Confirmation: Thy Will Be Done

seven sacramentsBy Baptism we call God in heaven our Father. Ordination reminds us of our highest call, to hallow his name, but Marriage points us to the call to let him be king of love of all the earth.

In the fourth petition of the Our Father, we turn to God’s will, and an opportunity for insight into the sacrament of Confirmation.


Now, the first key to understanding this step in the Our Father is to distinguish it from the statement before. “Thy Kingdom Come” and “Thy Will Be Done” are not the same.

Kingdom does point to authority. In Greek and Latin, if anything, the word points even more to authority. In English, “kingdom” refers to the realm over which the king rules, but in those languages, it could also refer to God’s kingship itself. But don’t let this draw you astray.

The classical tradition makes a distinction between a king and a despot. A despot does whatever he wants. But a king does what is good for his people. A classic way of saying it is, the despot rules for his own good, the king rules for the common good. Of course, a despot might call himself a king. But someone who rules for his own pleasure and not the good of his people is a despot.

(Parallel distinctions are made with other governing arrangements. An aristocracy and an oligarchy are both ruled by a small number – but the difference is whether they are ruled for the good of all the people or just the good of the few. And in the classic use of the words, when the people rule, it’s only called “democracy” if they are selfish; a “republic” is when the people care about the common good.)

The point is, the most important question is not only who rules, but why, or for what?

In other words, we miss the meaning of God’s kingship if we just say, “he’s the king, he can do whatever he wants.” No, what makes him a king and not a tyrant is that he cares about his kingdom. There is a connection between his “kingship” and his “kingdom.” And to call God king is a beautiful thing.

God’s kingdom is a beautiful thing, where everything has its proper place, everything is ordered and right and beautiful. Nothing is dismissed or rejected, everything is in place.


Now, all of that is lost when we turn to the word “will.” Indeed, my mentor in the thought of Thomas Aquinas taught us to be careful about using the word “will.” Will precisely does not make the distinction between a benevolent king and a tyranical despot. In each case, the ruler’s will is done.

It is often wiser to talk about God’s plan rather than his will, to get a sense that there is some order and intelligence, not just brute force or willfullness. Note that Mary does not say “thy will,” but “thy word”: she sees the intelligence in God’s plan. Modern Catholic spiritual writers often reduce her “fiat” to a “yes” – but again, one can say yes to a tyranical will. Mary’s fiat goes deeper than that.

Nonetheless, Jesus teaches us to accept God’s will.


All these cautions about thinking of God as mere willfulness can help us understand why we do say “thy will be done.” We say “will” when we don’t know why. “Kingdom” is a hopeful word, where we see the beauty of God’s plan. “Will” is an abandoned word, where we have no idea why he’s doing what he does.

And that has a place in our prayer life too. We need to know that God is a king, whose will is always for the good and beautiful and orderly and helpful. But we also need to know that his plan is often beyond our ken. Sometimes all we can say is, “thy will be done.” I don’t know why you’re doing this, God, but I accept it.


In the traditional Western view of the sacrament of Confirmation (the Easterners have not developed this theology, and the West has been careful not to get too far ahead of them – but the middle ages did have a rich theology of Confirmation), this is the sacrament of battle. We are anointed to bear witness – but not a witness of rich words, a witness of suffering.

In the traditional Western practice of Confirmation, the bishop slapped you – just as a medieval Lord would wound his knight with his own sword, to say, you go out to suffer.

When we say, “Thy will be done,” it is as if we call on our Confirmation. We attest our willingness to do, and to accept, God’s will, come what may. We grit our teeth, realizing that fighting for the beautiful kingdom will sometimes mean just getting beat up. In Confirmation, we receive the grace to grit our teeth.

In what parts of your life does it feel like God’s will makes no sense?

The Sacrament of Confirmation: The Apostolic Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigThough the Church’s teaching on Confirmation is remarkably scant, we can find in it an entire spirituality.

(Scroll down to the three canons here to see the entire magisterial teaching. A current school of thought, led by Josef Ratzinger, would like to minimize this teaching even further, in the name of ecumenical outreach. But I will present the medieval development of the doctrine, which I think you will find a lovely complement to Vatican II.)


The central act of Confirmation has the Bishop (or his representative) mark the confirmand’s forehead with scented oil, or chrism. Both the Bishop and the act of anointing suggest a commissioning, a task. The Latin name “confirmation,” more specific than the older Greek name “chrismation,” says that this oil (this chrism) is there to strengthen (“confirm”) us for the mission.

The Bishop traditionally anoints the confirmand with the sign of the cross. He now carries the cross on his forehead, wherever he goes. The medieval crusaders wore a cross on their back – the English called them “crouchbacks,” “crouch” being a variant of “cross” – to mark them as soldiers for Christ. Confirmation is one of the sacraments that you can only receive once: once a crouchback, always a crouchback; the cross marks your forehead forever, to your glory or to your shame.

The medievals saw this as the sacrament of evangelization. You are sent to represent Christ and his Church to the world. It is thus appropriate, though not necessary, that the confirmand be approaching adulthood: now you go out into the world.

But the cross on your forehead symbolizes what kind of witness you are to make: principally a silent witness. You are not anointed to be a big talker, but to show people what a Christian is. Like the crouchback, you wear it on your back, not on your big mouth: they see what you do, not what you say.

The oil used is scented, usually with balsam. The medieval tradition likes this even better. You are not supposed to talk like a Christian – you are supposed to smell like one! There should be a certain something, something that permeates who you are. Romano Guardini, I think, said, they should be able to tell you are a Christian from the way you climb a tree. I think we’re supposed to laugh . . .but the point is, Confirmation commissions you to be a witness by everything you do.

Some of the new closing blessings at Mass are, in my opinion, kind of hokey, maybe a bit reductive, but it is worth pointing out somehow that the Mass ends with (and, in fact, in the West is named by) the word “sent”: ite, missa est can be translated simply, “go, you are sent” (or more literally: “this is the sending”).


Most important, though, Confirmation is a sacrament. It is not a mission we take on ourselves, and not one we are sent out to do by our own power. As the oil seeps into our skin (see my post on this tomorrow), so confirmation strengthens us. We are meant to rely on his power, the power of Christ.

We are marked with the sign of the Cross, both because we bear witness to Christ, and because it is Christ who gives us the strength to do it. The strength he gives is the strength of the Cross. The principal witnesses are the martyrs, who did not impose the faith, but suffered for it – and who were willing to face the end of their strength in the knowledge that Jesus is stronger even than death.


Confirmation is, in one sense, a filling out of our Baptism. We can practice devotion to Confirmation by literally wearing a Baptismal garment: a cross, a metal, a scapular. But perhaps we would express the true meaning of Confirmation better by wearing our garment hidden under our clothes: a reminder that our witness is to be far more profound than a bumper sticker.

In another sense, since Confirmation strengthens us when we are tempted to hide the light of Christ, it is like Confession. And so, like Confession, we can practice devotion to Confirmation through little acts of penance: in this case, little reminders to ourselves that we need to be tough, willing to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.

Always we can make the sign of the Cross, and pray “come, Holy Spirit,” to enlighten and strengthen us for witness.

Then we can be as Jesus:

“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Ps. 45:3-4).


How do you keep alive your call to be an apostolic witness?