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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.