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!

Blessed Assurance

Yesterday I had an experience that brought two distinct parts of my life experience together in a very special way. I have had the privilege over the past several months to facilitate the “Breaking Open of the Word” each Sunday during the noon Mass at my home parish of Good Shepherd. What that means is that following the homily the catechumens, who are preparing to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil, are called forward and blessed in prayer, and then leave the Mass to further “break open the Word” they have just heard. I love to hear them respond to God’s Word read and exposited each week.

The experience yesterday was a very important step in their Christian pilgrimage. The six catechumens from Good Shepherd, along with hundreds of others of the New York Archdiocese, gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the Rite of Election. Here, every catechumen joins his or her godparent to be offically welcomed by the bishop to receive the sacraments after they have gone through the Scrutinies during the Lenten season. I was there as a godparent to one of the catechumens and was honored to walk forward with her as she was called to sign her name in the Book of the Elect.

The Scrutinies (examinations) are “very special rites…celebrated on the middle three Sundays of Lent, at liturgies where the Elect are present. The Elect are those in our midst who are preparing for Baptism. Part of their journey to the (baptismal) font is that they have been received among us, the Rite of Acceptance, and they have been enrolled in the Book of the Elect in the Rite of Election” as described above.

There is a such a strong sense that while this is an individual decision made by each person, each person is also part of something much bigger than themselves, present with hundreds of others, but also present with millions of Christ-followers stretching back over 2000 years! I was taken with the liturgy and the ceremony spoken in three languages: English, Spanish and Mandarin, a liturgy and ceremony that have not always been a part of my faith experience. Yet my heart was filled with praise that I too am part of this amazing “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7).

As the service came to a close we were invited to sing the recessional hymn. There in the beautiful and cavernous expanse that is St. Patrick’s the cantor and organist led us in singing in three languages the great Gospel hymn of my childhood, “Blessed Assurance,” written by Fanny J. Crosby and composed by Phoebe Palmer Knapp. In that moment the wonderful faith expression of my parents and grandparents came together with the beauty of my faith expression in the historic Catholic Church.

  1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

    • Refrain:
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long;
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long.
  2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
    Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
    Angels, descending, bring from above
    Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
  3. Perfect submission, all is at rest,
    I in my Savior am happy and blest,
    Watching and waiting, looking above,
    Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

All glory, praise and honor to our Lord Jesus Christ! Now and forever!