One of the main duties of parents is to make sure your children have what they need to grow into men and women. At the most basic level, this entails food, shelter, and clothing. Children, however, need much more than that. Man is born into eternity and must one day return to the God Who created him.
Our parental mandate is to prepare our children for this meeting with our loving Savior.
Such preparation involves spiritual and intellectual formation. The sacrament of Confirmation is a major part of this development.
Children should usually be confirmed somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12. Earlier than this, and the child faces an undue hardship from memorizing doctrine. Much later, and the child is deprived of some necessary graces and help from the Holy Ghost.
When receiving Confirmation, children receive the strength of the Holy Ghost just when their young minds are beginning to comprehend ideas, but before they begin the journey of adolescence. Confirmation is also, in the psychological order, a rite of passage. These passages are important because they mark a clear transition from an earlier level of maturity to a new, stronger level. This helps your child grow.
Confirmation has four effects: It increases the sanctifying grace your dusty 11-year-old received when he was a squeaky clean, newly baptized baby. It strengthens his faith, puts an indelible mark on his young soul, and also gives him the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.
These four effects are indeed not easy to measure. How do you know they are really there? Your son or daughter might not “feel” much different, any more than you did at your Confirmation. This is because the effects of the sacrament cause a change in your state of being, but are not tied to your passions, nor your sensory appetites. In other words, the soul is changed, but the emotions are usually unaffected. If one uses a strong presence of mind to reflect on the reception of the sacrament, the emotions could then be excited enough to cause a reaction: perhaps tears of joy, elation, a feeling of contentment.
The importance of Confirmation is not in what we can see or feel; rather, it is essential for your family because of what it does for your soul and the souls of your children. Let’s take a closer look at the gifts of the Holy Ghost and how to gauge their effect on your child.
The enumeration of the seven gifts comes from Isaias 11:2-3:
Fear of the Lord.
How do you know someone receives the gifts? It certainly may be easier to see virtues in practice, but what about the gifts? Keep in mind that when the Holy Ghost comes, one of the manifestations of His presence is a gentle wind (3 Kings 19:12-13; cf. John 3:8; John 20:22). In nature, wind cannot be seen. We can feel it rushing by, and can see its effects by watching leaves or other objects blowing past. The gifts of the Holy Ghost are similarly measured. You will eventually have evidence that the gifts are really there.
Considering these gifts, look for their effects and compare this to the child’s reactions before his or her Confirmation. You may notice that the child goes to confession a little more often. Or perhaps he or she explains matters of the Faith to younger siblings differently than before. There could be a very strong resistance to novelty in prayer or liturgical practice. One of my sons at the ripe old age of 13 told a visiting relative that her parish church is not “Catholic.” (Later that evening, we discussed the virtue of prudence.)
St. Thomas Aquinas differentiates between worldly attributes and gifts of the Holy Ghost (Summa, II-II, Q. 45, A. 4). This is important because they usually have the same name. For example, a seasoned gang-member in an inner city, or a liberal university professor, may have a lot of worldly wisdom which St. Thomas considers “acquired by the study and research of reason” and can be held by men in the state of mortal sin. Wisdom as a supernatural gift, on the other hand, is to relish the things of God and to direct one’s actions to God’s glory.
Wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost is an effect of charity. Wisdom as a worldly attribute has nothing to do with charity, but rather is simply the applied use of acquired worldly knowledge.
For yourself and your children, you want both. When your 10-year-old suddenly stops running and remembers to look both ways before crossing the street, she is exercising worldly wisdom. When your 19-year-old turns in an assignment early so he can attend the rosary at his chapel instead of doing homework, he is exercising both the gift of wisdom and the worldly attribute.
You may begin to notice the effects of piety and fear of the Lord in your older teens. These two gifts balance each other: Piety directs the heart to love God as a Father and to obey Him out of love. Fear of the Lord directs the heart to dread sin out of fear of offending God as a Father. Piety is motivated by a peaceful aspiration; fear of the Lord is motivated by a dreadful aspiration. Both are necessary and considered gifts of the Holy Ghost.
How are we to understand this fear, this dread? St. Jerome used the same word for fear in two different verses when he translated the Latin Vulgate from Greek. Isaias 2:3 uses timor Domini (fear of the Lord) and Eph. 5:33 uses “timeat virum” (women should fear their husbands). This should be understood to mean fear of offending. In other words, “fear” in this context is respect, not fright.
Your older teen may sometimes seem to have a peaceful, happy aspiration to give love to God. He may other times finally drag his way into the confessional and even then appear not very happy about practicing his Faith. St. John Bosco put it dramatically in one of his dreams. Teenage boys avoided the symbolic bad meat of a poisonous snake, but they looked longingly back at the meat!
Psychologically, preparation for Confirmation may be considered a “hybrid” preparation. Parents make the child receive the sacrament and do some of the work, as with Baptism; but the recipient also has to desire it and do most of the preparation on his or her own. It is important that your child truly have a desire to receive Confirmation. Otherwise, the young soul may not be properly disposed to receive the fullest effects of the seven gifts. Perhaps one of the best ways to build this desire in your child is to spend time preparing for it, and to attend other Confirmation ceremonies before the child receives his. This gives him something for which he can yearn.
The preparation, of course, is to memorize prayers and doctrine from the catechism. One must show a serious effort to learn and practice the Faith in order to receive the benefits from the sacrament. This preparation of the child also shows your pastor that Confirmation and subsequent practice of the Faith will be taken seriously.
Preparing for Confirmation could take a span of a few months before its reception. Angelus Press produced an excellent, concise booklet, Preparation for Confirmation, containing all the minimum knowledge needed to be properly prepared for the sacrament.
There are clear benefits to the drilling, quizzing, reciting, and testing. All this rote memorization of doctrinal content earlier in life becomes truly valuable when dealing with a life crisis. Many adults must deal with elderly parents dying, stillborn babies, funerals of loved ones, and other heart-rending events. Those without a solid foundation of Catholic doctrine may be ill-prepared for these events, and thus grapple with the meaning of life and death. They invariably come up with a vague, humanistic, on-the-spot philosophy because they have no other answer.
The educated Catholic, on the other hand, almost instinctively knows the reason and meaning of suffering. He knows why death came into the world in the first place. The catecheticized Catholic first falls back on his knowledge of the Faith, and then uses his will to accept or reject it.
The body of catechetical knowledge is not simply for times of adult crises, however. Adolescents will find that their formation comes in handy when they begin sorting out all the input they receive from worldly events and ideas. The 15-year-old no longer simply takes what Mom says at face value. He investigates. He questions. It’s a wonderful, and sometimes scary, time of life.
Confirm this boy before his mind reaches this point. Get that indelible mark on his soul so his intellect has a frame of reference. Give him those seven gifts, so he can more easily fight temptation and love God. You are thus preparing your child for his or her eventual judgment before our blessed Redeemer.