“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

May is the month of First Communions, Confirmations, and graduations. Unfortunately, those latter two are often synonymous terms in practice. It is becoming the rule rather than the exception that active and regular practice of the Faith wanes after reception of the sacrament of Confirmation. You may have heard the joke about bats that is too heartbreakingly close to home. When a pastor is faced with a bat problem in his church, he calls up the bishop to get permission to confirm them. “If I confirm them, they’ll never come back.”

This is not a new problem; it is one that we’ve faced for several decades. And we lament the problem in parishes and at religious education meetings and conferences, are we actively doing anything to change our approach? After all, the definition of insanity is repeating an action while expecting a different result.

A conversation was related to me recently in which a leader in the Church was defensive regarding this problem. He posited that stating the problem as I just have – the shocking departure of confirmandi, especially so soon after reception of the sacrament – is calling into question the efficacy of the sacrament, or perhaps questioning the power of the Holy Spirit. After all, if you look at the effects of the sacrament, our teenagers should become more active in the Church after their’e confirmed, not less. Are we doubting the power of the sacrament to do what it promises to do?

Let’s look at some of the effects of the sacrament:

“Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace: it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!”…unites us more firmly to Christ…increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us…renders our bond with the Church more perfect…gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC 1303)

Do we believe that’s true? If it is, why do we so often see the opposite occurring? 

The sacraments are not magic.

Yes, those are the effects of the Sacrament of Confirmation. That is what the Holy Spirit makes possible in the lives of those who receive the sacrament. But the sacraments are not magic tricks.

The fruits of the sacraments require us to be disposed. We must be open to God’s grace. The sacraments do not depend on the worthiness of the minister. Nor does the recipient of the sacrament somehow earn or deserve the sacrament. However, the fruits of the sacrament do depend on the disposition of the recipient (CCC 1128). If I am not disposed to receive the sacraments, they will not bear fruit in my life.

In his discussion of the Sacrament of Baptism, St. Thomas Aquinas says, “[A]dults, who approach Baptism in their own faith, are not equally disposed to Baptism; for some approach thereto with greater, some with less, devotion. And therefore some receive a greater, some a smaller share of the grace of newness; just as from the same fire, he receives more heat who approaches nearest to it, although the fire, as far as it is concerned, sends forth its heat equally to all” (ST III, q. 69, a. 8).

It is not a lack of power of the Holy Spirit if our confirmands are not transformed by the sacrament. They are standing too far from the fire.

It is entirely possible to receive the sacrament of Confirmation with very little discernible result. You may be thinking, “Well, sure. The sacraments bestow invisible grace. People don’t look differently after receiving a sacrament. There aren’t physical signs after the sweet-smelling chrism disappears.” And yet we see all throughout Acts of the Apostles that it is apparent – sometimes dramatically so – when the Holy Spirit is working. Are we dealing with a different Holy Spirit now? Of course not.

After arriving in Ephesus, it seems that St. Paul could tell that there was something lacking in the disciples. So he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” (Acts 19:2) Perhaps it is a question we are tempted to ask our fellow Catholics. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit more active? How can people receive the sacraments and not live out the Faith in an active, discernible way?

The sacraments are not magic. God desires our cooperation. Again, it is not that the minister must be worthy, nor are the sacraments earned by the recipients. We don’t earn or work for the sacraments. The sacraments are actions of God, not us. (The Holy Spirit confirms us in the sacrament, not vice versa.) But the recipient must be open and disposed to receive the Holy Spirit. God desires to work with us. He does not force us or work against our will.

God is a gentleman. He will not impose. He proposes.

For some, that proposal will be rejected. Not necessarily outright or vocally, but by the choices made, the preparation neglected, and the disposition with which the sacrament is received. Thomas Aquinas wrote about whether the sacrament of baptism should be given to an unrepentant sinner who has no intention of striving to abandon sin. He posited the sacrament should not be given, for the sacramental sign would be a falsehood (ST III, q. 68, a. 4).

God can do incredible things, if we let Him. But He respects the freedom He has given us. He will not impose His power like a dictator. 

It is not just in regards to Baptism or Confirmation, either. Are we disposed to receive His flesh and blood in Holy Communion?

  • Have we gone to Confession if there is mortal sin on our soul?
  • Have we asked for His grace to avoid temptation and amend our lives?
  • Are we preparing for Mass by reading the Mass readings ahead of time or getting to church early to quiet our soul? 
  • Are we asking our guardian angel for help staying attentive and striving to enter into the great mystery of the altar as much as possible?

If the sacrament of Holy Communion does not seem to be bearing fruit in our lives, it is not because God is not showing up – it is that we are not welcoming Him.

There is obviously a problem in our parishes today regarding the severe drop in active participation by young people after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. To raise the question and search for solutions is not to challenge the efficacy of the sacrament or doubt the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is a chance to examine our own lives and openness to the workings of grace, our own disposition when receiving the sacraments, and to renew zeal for bringing others to Him. 

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” 

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