Accipe signaculum: Receive the seal


Fr Zuhlsdorf has written today in response to a query about a Bishop slightly changing the form of Confirmation (See: ASK FATHER: Non-standard form for Confirmation – valid?)

In the newest English version of the Rite of Confirmation, the form is: "N., be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit." In our new England and Wales and Scotland 2015 version, beautifully printed by the CTS on quality off-white paper with fine binding, the form is set in large type in bold and in small caps, making it clear that this is the really important bit. So I entirely agree with Fr Z that priests and bishops should just use the proper form for the sacraments and not leave the faithful in any doubt about the validity of the sacraments. He makes the point forcefully and has done so often in the past, particularly with regard to the sacrament of penance.

Without wishing in any way to detract from this important point, I have another quibble with the form of Confirmation in our current English version. Simply put, it is not a correct translation of the Latin text.

In 1971, in the Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation, Pope Paul VI noted that the form of Confirmation used until then had first been used in the 12th century. He thought that the more ancient form of the Byzantine rite was preferable and so he ruled that from then on, the following should be observed in the Latin Church:
Sacramentum Confirmationis confertur per unctionem chrismatis in fronte, quae fit manus impositione atque per verba: "Accipe signaculum Doni Sancti Spiritus Sancti"

(The Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the anointing of chrism on the forehead, which is done by the imposition of the hand and by the words: "Receive the seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit")
Except that in English translation (the new version does not change it from the previous pre-2015 version) does not say that. It says "Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit." I do not think that it is pedantic to point out that "Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is not the same as "Receive the seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit."

The seal is something that is given and received. In the Roman army, recruits were marked on the hand or the forearm with an abbreviation of the name of the general. This tattoo was called the signaculum. (In the film Gladiator, Maximus has the mark on his upper arm and cuts it away with a flint while he is being transported to be sold into slavery.) In Greek the word would be sphragis and there is a rich vein of material in the Fathers of the Church that brings out the significance of this in the rite of Baptism and Confirmation. Danielou in his "The Bible and the Liturgy" devotes a chapter to it.

The signaculum or sphragis was an indelible seal, a mark of belonging to Christ, of being incorporated into the Church, a mark of protection, and a mark of enlistment into the army of Christ. The notion of being a soldier of Christ did not originate with Faustus of Riez, it was there in St John Chrysostom. The military metaphor was made more explicit by the Roman use of signaculum, of course.

So using the phrase "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit" in our current translation is not the same as "Receive the seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" which is what the Latin original means. The seal, as something given and received, is a rich source for catechesis and reflection. It is a great pity that after all the wrangling that we have had in recent years over improving the translation of the modern rites, this small but significant inaccuracy should have been allowed to remain.

Please don't misunderstand me here. I do not doubt for a moment the validity of the sacrament of Confirmation conferred with the English form as it is currently translated. For one thing, the form of Confirmation has varied over the centuries and the Church has approved the current English form, so that is enough. Furthermore, the difference in meaning is not enough to destroy the idea of receiving a seal or of receiving the Holy Spirit or of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.

It is just such a pity that we have to continue for the foreseeable future with an impoverished form that could so easily have been corrected for the benefit of the faithful.

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