A Slap on the Cheek

If you are Catholic, what is your strongest memory of your confirmation? I don’t have to think back too far. It was March 26, 2016, at the Easter Vigil. My strongest memory was the moment my confirmation name was pronounced: “Francis” (for St. Francis de Sales) and the sign of the cross was made on my forehead and I was sealed in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit with the fragrant chrism of salvation.

However, there was one thing that I did not receive. It didn’t invalidate my confirmation, but somehow I believe it would have heightened the impact of the moment. What did I miss? A slap on the cheek!

Bishop slap

A Catechism of Christian Doctrine No. 2, also known as the Baltimore Catechism, in the chapter on Confirmation, question 172 says:

Q. Why does the Bishop give the person he confirms a slight blow on the cheek?

A. The Bishop gives the person he confirms a slight blow on the cheek, to put him in mind that he must be ready to suffer everything, even death, for the sake of Christ.

The slap or the slight blow dates back to A.D. 350 with St. Cyril of Jerusalem, when confirmation was seen not so much as a “sign of maturity” but as willingness to become a “soldier of Christ.” From that time until 1971, as a result of changes after Vatican II, the bishop would touch the cheek of the confirmandi while saying “Pax tecum” (Peace be with you). In the Roman Church this touch was interpreted to be a slap, a reminder to be brave in spreading and defending the faith.

We can decry the loss of another valuable image from the Latin rite, and we probably should. If anything, we need to be reminded more than ever that as Catholics we are entering into a battlefield, that we have become “soldiers of Christ.” Confirmation, God forbid, should not be a rite of passage that we observe for eighth graders so that they can dress up and receive gifts.

I love a story that Steve Ray tells of a family he knew in his parish. They, like him, were converts to Catholicism. When it came time for their 8th grade son to be confirmed they asked Steve if he would be the young man’s sponsor. He declined because of his busy travel schedule and Steve’s adult son instead became his sponsor. However, Steve did offer to spend one evening with the young man to help prepare him. As the story goes Steve had purchased an authentic Roman army helmet and a three-foot sword and his wife tied a red cape to his shoulders. When the young man was dropped off by his parents, Steve “jumped” him and held the sword close to him and said to him in an urgent voice, “Are you ready to become a soldier of Christ? If not, go home now until you’re ready and don’t waste my time!” The young man was shocked, but answered in the affirmative.

Dear reader, you may think this example extreme, but think about it, what did Jesus say about following Him?

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NRSV).

A little slap on the cheek works pretty well when we’re born; it might be just the ticket when we are born again!

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