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.