the gift of the Spirit

BELIEVING in Jesus Carchaeology or of folklore. Nothing could be better established than the existence, rite and meaning of baptism (…). Is Confirmation so distinct from it that it truly constitutes another sacrament (…) ? The historical signification of the word ‘ Confirmation ’, as Dom Botte has shown, is “ confirmation of baptism ”, which is a distinct rite to mark baptism’s completion. (La Maison-Dieu, 1958 N° 4) (…).




In the Acts of the Apostles an almost inexhaustible documentation of the life and devotion of the Early Church we find that the rite of baptism and that of laying on of hands are clearly distinguished from the very first day (…). We can see that “ the baptismal laver already gives the Holy Spirit in a fundamental way ”, but that the laying on of hands with which it terminates is indeed the “ confirmation ” or the seal of this gift, with the special character of making manifest its effect in extraordinary charisms and energy – at least at that period of the Church’s life (…).

The remarkable thing in this practice, which was fully brought to light by Bouyer, (cf. Init. théol. IV. p. 552) is that an inferior minister normally baptised whilst the Apostles alone confer the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hereafter we shall bear in mind that confirmation is an Apostolic work, pertaining to the Episcopal ministry. Re-read the texts, it is very striking, because it appears as already written into the Church’s imprescriptible order from Apostolic times.


There is no trace of any anointing with oil or chrism (oil mixed with balm) in the Acts of the Apostles (…). “ Acts 8 shows that the laying on of hands is joined to a prayer that the Holy Spirit come down ” notes Neunheuser (Baptême et Confirmation, coll. Hist. des Dogmes, le Cerf 1966, p. 51). From the very beginning we know the matter and form of this sacrament. And let no one take scandal that the Church should have modified or enriched its rite in the course of time ! For, as St. Thomas recalled many a time during this uncertain study, the supreme law is the authority of the Church (…) which is the infallible interpreter and faithful legislator of the Lord’s Will (…).


To resume a very long and complicated story, I should say that in the West the anointing that followed immediately after baptism was administered all over the body by an inferior minister with the simple words: “ I anoint thee with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ. ” Later, as the baptismal liturgy filled out, these anointings were duplicated: there was an anointing all over the body, or at least the shoulders, before immersion in the baptismal water, and on emerging there was a further anointing on the top of the head. These anointings were secondary to the rite of baptism; they were then followed by the consignation, which was the mark of the sign of Christ’s Cross made on the forehead of the baptised by the Bishop alone but without oil. Finally the Bishop laid his hand on the baptised person, invoking the Holy Spirit, and this exclusively constituted the gift of the Holy Spirit – Confirmation (…).

In the East there were many anointings with oil in the course of the baptismal liturgy but these had soon become distinct from the anointing with holy chrism or myron, the perfumed oil of myrrh, which was considered as the seal of baptism and unction of the Holy Spirit together with the laying on of hands and marking with the sign of the Cross, where the custom existed. This anointing was very solemn: the myron was necessarily consecrated by the Bishop alone as was the baptismal water. It is truly the element assumed by the Holy Spirit – the matter of another sacrament. The anointing was made on the forehead of the baptised, accompanied by a long and very explicit prayer to the Holy Spirit (…).

Our Code of Canon Law, however, mentions both rites: “ The Sacrament of Confirmation shall be conferred by the laying on of hands WITH the anointing of chrism on the forehead AND by the words prescribed in the Pontifical Books approved by the Church. ” (Can. 780). And that is truly the last word of this ancient history. With the Second Vatican Council a new stage is opened. Where the Integrists are obliged to posit a non-existent formal and material identity at the risk of blindly contradicting the facts, the modernists will regard this development as no more than the successive and incoherent inventions of a purely human Church, detached from its Founder. True Catholics, on the other hand, see in this development of rites a profound constant element; the Church’s usage is the supreme law throughout, by virtue of the Church’s being infallibly moved by the Holy Spirit whereby She remains faithful to the great institutions of Jesus Christ Himself.


Before the reform of Vatican II, the rite consisted in the Bishop laying hands over all those assembled for Confirmation, accompanied by a long invocation of the Holy Spirit. In the reformed rite all the priests present now extend their hands together with the Bishop. Formerly, the Confirmation candidate approached the Bishop with his Godfather or Godmother, who had to be different from the Godparents for baptism. That requirement has now been abrogated because “ it was based on a bad interpretation of Canon Law. ” (Le Mouvement liturgique p. 196).

The Bishop then proceeded with the Confirmation in a rather complex action which required him to lay his hand on the candidate, sign him with the sign of the Cross and anoint him with chrism at the same time. With his finger tips placed on the candidate’s head, he had to make a threefold anointing with holy chrism in the form of the Cross saying: “ I sign thee with the sign of the Cross and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ” (…).

The Council’s preparatory commission deliberated for a moment over the opportuneness of reinstating the primacy of laying on of hands over the anointing with chrism (…). The Commission was timid, therefore, over the essential matter of the sacrament, which the Council had not dared to settle after seventeen centuries of indecision, but was bold in changing the form of the sacrament: the formula for the anointing (…). It was taken from the Byzantine liturgy. It is both brief and expressive: “ Accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti. ” The signaculum is the sphragis of the Greeks, the seal, the indelible imprint; the donum is none other than the Holy Spirit Himself. It is the Holy Spirit first and foremost, even though accompanied by gifts of graces and charisms. It has been translated as: Receive the mark of the Holy Spirit which is given you. That is acceptable even though we regret the disappearance of the explicit mention of the sign of the Cross and the invocation of the Holy Trinity. Be that as it may, the new formula is valid and venerable and more expressive than the old one. There indeed is a case of submitting one’s mind to the Church’s infallible magisterium (…) !


Our enquiry should be directed by the knowledge that the effect of every sacrament is made manifest through its signs and actions – material elements if any – and through those words which constitute its matter and its form, chosen precisely for their value as symbols and for their meaning (…).

Let us sum up the themes in which the Christian mystery of Confirmation is revealed. It is the completion of baptism; it consists of a laying on of hands and (or) an anointing with oil and sweet smelling myrrh, the holy chrism consecrated by the Bishop alone, which actions are accompanied by a prayer and (or) a word for the gift of the Holy Spirit to the newly baptised. What message can we gain from these signs ?


The intimate connection between the two sacraments and the clear distinction between them necessitate their being the two stages of the one gift; the gift of life on the one hand and that of growth, the beginning of adulthood, on the other. That is already a key to the interpretation of the two rites; they are both sacraments of a profound regeneration, of a renewal of the human being in the Holy Spirit of Christ. It is from baptism, therefore, that we must naturally proceed to an understanding of the secret of Confirmation (…).


Christian baptism, in the name of the Lord Jesus, was never considered as no more than a ritual ablution simply signifying the pardon of individual sins. Of course that is what baptism effects but by penetrating to the being’s ground of badness, to the very generic human substratum, which is thereby radically transformed (…). Individual man, therefore, escapes from the generic sin whereby we are in our nature and birth the children of wrath (Ep 2:3) and he enters into a new condition, also generic but different in kind, that of a child of God in Christ (…).

Today, every theologian of renown attenuates, and some even denies, this original sin which is transmitted by generation to all the sons of Adam and which makes baptism so necessary and miraculous in its saving effects (…). Anything in St. Paul, St. Augustine, the Council of Trent or in the encyclical directed against their errors by Pius XII that displeases them is dismissed as “ cultural conditioning ” to be interpreted according to the norms of their infallible and unconditioned Science. If Original Sin is to be thus evaporated, what becomes of baptism ? It becomes a pointless superfluous gesture !

Yet, all modern discoveries are in line with the Pauline tradition, which is that of a deprivation and a wound truly passed on through carnal seed (…). Does not the largely verified theory of the structure of living organisms, and indirectly of the human psychism, from the million-fold elemental code contained in their DNA, which is marked by two principles, one, of the absolute immutability of specific structures and two, of the strict play of heredity laws, allow us to recognise the full psycho-somatic reality in the transmission of original sin (…) ?

We thus get back in touch with this Augustinian “ traducianism ”, which dominated Western Christian thought and lent extreme realism to the idea of Original Sin transmitted by Adam to all his descendants. When the idea was abandoned as a naive representation and as something quite inconceivable, then the idea of Original Sin gradually lost all reality and changed into a myth, symbolising everyone’s sins. Thereupon the foundation of the Christian Faith was shaken, confronted by a triumphant Humanism (…).

If such is the original stain, what bath or purification can ever efface it ? What surgical operation could ever remedy it individually or what chromosonic manipulation could ever eradicate this hereditary psycho-somatic tare ? It would require a miracle, a fresh intervention on the part of Almighty God the Creator, to change the genetic patrimony which is maintained in a state of absolute stability by the indefinite replication of DNA !

That is precisely where the announcement of the Good News comes in. It would have no meaning if it did not include the promise of a Baptism in water and spirit, a new birth, a palingenesis, a renewal of being, effacing this stain, curing, or at least counter-acting, and mastering this tare to the point of rendering it inoperative and turning it to the good in those who believe (…).

Now one begins to understand the grandeur and necessity of Christian Baptism (…). Now, what follows is of capital importance: if the psychism finds itself fortified in the direction of what is good, reordered and as though magnetised towards God by baptismal grace – a real sharing in the Divine Nature (2 P 1:4) –, if the hereditary traumatism is surmounted it is nonetheless true that the ground of our psycho-somatic being, the flesh, remains weak, as St. Paul says and the Gospel too. (Mt 26:41) The flesh remains affected by the original tare which still subsists in the individual and is transmitted by him to his descendants. It is a fact of human experience and Catholic dogma that “ concupiscence ” remains with us. Our being is changed in the sense that it is radically purified, strengthened and thoroughly restored, sufficiently for the will to find itself freed and capable of accomplishing all justice. That is the amazing effect of Baptism, which makes us worthy of the Communion of Saints, like, or even much better, than mankind in its first days with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. BUT, the weakness remains together with our inclination towards evil; there is still the flaw through which Sin and the Devil, corruption and death can find complicity in our nature as in the world, “ groaning under their servitude to vanity ” (Rm 8) (…).


“ To restore all things in Christ ” (Ep 1:10) has certainly been God’s great design since before all ages as it has been the Church’s will from the Apostles Peter and Paul until our day; it is both a dramatically primordial necessity and happily the decisive effect of baptism so that the convert may escape from the evil world and be kept in this new world of justice and holiness as though in a protective and nourishing maternal womb. That is the convert’s right and the Church’s duty and raison d’être !

One whole aspect of the world’s sin and of baptismal regeneration would remain obscured if its social effect were to be neglected (…).

Every human and interpersonal entity, be it sexuality, family, economics, society, school, state, etc., is in itself radically tainted and marked with rebellion against God and with the vices of those who instituted and who maintain these entities. All that is the World, of the Gospel as well as of the Sociologists. This World has been judged by Christ’s Church once and for all, just as has human nature; it is tainted with an original tare and sickness, the catastrophic development of which God alone can cure and check.

Whence the second aspect of the baptismal liturgy, which is no longer interior and static but social and dynamic. It is not enough that the catechumen change interiorly; he must also change his world in expectation of the world itself changing. Grace, which has pervaded him, will certainly bear no fruit unless the convert puts Himself under Christ’s Law. The baptismal liturgy expresses, signifies and therefore effects and enjoins as a decisive duty that we tear ourselves away from that world and enter into a new world, which is that of Christ, of Christendom.

With his idolatry for and love of the world, the Christian libertine, the liberal Catholic, or in our day the Progressivist, finds the solemn baptismal rite incomprehensible, or rather unacceptable. Their attachment to the world cannot be reconciled with that tearing away from the world which is demanded by baptism. In our day the sacramental rites contradict the Montinian and conciliar ideology. That is the enormous contradiction of the Reform, whereby the Church is being destroyed. And the more magnificently and intelligently the rites are restored, the more they point accusingly at the ideologues in vogue and at the same time tend to cure the Church of their influence (…) !

It is the fullness of baptism that is in question. Either baptism introduces man into an openly Christian society, where he is protected, nourished and educated, and which guarantees all its members the conditions of salvation, or else baptism is but a snare and a delusion, a sinister comedy, which the Church has no right to play on man or God. With the Church of the centuries we have chosen both Baptism and Christendom.


What will the effect of Confirmation be then in this perspective of a changed life and a changed world (…) ? The rite itself demonstrates that the new and real character of Confirmation lies in its social aspect. What is conferred is the Spirit of Laws, Esprit de Corps, the Spirit of the Church (…).

This gift has come to inaugurate the Christian’s social vocation; his baptism had introduced him into the Church, there to be nourished, educated and protected far from the world that he has left for good. A period of protection was necessary but it would be puerile to imagine that between the two Cities there existed no constant relationship or struggle. None of us can belong to the Church to the extent of not still living in the world, in contact with it and its dangers. On ceasing to be a child it is necessary to arm for the struggle. The day comes when one must either change the world or be changed by it. When the adolescent realises that the Church only subsists through the efforts of Her members and of Her perpetual construction in the midst of dangers, then he will feel called to a new mission, offensive and defensive. (2 Co 6 :7).

If baptism signifies a participation in Christ’s royalty and priesthood, through the anointing with oil and chrism, Confirmation is the gift of the spirit of prophecy and the virtue of martyrdom, come to complete in us our identification with the Sovereign Priest and King, Victim and God’s Witness – Jesus Christ (…).

I ask what all that can mean today in a liberal, pacifist, ecumenical, dialoguing society ? Nothing. Absolutely nothing more than a hounded, outcast and outmoded spirit. And what meaning can Confirmation still have ? None. The dilemma for confirmation is even more cruel than it is for baptism. Either you restore Confirmation, in which case the Cult of Man, Opening to the World and dialoguing with every error and impiety rampant today will have to be renounced; or you continue grovelling to the world, in which case there can be no question for you of Confirmation.


The more widely the liturgical reform announced by Vatican II is taken in the deep sense of Catholic tradition, the less it will be an instrument of subversion, as it has been hitherto in the hands of the modernists. On the contrary it will appear all the more a saving remedy against heresy and disorder, a lex credendi and all the stronger for being inspired uniquely by the age old lex Orandi (…).


The best time to confer the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the confirmation of Baptism, would be at the end of the years of catechism and after the renewal of the baptismal rites, which had served to mark the stages of the catechumenal preparation (…). As for its essential reform, it would be to make the Bishop the normal though not the exclusive dispenser of this sacramental gift. The authorisation granted by the Council for priests to administer Confirmation has had a disastrous effect. In the eyes of the faithful the Bishop disappears; any priest delegated to confer Confirmation in the parishes arrives in the Bishop’s name, but the faithful are not aware of that. So, the episcopal and ecclesial sense of the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes entirely obscured.

Here then is a project for an overall reform that is both liturgical and pastoral. During their final year of catechism the children (and adults to be confirmed) should gather regularly in the diocesan cathedral where they will hear the Bishop’s chrismal catechesis, which will take place from the beginning of Lent to Pentecost. This will be accompanied by a number of ascetic preparations to convey the seriousness of the gift awaited. At Easter the children and adults to be confirmed will make their profession of faith and their Solemn Communion in their parish churches under the direction of their parish priests. Then during the octave of Pentecost they will go to the Cathedral in their hundreds where they will receive the sacrament of Confirmation with great ceremony from the hands of the Bishop, who will be joined in this liturgical act by the priests under his effective presidency.

In his homily the Pastor of the diocese will explain that this ceremony is the crowning of their long instruction as adolescents, but not the end of Christian life; on the contrary it is their initiation and introduction into the fullness of their service of the Church. Now begins the catechism of perseverance; tasks as adult Christians now await them, for which the Bishop is about to give them the gift of prophecy and of martyrdom, that is to say the strength to witness to their faith and if it be God’s will to shed their blood for it.

Then the Sacrament will be given. The first laying on of hands over all those assembled for Confirmation is imposing and it pertains to the Bishop alone, contrary to the new usage. As for the second laying on of hands, often considered essential to the sacrament and which formerly consisted in the act of chrismation and signing of the Cross, I very much regret that that has been suppressed. The action was considered to be ungainly ? It is not so and to suppress it makes the chrismation appear to be the sacrament’s only matter and essential sign, which is a pity (…).

The Church’s age old hesitation over the two confirmation rites may have been providential for it leaves the future open. This will enable Vatican III to authorise a fruitful distinction between the unrepeatable rite – unrepeatable because it signifies principally the indelible character of the gift conferred – which is the anointing with chrism, and the rite which could be renewed in certain circumstances by the Bishop alone, in order « to reawaken the gift of the Holy Spirit », (2 Tm 1:6) which is the laying on of hands.

Thus baptised and confirmed, the catechumens will advance, together with the Christians inured in the fresh renewal of this grace and gift, in procession into the sanctuary. Together with the priest they will raise their arms to sing the Our Father and then receive the Holy Eucharist.


It is certainly not good that confirmation should last no more than fifteen seconds in a Christian’s life without any other rite or liturgy following to recall this immense gift or make it relive… except among the Pentecostalists, with whom the laying on of hands is an heretical mime of the giving of the Holy Spirit at the hands of the Apostles in the Primitive Church. The fact is that the men of the Church have slept too much and the Enemy has taken advantage of their sleep to divest the Unique Spouse of Her ritual treasures. That state of affairs has lasted too long and a rapid and bold sacramentary renewal is necessary. For whilst the heretics have adopted the action of laying on of hands, they have not been able to captivate the Holy Spirit who remains with and serves none other than the Church, to whom alone He has been sent (Ac 19:13-15).

Here is what we propose. Let it be recognised that the Bishop alone has the faculty of the laying on of hands, at least canonically, for it is a constituent element of that sacramental sign, the Power of which is at his disposition for whom he wills. In memory of the gift of the Holy Spirit and as a sacramental made efficacious by the Church’s decision, let the Bishop’s laying on of hands be adapted for certain missions and functions within the Church, thereby strengthening those Christians selected by the Bishop for special tasks. St. Paul clearly alludes to such a practice: “ Impose not hands lightly upon any man ” (1 Tm 5:22).

The laying on of hands could be repeated for the beginning of a Catholic Action undertaking, for example, when being sent out on a distant mission, at the time of arrest for the Gospel’s sake, during a police questioning or a deportation in hatred of Christ, when heretics or apostates return to orthodoxy, to seal the conversion of prostitutes, adulterers, criminals and others guilty of giving scandal, as was done in the early centuries of the Church. (Neunheuser pp. 131, 136, 137). As a simple priest and confessor I have often felt myself to be inadequate and powerless in such grave cases; it would have been right to have the Bishop’s hand for a ceremony of reconsideration. I am sure that many graces and genuine charisms would flow from such a laying on of hands, unlike the apparent charisms which seem to result from the hands of the sectarian illuminists (…).

Finally, if a flowering of a new age in the Holy Spirit were to be announced for the days following a Third Vatican Council, which would be a Council of Counter-Reformation and Catholic Restoration, I should not be at all surprised. In any case, it would be a new age of the Church. It would come through a burgeoning of the liturgy and by virtue of Christian Initiation, Baptism and Confirmation, for the Holy Spirit hovers over the Church, the Spouse of Christ, alone, and so gives to Her and only to Her an incredible and untiring fruitfulness beyond belief, for the renewal of the world and its consecration to Her Lord, Jesus our God, for ever blessed !

Fr. Georges de Nantes
Excerpts from CCR n° 94, January 1978, pp. 2-14