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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser