By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published August 1, 2013 | En Español
The Sacraments always leave certain enduring impressions in our lives—and I do not refer only to the spiritual consequences that they mystically impart. We all remember the special moments of our Sacramental life—particularly those that we may receive only once, like our wedding, our ordination, or our Confirmation. Those events imprint themselves upon each one of us in ways that generally linger throughout our entire lives. Moreover, we often share them with other people as we relive those events.
One of the impressions that has obviously had an incredibly strong impact on many Catholics was that slap that the bishop once gave to Confirmation candidates. Although the Rite of Confirmation changed in 1972, I still have youngsters ask me (and many adults as well) “do they still slap the candidates during the ceremony?”
Since the ritual has not used that gesture for more than 40 years, I often wonder how kids today are still asking about a liturgical action that probably even their parents did not experience. Perhaps it had more to do with the unusual nature of the gesture—religious rituals after all are not intended to exhibit violence. Worship is intended for harmony within the Church family. Bishops after all are supposed to be shepherds and not tyrants. The slap was once usually described as a preparation for the young candidate to remember that they must be able to suffer for the faith—to be strengthened for the unavoidable harsh realities of witnessing their belief in Christ. The slap was like the boot camp training that members of the military undergo to “toughen them up” for real combat.
Lord knows that being a Catholic today does bring with it more than a few occasions when we can expect to suffer ridicule or scorn for the practice of our faith. Perhaps that reality causes many adults to recall the slap that they received as a youngster at their Confirmation.
In reality, that slap was a variation of the sign of peace that the bishop now gives to each candidate after confirming him or her. Like the gentle touch of the hand that parents might give to a sleeping child, it was a sign of affection and tenderness rather than an expression of “tough love.” However, the gesture did manage to become one of the most memorable parts of the ceremony of Confirmation—lasting decades in the memories of Catholics long after it disappeared from the actual ritual. Would that other ritual gestures had such a long life in the minds and hearts of the faithful!
The exchange of wedding bands, the handing over of the Book of the Gospels, the entrusting of the chalice and paten, the passing on of the crosier are all moments within the Liturgy that should and hopefully do remain with us throughout the years, reminding us of what the Sacraments have done with and for us and what we must now do with and for others. Each time a married person looks at or feels the texture of that wedding band, may they recall the promises that they have made to their beloved.
When a deacon lifts up the Book of the Gospels, may he remember that the Church has entrusted him with Good News for the life of the world.
When we priests touch the vessels that we use at Mass, may we all remember that we are commissioned to feed and to nourish the People of God.
And when we bishops grab that crosier, may we recall that the sheep that are entrusted to our care are precious to none other than the Good Shepherd whose place we take within the family of the Church.
The Sacramental life of the Church uses physical elements to reveal spiritual realities and to strengthen human relationships and not just during the moment of the ritual—but hopefully each and every day of our lives.