I have bestowed the sacrament of confirmation in North and South America, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, and Africa. As best I can recall, on my visits to Asia to date I participated in an episcopal consecration, but not in a service of confirmation.
In South Africa, before our Church reestablished a local episcopate, I confirmed in perhaps a dozen places over several years, and in congregations whose primary languages were English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, and Sepedi. Two of these South African confirmations were among the most memorable of my career.
On my first trip to South Africa I visited the northwest of the country with the then vicar general, the late Father Innocent Nyoni, who lived in Sovenga, near Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg). Then I went to the Eastern Cape Province, which is the heartland of the second largest language group in the country, the Xhosa. My hosts there were centered in Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, and I performed perhaps half a dozen confirmations in various places, both on Sunday and on weekdays.
In Grahamstown on a Sunday there was a massive four hours service with the ordination of seven deacons and the confirmation of about 120 persons. I have never had occasion before or since to do what I did then: to say the prayer ‘Defend, O Lord, this thy child…’ over two persons at once, with my right hand on one head and my left on the other. Each confirmand then was chrismated individually.
In a smaller village, Peddie, I believe it was, we had a weekday confirmation, but the community still pulled out all the stops. About a mile outside the village we began to hear music. The clergy had organized a marching band and majorettes with uniforms and batons. The people began to sing. ‘Do you know what they are singing?’, a priest asked. Of course I did not. They were singing, ‘Satan is sad, the Bishop has come!’ I am sure no one has ever said anything so kind about me.
Despite these moderately grand doings, the most moving occasion on this trip occurred much more humbly. An elderly woman was unable to make the big Sunday confirmation service in Grahamstown due to illness, so at another time in the week I was taken to see her instead. Her son was foreman on a large farm in the countryside. The son’s family lived near the farm entrance in a beautiful, traditional Xhosa roundel: a round house whose walls were a glassy black made from a hardened mixture of earth and oxblood. All around us were the lovely green hills of the Eastern Cape countryside with fields and sheep and cattle.
As I got from the vehicle, I assumed I would put a stole on over my suit jacket for an informal and brief domestic occasion. Instead, my chaplain handed me a cassock, so off came the jacket. South African Anglican Catholics were and are traditionalists, so that on reflection seemed right. After the cassock, though, came the rochet, then the pectoral cross, a stole, cope, zuchetta, and miter. As the vestments accumulated, I realized this was not to be a quick, and certainly not an informal, confirmation. Next one of the new deacons fired up the thurible, the rest put on cassocks and surplices and birettas, and all the family appeared. The theme song of my visit to the Eastern Cape that year seemed to be the Xhosa version of the wonderful Handel tune to which is set, ‘Awake my soul, stretch every nerve!’: this hymn was sung repeatedly, and so it began on this occasion, with the strong Xhosa voices singing it as we entered the roundel. Just before entering the house itself I realized how fitting it was to have my crozier handed to me as actual sheep were nearby and I was about to do something for the metaphorical sheep. There were perhaps 25 people inside the house. The confirmand was lying on a bed, but as her tears streamed down she ratified and confirmed her baptismal vows and was chrismated and graced with the seven-fold gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet as graced as she was, I believe I was more blessed than she to be enabled by the occasion to minister to her. I am so glad that I was made to do so formally by Father Wirth and the Eastern Cape clergy.
A similarly rural occasion occurred in the early Aughts in Haiti. That year I confirmed 25 or 30 people at Ste. Therese’s in Tapio. After the Mass, the clergy divided up to attend two or three different celebrations at homes in the surrounding village and countryside. A Haitian priest and I trudged up a dusty hillside in the early afternoon blaze, and eventually came to a tiny two room house with a celebratory crowd inside and out. I was given a bottle of an astonishingly sweet soft drink (‘Fruit Champagne’, which can’t have had much fruit in it) and the soup that is served on Haitian independence day and other festal occasion. The people were staring at me throughout, in a friendly but bemused sort of way. The priest said, ‘They can’t believe you’re here. No Haitian bishop would ever come to a place like this. They are princes and live in their palaces.’[i]
In addition to the Prayer Book rite, the pontifical of my diocese adds the traditional anointing with Chrism with this prayer: ‘N.N., I anoint thee with Chrism and sign thee with the sign of the Cross, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’ This addition involves the occasionally risky need to hear and repeat the confirmands’ Christian names. In fact, I always forego the risk when in South Africa by omitting the names entirely, since isi-Xhosa and some of the other dozen or so official languages are click languages with many names that few Europeans can reproduce. Even in the United States, however, I find that most parish priests fail to instruct their confirmands in the answer to the simple question from the Catechism: ‘What is your name?’ The answer, of course, is their Christian names only, without the surname. This being the case, usually I speak to the candidates before the service and go over this matter.
One year at Saint Benedict’s, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I had only one confirmand, a boy of about 12 years age. I did not have the chance in advance to go over the name matter with him, so in the course of the confirmation itself he and I had a quiet little chat at the altar rail. I asked, ‘What is your name?’ The reply was, ‘Charlie,’ to which I said, ‘Charles?’ The candidate looked somewhat unhappy but answered, ‘Yes.’ I asked, again, quietly, so that only he would hear, if he had a middle name. He did not. So then I asked, ‘Would you like a confirmation name?’, to which he answered, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Well, it might be a name you’ve always liked, or maybe a name your parents weren’t smart enough to give you. Would you like that?’ His answer: ‘Yes.’ Again I said, ‘Very good. What name would you like?’ He answered, ‘Charlie.’ I am afraid he did not get his wish: ‘Charles, I anoint thee with Chrism and sign thee with the sign of the Cross….’
My favorite confirmation story, however, did not involve me, but my friend Keith Ackerman, sometime rector of Saint Mary’s Church, Charleroi, Pennsylvania, and later Bishop of Quincy. When a parish priest in Charleroi, Father Ackerman, as he then was, had one confirmand, a young woman. The Bishop of Pittsburgh came. The parish was one of the few Anglo-Catholic outposts in the diocese, and Bishop Appleyard was new. After the laying on of hands, Father Ackerman held for the bishop the oil stock with Chrism and a card with the prayer to accompany chrismation. Bishop Appleyard knew enough to know what to do and say. The parish and priest being traditional, Father Ackerman next prepared to help the bishop cleanse his fingers with lemon and bread crumbs. The bishop looked at the lemon, which Father Ackerman held out to him on a small salver, and appeared a little puzzled. Then the bishop picked up a wedge of the lemon and squeezed it over the head of the confirmand. Father Ackerman worked not to show the surprise that he felt at this development: far be it from a mere parish priest to indicate that the bishop had done a crazy thing. Next came the bread crumbs. The reader will anticipate what happened: they were sprinkled on top of the lemon. Afterwards the confirmand asked her priest if she could wash her hair. He told her that she could.
[i] It should be said in defense of Haitian bishops, that some years later the Roman Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince died in an earthquake when part of his cathedral collapsed. This particular bishop, I am told, had decided not to live in a grand palace, but more humbly and among his people in an apartment in the church itself.