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Using Cotton Balls at Confirmation

Instrument Not Allowed for the Anointing

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Recently I was asked by a priest alumnus of our seminary whether he could celebrate confirmation by using a cotton ball for the anointing, in view of the coronavirus. My first thought was affirmative since the rubrics allow for a priest to use an instrument (e.g. cotton ball, glove) for the anointing of the sick. However, I spoke to a liturgist and a sacramental theologian and both said that an instrument is not permitted and that the use of a cotton ball (for example) would invalidate the sacrament. A Dominican priest-professor sent to me an extensive argument as to why this would be the case. His argument is fairly convincing. Because this is «confirmation season» in the States, and with the virus still around, this question will be asked more and more.I just wanted to give you a summary of what is being discussed around this topic. — G.S., Denver, Colorado

 A: This is also confirmation and first communion season in Italy and many other places, although most of these celebrations have been postponed until September at the earliest.

The question of the reasons why an instrument for confirmation is not considered as feasible involves often complex historical and theological arguments. What is certain is that the Church’s official documents clearly exclude this possibility. The fundamental reason why this is so is, I believe, that the anointing of confirmation is inextricably linked to an imposition of hands based on Sacred Scripture.

The rubrics for the extraordinary form’s Roman Ritual, in use since shortly after the Council of Trent but reflecting much earlier practice, positively excludes an instrument:

“3. Oil of chrism used in administering this sacrament, even when the minister is an ordinary priest, must have been consecrated by a bishop in communion with the Holy See on the preceding Maundy Thursday; and one may not use the old oil except in an emergency. As soon as the consecrated oil has diminished to a small quantity, non-consecrated olive oil should be added to it, but in a lesser quantity than the consecrated each time this happens. It is never allowed to administer confirmation without chrism, nor to receive it from a heretical or schismatic bishop. The anointing is not to be performed with some kind of instrument but by the minister’s hand, properly placed on the head of the subject.”

The rite is described thus:

“6. Then the celebrant confirms them (a bishop wears the mitre at this time, and so does a higher prelate, such as a protonotary apostolic), as they kneel in line, first the males then the females. When one row is finished all rise and others kneel in place, and so on till the end. The celebrant asks the name of each one as he is presented by the godfather or the godmother; and dipping the tip of his thumb in chrism he confirms in the following way: laying his right hand on the head of the recipient he marks with his thumb the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, while saying the first part of the form up to the word cross inclusive, and goes on with the rest of the form, making a threefold sign of the cross over him at the places indicated:

“N., I seal you with the sign of the + cross; and I confirm you with the chrism that sanctifies; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. All: Amen.”

Pope St. Paul VI made profound changes in the rite of confirmation, including changing the formula. In order to explain and give full doctrinal force to his decision the Holy Father promulgated an apostolic constitution, “Divinae Consortium Naturae,” on August 15, 1971. This brief document summarizes the essential elements of the doctrine in confirmation over the ages. With respect to the celebration of the sacrament the Holy Father states:

“In fact, careful work and study have been devoted in these last years to the task of revising the manner of celebrating this Sacrament. The aim of this work has been that ‘the intimate connection which this Sacrament has with the whole of Christian Initiation may be more clearly set forth.’ Moreover, the link between Confirmation and the other Sacraments of Initiation is more easily perceived not only because the rites have been more closely conjoined, but it is also noticeable from the gesture and words by which Confirmation itself is conferred. For it so happens that the rite and words of this Sacrament ‘should express more clearly the holy things which they signify and the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.’

“To that end, it has been Our wish also to include in this revision what concerns the very essence of the Rite of Confirmation, through which the Christian faithful receive the Holy Spirit as Gift.

“The New Testament shows how the Holy Spirit was with Christ to bring the Messianic mission to fulfillment. For Jesus, on receiving the baptism of John, saw the Spirit descending on himself (cf. Mk 1:10) and remaining with him (cf. Jn 1:32). He was led by that Spirit to undertake his public ministry as the Messiah, relying on the Spirit’s presence and assistance. Preaching salvation to the people of Nazareth, he showed by what he said that the oracle of Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,’ referred to himself (cf. Lk 4:17-21).

“He later promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would help them also to bear fearless witness to their faith even before persecutors (cf. Lk 12:12). On the day before he was to suffer, he assured his Apostles that he would send the Spirit of truth from the Father (cf. Jn 15:26) to remain with them ‘forever’ (Jn 14:16) and help them to be his witnesses (cf. Jn 15:26). Finally, after His Resurrection, Christ promised the coming descent of the Holy Spirit: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8; cf. Lk 24:49).

“On the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit did indeed descend in a marvelous way on the Apostles as they were gathered together with Mary the Mother of Jesus and the group of disciples. They were so ‘filled with’ the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) that by divine inspiration they began to proclaim ‘the mighty works of God.’ Moreover, Peter regarded the Spirit, who thus descended upon the Apostles, as the gift of the Messianic age (cf. Acts 2:17-18). Then those who believed the Apostles’ preaching were baptized and they too received ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38). From that time on the Apostles, in fulfillment of Christ’s will, imparted to the newly baptized, by the laying on of hands, the gift of the Spirit that completes the grace of Baptism. This is why the Letter to the Hebrews listed among the first elements of Christian instruction the teaching about baptisms and the laying on of hands (cf. Heb.6:2). This laying on of hands is rightly recognized by Catholic tradition as the beginning of the Sacrament of Confirmation, which in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.

“This makes clear the specific importance of Confirmation for sacramental initiation, by which the faithful ‘as members of the living Christ are incorporated into him and conformed to him through Baptism and through Confirmation and the Eucharist.’ In Baptism, the newly baptized receive forgiveness of sins, adoption as children of God, and the character of Christ, by which they are made members of the Church and for the first time become sharers in the priesthood of their Savior (cf. 1 Pt 2:5,9). Through the Sacrament of Confirmation those who have been born anew in Baptism receive the ineffable Gift, the Holy Spirit himself, by whom ‘they are endowed … with special strength.’ Moreover, having been signed with the character of this Sacrament, they are ‘more perfectly bound to the Church’ and ‘they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ.’ Finally, Confirmation is so closely linked with the Holy Eucharist that the faithful, after being signed by Holy Baptism and Confirmation, are incorporated fully into the Body of Christ through participation in the Eucharist.

“From ancient times the conferring of the gift of the Holy Spirit has been carried out in the Church through various rites. These rites have undergone many changes in the East and the West, but the signification of the conferral of the Holy Spirit has been kept. In many Eastern Rites it seems that from early times a rite of chrismation, not yet clearly distinguished from Baptism, prevailed for the conferring of the Holy Spirit. That rite continues in use today in the greater part of the Churches of the East.

“In the West, there are very ancient witnesses concerning the part of Christian Initiation that was later distinctly recognized to be the Sacrament of Confirmation. There are directives for the performance of many rites after the baptismal washing and before the Eucharistic meal — for example, anointing, the laying on of the hand, consignation — contained both in liturgical documents and in many testimonies of the Fathers. Consequently, in the course of the centuries, questions and doubts arose as to what belonged with certainty to the essence of the Rite of Confirmation. Worth mentioning, however, are at least some of the elements that, from the thirteenth century onward, in the Ecumenical Councils and in documents of the Supreme Pontiffs, cast considerable light on the importance of anointing with Chrism but at the same time did not allow the laying on of hands to be forgotten.

“Our Predecessor Innocent III wrote: ‘The anointing of the forehead with Chrism signifies the laying on of the hand, the other name for which is Confirmation since through it the Holy Spirit is given for growth and strength.’ Another of Our Predecessors Innocent IV calls to mind that the Apostles conferred the Holy Spirit ‘through the laying on of the hand, which Confirmation or the anointing of the forehead with Chrism represents.’ In the profession of faith of Emperor Michael Palaeologus read at the Second Council of Lyons, mention is made of the Sacrament of Confirmation, which ‘Bishops confer by the laying on of hands, anointing with Chrism those who have been baptized.’ The Decree for the Armenians, issued by the Council of Florence, declares that the ‘matter’ of the Sacrament of Confirmation is ‘Chrism made of olive oil … and balsam’ and, quoting the words of the Acts of the Apostles concerning Peter and John, who gave the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:17), it adds: ‘in the Church in place of that laying on of the hand, Confirmation is given.’ The Council of Trent, though it had no intention of defining the essential Rite of Confirmation, designated it simply by the term ‘the sacred Chrism of Confirmation.’ Benedict XIV made this declaration: ‘Therefore let this be said, which is beyond dispute: in the Latin Church the Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred by using sacred Chrism or olive oil mixed with balsam and blessed by the Bishop, and by the minister of the Sacrament tracing the Sign of the Cross on the forehead of the recipient, while the same minister pronounces the words of the form.’

“Taking account of these declarations and traditions, many doctors of sacred theology maintained that for valid administration of Confirmation only the anointing with Chrism, done by placing the hand on the forehead, was required. Nevertheless, in the rites of the Latin Church a laying of hands on those to be confirmed prior to anointing them with Chrism was always prescribed.

“Moreover, with regard to the words of the rite by which the Holy Spirit is imparted, it should be noted that, already in the nascent Church, Peter and John, in order to complete the initiation of those baptized in Samaria, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, and then laid hands on them (cf. Acts 8:15-17). In the East the first traces of the expression ‘seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit’ appeared in the fourth and fifth centuries. The expression was quickly accepted by the Church of Constantinople and still is used in Byzantine Rite Churches.

“In the West, however, the words of the rite that completes Baptism were less settled until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But in the twelfth-century Roman Pontifical the formula that later became common first occurs: ‘I sign you with the Sign of the Cross and confirm you with the Chrism of salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

“From what We have recalled, it is clear that in the administration of Confirmation in the East and the West, though in different ways, the most important place was occupied by the anointing with Chrism, which in a certain way represents the apostolic laying on of hands. Since this anointing with Chrism aptly signifies the spiritual anointing of the Holy Spirit, who is given to the faithful, We wish to confirm its existence and importance.

“As regards the words pronounced in anointing with Chrism, We have examined with the consideration it deserves the dignity of the venerable formula used in the Latin Church, but We judge preferable the very ancient formulary belonging to the Byzantine Rite, by which the Gift of the Holy Spirit himself is expressed and the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-4, 38) is called to mind. We therefore adopt this formula, rendering it almost word for word.

“Therefore, in order that the revision of the Rite of Confirmation may, as is fitting, include even the essence of the sacramental rite, by Our Supreme Apostolic Authority We decree and lay down that in the Latin Church the following are to be observed for the future:

“The Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the anointing with Chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of the hand, and through the words: Accipe signaculum Doni Spiritus Sancti.

“But the laying of hands over the elect, carried out with the prescribed prayer before the anointing with Chrism, even if it is not of the essence of the sacramental rite, is still to be regarded as very important, inasmuch as it contributes to the complete perfection of the rite and to a more thorough understanding of the Sacrament. It is evident that this prior laying on of hands differs from the later laying on of the hand in the anointing with Chrism on the forehead.

“Having established and declared all these elements concerning the essential rite of the Sacrament of Confirmation, We also approve by Our Apostolic Authority the Ordo for the same Sacrament, revised by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, after consultation with the Sacred Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the Discipline of the Sacraments, and for the Evangelization of Peoples on the matters that are within their competence. The Latin edition of the Ordo containing the new sacramental form will come into force, as soon as it is published; the editions in the vernacular languages, prepared by the Conferences of Bishops and confirmed by the Apostolic See, will come into force on the date to be decreed by each Conference. The old Ordo may be used until the end of the year 1972. From 1 January 1973, however, only the new Ordo is to be used by those concerned.”

The sacrament of anointing is celebrated in the following manner:

“26. The deacon or priest brings the chrism to the bishop. Each candidate goes to the bishop, or the bishop may go to the individual candidates. The one who presented the candidate [sponsor] places his right hand on the latter’s shoulder and gives the candidate’s name to the bishop, or the candidate may give his own name.

“27. The bishop dips his right thumb in the chrism and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one to be confirmed, as he says:

“N., be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

“The newly confirmed responds: Amen.

“The bishop says: Peace be with you.”

It should be noted that the new rite, while uniting the anointing with the imposition of hands, no longer prescribes that the celebrant place his right hand on the candidate’s head as in the extraordinary form. This difference has led some sacramental theologians to question the clarity of the current rite regarding the imposition of hands and recommending its restoration. In fact, many bishops do continue to impose hands in the former manner. If, however, he used only his thumb on the forehead, this would also be the imposition of hands.

These, I believe, are the fundamental theological reasons why an instrument cannot be used in confirmation.

There are also theologians, using historical and liturgical arguments, who claim that, at least in theory, it could be possible to use an instrument. However, since we are touching upon questions of the validity of the sacrament, this question cannot be answered on pastoral grounds. It can only be decided by the Church’s supreme authority and would probably require a document on the level of an apostolic constitution to make a change, and only if this change were deemed possible and within the Church’s power over the sacraments.

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 Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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