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Liturgy: Confirmation and the Laity's Role

4/2/2004 - 8:00 AM PST

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Confirmation and the Laity's Role

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ROME, MARCH 30, 2004 (Zenit) - 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 ...

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