Q: A friend’s husband is going to become a Catholic this year at the Easter Vigil. He wasn’t raised in any faith at all. My friend says that the pastor will administer three sacraments all at the Vigil Mass: baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion. But what I don’t understand is, how can the pastor administer the sacrament of confirmation? Don’t you have to be a bishop to do that? As a teenager, I was confirmed by the bishop… –Kaitlyn
A: Kaitlyn is understandably confused, because the law regarding the minister of confirmation varies depending on the circumstances. Ironically, the original purpose of these variations was to make the process easier; but the unintended result was that the laws are somewhat involved! Let’s take a look at the different canons regarding the minister of confirmation.
Canon 882 states that the ordinary minister of confirmation is a bishop. In the standard scenario that Kaitlyn mentions (namely, that of teenaged Catholics receiving the sacrament at their parish church), the diocesan bishop himself, or an auxiliary bishop if there is one, normally administers confirmation. In huge dioceses with large numbers of young people, the diocesan bishop occasionally asks another bishop—perhaps a retired bishop with more time on his hands!—to enter the diocese and confirm a group in a particular parish in his place. It is the diocesan bishop’s prerogative, and his responsibility, to ensure that the faithful of his diocese are able to receive this sacrament (c. 885.1), either from himself or another bishop. But note that another bishop can only confirm the diocesan bishop’s subjects if asked to do so; in other words, as canon 886.2 points out, he cannot simply walk into the territory of another bishop and confirm some of the faithful there on his own initiative! The issue of clergy entering a different bishop’s territory was addressed in greater detail in “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?”
That same canon 882, however, which tells us the bishop is the ordinary minister of confirmation, adds that a priest is also able to validly confirm someone if he has the faculty to do so. Thus the door is immediately open to the possibility that a Catholic may be confirmed not by the bishop, but by a priest. So when does a priest have the faculty to do this?
Well, this question is answered in the very next canon: canon 883 provides a list of persons who have the faculty to confirm under certain circumstances. These include the very situation to which Kaitlyn refers—the priest who baptizes somebody who is no longer an infant, or admits a baptized person into full communion with the Catholic Church (c. 883 n. 2). This is what we normally see at the Easter Vigil Mass in a typical parish. The pastor either baptizes adults who were never baptized before, like the husband described in the question above; or receives already-baptized non-Catholics into the Church as Catholics, as was discussed in “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” In both cases, the pastor also has the faculty to confirm the person validly himself—the bishop does not need to do it. This is one of those situations where the law was established with the intention of making the practical aspects of the process easier. How could the bishop possibly confirm everybody who becomes a Catholic in his diocese on Holy Saturday without there being tremendous logistical issues?
Note, however, that the Church is not changing its theology simply to make life a little more convenient. Church historians can easily show that there is abundant evidence that traditionally, priests have had the power to confirm. In fact, non-Latin Catholics today are routinely confirmed, not by the bishop, but by their ordinary parish priest. Regular readers might remember “Are They Really Catholic? Part II,” about Catholics who are not of the Latin rite. When these Catholics bring an infant to the parish church for baptism, the priest not only baptizes and confirms the baby, but he even gives the child the Eucharist! In these churches, which are truly Catholic, confirmation has been administered by a priest for centuries. Thus there is nothing particularly innovative or “modern” about it.
This is not the only scenario in which a priest who is not a bishop can confirm. As canon 884.1 notes, the diocesan bishop can, if necessary, grant the faculty to administer the sacrament of confirmation to a priest in a specific instance. Imagine, for example, that a bishop is driving to a rural parish in his diocese in order to confirm a group of young parishioners. En route, his car breaks down, and he is trapped in the middle of nowhere, with no way to make it to the church on time! The bishop can, in these circumstances, phone the parish and give the faculty to confirm to the pastor or some other priest(s) there. He/they would, therefore, validly confirm the persons who were expecting to receive the sacrament at the hands of the bishop that day. Such a grant, however, would apply only to that one particular occasion—it would not, in other words, give the priest(s) the power to validly administer the sacrament to others in the future.
There is yet another situation in which a priest can administer the sacrament of confirmation: canon 883 n. 3 states that in danger of death, the pastor of the dying person, or any other priest who happens to be available, can confirm. It is true that in actual practice, when a priest is ministering to a dying Catholic, the sacrament of confirmation is usually not high on the priority-list. The chief concerns will always be to ensure that if at all possible, a dying adult receives the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist (which is known as Viaticum when received on one’s death-bed, for the last time, cc. 921-922), and last rites. If an unbaptized adult is dying, the priority will be to baptize him if he has shown that he desires this (c. 865.2). But if it is known that a dying Catholic has not yet been confirmed, any priest at all can administer this sacrament validly as well. In fact, this is the one instance where it is both valid and licit for a priest who happens to be in the territory of a bishop who isn’t his superior, to administer the sacrament of confirmation without the bishop’s knowledge or consent (cf. c. 887)! When someone is at death’s door, many of the Church’s normal procedures and requirements are simply tossed aside, as his spiritual well-being in his final moments should, and does, take precedence over anything else.
Thus we can see that the Catholic convert in Kaitlyn’s question will quite rightly receive the sacrament of confirmation from the pastor of his parish at the Easter Vigil. While the diocesan bishop is the ordinary minister of this sacrament, there are numerous situations in which the sacrament is validly conferred by a priest.