in such a way that there is no salvation without them; some as conducing to the perfection of salvation. Confirmation is necessary for salvation as conducing to the perfection of salvation: although salvation is possible without it, provided it be not omitted out of contempt.

Is Chrism a fitting matter for Confirmation?

The grace of the Holy Ghost is signified by oil. Balm is mixed with the oil, because of its fragrant odor, which spreads about and because it confers incorruptibility.

Christ bestowed on the apostles the reality of Confirmation, i.e. the fullness of the Holy Ghost, without the sacrament itself. Nevertheless, something of keeping with the matter of Confirmation was displayed to the apostles in a sensible manner when they received the Holy Ghost. He came down upon them in a sensible manner under the form of fire. Oil and fire refer to the same signification; fire as active power, oil as a passive one, being the matter and incentive of fire. And this was quite fitting: for it was through the apostles that the grace of the Holy Ghost was to flow forth to others. Again, the Holy Ghost came down on the apostles in the shape of a tongue. Tongue and balm refer to the same signification; both communicate with others: tongue by speech, balm by its odor. And this was quite fitting: for the apostles were filled with the Holy Ghost, as teachers of the Faith; but the rest of the believers, as doing that which gives edification to the faithful.

Confirmation is given that we may receive the fullness of the Holy Ghost whose operations are manifold; consequently, a compound matter is appropriate to this sacrament.

The properties of the oil, which are the reason why it symbolizes the Holy Ghost, are to be found in olive oil rather than in any other oil. In fact, the olive-tree itself, through being an evergreen, signifies the refreshing and merciful operation of the Holy Ghost.

Olive oil is called oil properly, and is very much in use, wherever it is to be had. And whatever other liquid is so called, its name comes from its likeness to this oil. Therefore, olive oil alone is used for confirmation and other sacraments.

Baptism is the sacrament of absolute necessity; and so its matter should be at hand everywhere. But it is enough that the matter of Confirmation, which is not of such great necessity, be easily sent to all parts of the world.

Is it essential to Confirmation that the chrism be previously consecrated by a bishop?

Christ did use certain sacraments having a corporeal matter, viz. Baptism, and the Eucharist. And consequently, from Christ's very act in using them, the matter of these sacraments received a certain aptitude to the perfection of the sacrament. There is no need for the matter of Baptism and of Eucharist to be blessed previously since Christ's blessing is enough. And if any blessing is used, it belongs to the solemnity of the sacrament, not to its essence.

But Christ did not make use of visible anointings, hence both chrism, and the holy oil, and the oil of the sick are blessed before being put to sacramental use.

Is the proper form of Confirmation: "I sign thee with the sign of the cross, I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen"?

A sacramental form should contain whatever belongs to the species of the sacrament. In Confirmation, the Holy Ghost is given for strength in the spiritual combat. Wherefore three things are necessary, and they are contained in the above form.

1. The cause conferring the fullness of the spiritual strength which is the Blessed Trinity; and this is expressed in the words, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."

2. The spiritual strength itself bestowed on man unto salvation by the sacrament; and this is referred to in the words, "I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation."

3. The sign which is given to the combatant, as in a bodily combat, thus are soldiers marked with the sign of their leaders. And to this refer the words, "I sign thee with the sign of the cross," in which sign, to wit, our King triumphed (cf. Colossians 2:15).

Sometimes the effect of Confirmation, i.e. the fullness of the Holy Ghost, was given through the ministry of the apostles, under certain visible signs, miraculously by God Who can bestow the sacramental effect, independently of the sacrament. In these cases, there was no need for either the matter or the form of Confirmation. On the other hand, sometimes the apostles bestowed Confirmation as ministers of the sacraments. And then, they used both matter and form according to Christ's command. For, in conferring the sacraments, they observed many things which are not handed down in the Scriptures. Hence Dionysius says at the end of his treatise on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (chap. vii): "It is not allowed to explain in writing the prayers which are used in the sacraments, and to publish their mystical meaning, or the power which, coming from God, gives them their efficacy; we learn these things by holy tradition without any display," i.e. secretly.

Confirmation is ordained not only to the sanctification of man in himself, but also to strengthen him in his outward combat. Consequently, not only is mention made of interior sanctification, in the words, "I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation": but furthermore, man is signed outwardly, as it were with the standard of the cross, unto the outward spiritual combat; and this is signified by the words, "I sign thee with the sign of the cross."

Does the sacrament of Confirmation imprint a character?

A character is a spiritual power ordained to certain sacred actions. By the sacrament of Confirmation, one is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. In Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith. This is evident from the example of the apostles, who, before they received the fullness of the Holy Ghost, were in the "upper room . . . persevering . . . in prayer" (Acts 1:13-14); whereas afterward they went out and feared not to confess their faith in public, even in the face of the enemies of the Christian Faith.

All have to wage the spiritual combat with our invisible enemies. But to fight against visible foes, viz. against the persecutors of the Faith, by confessing Christ's name, belongs to the confirmed, who have already come spiritually to the age of virility. And therefore, the character of Confirmation is a distinctive sign, not between unbelievers and believers, but between those who are grown up spiritually and those of whom it is written: "As new-born babes" (1 Peter 2:2).

All the sacraments are protestations of faith. Therefore, just as he who is baptized receives the power of testifying to his faith by receiving the other sacraments; so, he who is confirmed receives the power of publicly confessing his faith by words, as it were "ex officio."

Does the character of Confirmation presuppose of necessity, the baptismal character?

If one who is not baptized were to be confirmed, he would receive nothing but would have to be confirmed again after receiving Baptism. The reason of this is that, Confirmation is to Baptism as growth to birth. Now it is clear that no one can be brought to perfect age unless he be first born: and in like manner, unless a man be first baptized, he cannot receive the sacrament of Confirmation.

The Divine power is not confined to the sacraments. Hence man can receive spiritual strength to confess the Faith of Christ publicly, without receiving the sacrament of Confirmation: just as he can also receive remission of sins without Baptism. Yet, just as none receive the effect of Baptism without the desire of Baptism; so, none receive the effect of Confirmation, without the desire of Confirmation. And one can have this even before receiving Baptism. Those who heard the preaching of Peter received the effect of Confirmation miraculously: but not the sacrament of Confirmation.

Is sanctifying grace bestowed in Confirmation?

In the Confirmation, the Holy Ghost is given to the baptized for strength: just as He was given to the apostles on the day of Pentecost; and just as He was given to the baptized by the imposition of the apostles' hands. Now the Holy Ghost is not sent or given except with sanctifying grace. Consequently, sanctifying grace is bestowed in this sacrament.

Sanctifying grace does take away sin; but it has other effects also, because it suffices to carry man through every step as far as eternal life. Therefore, sanctifying grace is given not only for the remission of sin but also for growth and stability in righteousness. And thus, is it bestowed in the confirmation.

As appears from its very name, confirmation is given in order "to confirm" what it finds already there. And consequently, it should not be given to those who are not in a state of grace. For this reason, just as it is not given to the unbaptized, so neither should it be given to the adult sinners, except they be restored by Penance.

Confirmation perfects the effects of Penance, as of Baptism: because by the grace which he has received in this sacrament, the penitent will obtain fuller remission of his sin. And if any adult approach, being in a state of sin of which he is not conscious or for which he is not perfectly contrite, he will receive the remission of his sins through the grace bestowed in this sacrament.

Should confirmation be given to all?

It is written (Acts 2:2) that the Holy Ghost in coming, "filled the whole house," whereby the Church is signified; and afterward it is added that "they were all filled with the Holy Ghost." As confirmation is given that we may receive that fullness, therefore it should be given to all who belong to the Church.

One is spiritually advanced by this sacrament to perfect age. Now the intention of nature is that everyone born corporally, should come to perfect age. Much more is it God's intention to bring all things to perfection to the soul, to which spiritual birth and perfect spiritual age belong. And just as it can in old age attain to spiritual birth, so can it attain to perfect (spiritual) age in youth or childhood; because the various ages of the body do not affect the soul. Therefore, this sacrament should be given to all.

This sacrament is given in order to confer a certain excellence, not indeed, like the sacrament of Order, of one man over another, but of man in regard to himself: thus the same man, when arrived at maturity, excels himself as he was when a boy.

Even in childhood, one can attain to the perfection of spiritual age; hence it is that many children, because of the strength of the Holy Ghost which they had received, fought bravely for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.

As Chrysostom says (Hom. i De Machab.), "in earthly contests fitness of age, physique and rank are required; and consequently, slaves, women, old men, and boys are debarred from taking part therein. But in the heavenly combats, the Stadium is open equally to all, to every age, and to either sex." Again, he says (Hom. de Militia Spirit.): "In God's eyes, even women fight, for many a woman has waged the spiritual warfare with the courage of a man. For some have rivaled men in the courage with which they have suffered martyrdom, and some indeed have shown themselves stronger than men." Therefore, this sacrament should be given to women.

The soul, to which spiritual age belongs, is immortal. Wherefore this sacrament should be given to those on the point of death, that they may be seen to be perfect at the resurrection, even children dying after Confirmation obtain greater glory, just as here below they receive more grace.

Should Confirmation be given to one on the forehead?

In Confirmation one receives the Holy Ghost for strength in the spiritual combat, that he may bravely confess the Faith of Christ even in face of the enemies of that Faith. Wherefore one is fittingly signed with the sign of the cross on the forehead, with chrism, for two reasons.

1. because one is signed with the sign of the cross, as a soldier with the sign of his leader, which should be evident and manifest. Now, the forehead, which is hardly ever covered, is the most conspicuous part of the human body. Wherefore the confirmed is anointed with chrism on the forehead, that he may show publicly that he is a Christian: thus too the apostles after receiving the Holy Ghost showed themselves in public, whereas before they remained hidden in the upper room.

2. because one is hindered from freely confessing Christ's name, by two things—by fear and by shame. Now both fear and shame betray themselves principally on the forehead; "those who are ashamed, blush, and those who are afraid, pale" (Ethic. iv). And therefore, man is signed with chrism, that neither fear nor shame may hinder him from confessing the name of Christ.

The principle of fortitude is in the heart, but its sign appears on the forehead. Hence the sacrament of the Eucharist, whereby one is confirmed in himself, belongs to the heart but the sacrament of Confirmation is required as a sign of fortitude against others, and for this reason, it is given on the forehead.

Confirmation is given that we may confess freely but not that we may confess simply, for this is also the effect of Baptism. And therefore, it should not be given on the mouth, but on the forehead, where appear the signs of those passions which hinder free confession.

Does he who is confirmed need one to stand for him?

Confirmation is given to man for strength in the spiritual combat. Now, just as one newly born requires someone to teach him things pertaining to ordinary conduct; so, they who are chosen for the fight need instructors by whom they are informed of things concerning the conduct of the battle, and hence in earthly wars, generals and captains are appointed to the command of the others. For this reason, he who receives Confirmation has someone to stand for him, who, as it were, has to instruct him concerning the fight.

Likewise, since confirmation bestows on one the perfection of spiritual age, he who approaches this sacrament is upheld by another, as being spiritually a weakling and a child. He who is confirmed, be adult in body, nevertheless he is not yet spiritually adult.

He who is baptized is made a member of the Church, nevertheless he is not yet enrolled as a Christian soldier. And therefore, he is brought to the bishop, as to the commander of the army, by one who is already enrolled as a Christian soldier. For one who is not yet confirmed should not stand for another in Confirmation.

Can only a bishop can confer confirmation?

In every work the final completion is reserved to the supreme act or power; thus, the preparation of the matter belongs to the lower craftsmen, the higher gives the form, but the highest of all is he to whom pertains the use, which is the end of things made by art; thus, also the letter which is written by the clerk, is signed by his employer. Now the faithful of Christ are a Divine work; and they are also "an epistle". And this sacrament of Confirmation is the final completion of the sacrament of Baptism; in the sense that by Baptism man is built up into a spiritual dwelling, and is written like a spiritual letter; whereas by the sacrament of Confirmation, like a house already built, he is consecrated as a temple of the Holy Ghost, and as a letter already written, is signed with the sign of the cross. Therefore, the conferring of this sacrament is reserved to bishops, who possess supreme power in the Church

The Pope has the plenitude of power in the Church, in virtue of which he can commit to certain lower orders things that belong to the higher orders: thus, he allows priests to confer minor orders, which belong to the episcopal power. And in virtue of this fullness of power the Pope, Blessed Gregory, allowed simple priests to confer this sacrament

The sacrament of Baptism is more efficacious than Confirmation as to the removal of evil since it is a spiritual birth, that consists in change from non-being to being. But Confirmation is more efficacious for progress in good; since it is a spiritual growth from imperfect being to perfect being. And hence Confirmation is committed to a worthier minister.