A Catholic Confirmation

In our final Faith Column on coming of age, we look at confirmation. Typically it happens at 15 or 1

When I teach about vocation at school, I often get asked by young students questions such as "How do you hear God's call?" or "How do you know when God is calling you?"

I find it a challenge to answer these kinds of questions, as there is no really satisfying answer for young, inquisitive minds. For me, I know I was certainly not ready to hear any kind of call in my life, from God - or anyone else for that matter - before I began preparing for my confirmation aged sixteen. It was at this point I started to discover a very real and personal faith, something which has already determined many important aspects of my life.

In England and Wales, the current trend is to confirm those aged around fifteen or sixteen. The parents make the choice for their son or daughter to receive the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. However, at Confirmation, the personal commitment of the candidate is vitally important. It is the opportunity to reaffirm baptismal promises and confirm belief in the Catholic Church in front of family, friends and, most importantly, God.

The candidates for confirmation make it clear that they believe in God the father, Jesus his son and the Holy Spirit. They ask for strength and courage to live as Jesus would want them to and to tell other people about their faith. In order to prepare for this commitment the young people will attend a series of sessions of preparation within the parish at the direction of a group of a catechists and their parish priest. All have to be convinced of the candidates' dedication and willingness before putting any person forward for confirmation.

It is usual for the Bishop to confirm candidates for Confirmation, however for practical reasons, permission is given to the parish priest to carry out the sacrament on Pentecost Sunday. After renewing baptismal promises, the Bishop will stretch his hands out over the heads of the candidates as he prays that God will send His Holy Spirit to be 'helper and guide' to the candidates. This also signifies that the candidate is given the special job of living in keeping with the Gospel values.

After this, candidates are anointed in the sign of the cross with the Oil of Chrism. This is an ancient sign of being chosen by God and the same oil used at Baptism, Ordination and during the Sacrament of the Sick. It symbolises becoming a full member of the Church and a true child of God. It is also a sign of being given strength and is associated with healing.

The seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are received at Confirmation and these are to help the now full member of the Church live the true Christian life and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them as well as help make important decisions and appreciate the greatness of God. From these Gifts of wisdom, understanding, right judgement, courage, knowledge, reverence and awe and wonder are produced the twelve virtues of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. When an individual is living a loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, generous, gentle, faithful, modest, self-controlled, chaste and pure existence these fruit are fully borne. Confirmation comes at a time when these teenage candidates need guidance. This is a world in which materialism is widely embraced, there are liberal sexual morals as well as many other pressures and it is these Gifts which are there to guide the newly confirmed Catholic.

Even at the end of the program of preparation, even the recently confirmed may struggle to explain the exact effect the sacrament has had on their lives. That is because they are only really at the start of their personal journey of faith. The young person has just reached the stage where they are ready to start listening to the call of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I know my vocation is constantly changing; so far it has involved teaching in a Catholic school, working with street-children in Ethiopia, years of youth work within my Diocese and undertaking the role of Catechist within my own parish hoping to pass on my faith and inspire others. I know when there are difficult choices to make that the Gifts I received through my confirmation are there to guide me and bring me closer to God.

Andy Lewis is a Cambridge University graduate who has been teaching Religious Studies for two years in a Roman Catholic Comprehensive in Chelmsford, Essex. He is a practicing Catholic and catechist in the parish of Our Lady Immaculate and Holy Name, Chelmsford. His additional interests include travelling to Lourdes with the HCPT, volunteering with CAFOD and youth work with the Diocese youth service (BCYS).
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.