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 focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.