What are the sacraments of Christian initiation?

“The sacraments of Christian initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist – lay the foundations of every Christian life.” (CCC 1212)

By these three sacraments we become one with Jesus in his passage through death to life in the Kingdom. Our humanity is caught up in Christ’s glorified humanity in the here and now. By Baptism, we share in his death and resurrection. By Confirmation, we share in the gift of Pentecost. In Eucharist, we share in the food of heaven. This is why they are called sacraments of initiation – we are initiated into the community that holds the paschal mystery as its very life.

Originally, the three sacraments formed one single celebration, the Easter Vigil. For children of catechetical age and for adults, this is still the preferred way.

If in the case of infants we separate the celebration of the sacraments, we need to keep in mind the order and the unity of these sacraments. The current practice does not express this as clearly. So, the plan to restore the order of the sacraments is an effort towards consistency between teaching and practice.

From earliest times, the sacraments of Christian initiation were only a beginning – the new members continued to study and deepen their commitment for the rest of their lives. How will we also apply this understanding and practice? We need to find ways to foster lifelong catechesis for all our members.

How were the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist) celebrated in the early church?

The catechumenate developed in the first centuries of the Church. The focus was on adult believers, even if there were also children and infants from those families.

Each person went through a period of instruction and learning to live the Christian life. This period might last several years. At the beginning of Lent the “elect” would enter into a special time of prayer and preparation leading up to the great night of the Easter Vigil.

At the vigil, the whole initiation happened, beginning with the baptism, followed by the anointing of Confirmation. The new members were then admitted into the assembly for the liturgy of the Eucharist and could partake in communion.

It was initiation into the Body of Christ, becoming a member of the Kingdom. It happened at the Easter Vigil where we die with Christ, in order to rise with Christ, where we share in the Pentecost experience, so as to share fully in Christ through communion.

The conversion process was never intended to end with the Easter Vigil. The new members would continue to reflect on and deepen their experience, living ever more deeply this new way of life. It was a life-long process.

Why did the Church move away from the catechumenate?

The catechumenate involved the whole community working together to help new members learn the life and the way. Christianity was dangerous, you could easily be killed for believing in Jesus. Persecutions were very common.

When Christianity became accepted and not persecuted, many people began to join. It became a state religion and that resulted in whole populations being converted. The large numbers of people joining the church made it harder – sometimes impossible – to help the catechumens really live the process of the catechumenate.

Also, we reached the point where there were very few new adult converts. The initiation of infants did not require the same amount of preparation since they were being initiated into the faith of their parents with the understanding that most of the catechesis would happen over time.

So, the focus moved from the catechumenate to ongoing catechesis of the initiated. The emphasis moved to teaching the “catechism” to the children. In time, the catechumenal approach was forgotten. In recent times, we have rediscovered texts that show us the early ways. These became the basis of Vatican II teachings and of other documents since then.

What do we mean by the expression “restored order of the sacraments?”

This expression speaks of a pastoral policy within a diocese around the timing for the celebration of the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. This is linked to our understanding that both of these are sacraments of initiation. As such they are meant to introduce us into full membership in the Body of Christ.

In simple terms, it means that Catholics who were baptized in infancy will now receive Confirmation before First Communion, not after. Practically speaking, this means that the two sacraments are received at the First Communion Mass, with Confirmation being celebrated after the homily.

Bishops from all over the world have been reflecting and praying about this. Some dioceses in Canada have been following this policy for several years already. Bishop Albert has invited our diocese to begin the reflection process that will lead to the restoration of the order of the initiation sacraments.

Such a change will also require a change in our understanding of the requirements for Confirmation. We will not prepare 7 or 8-year-olds in the same way as we prepared 14-year-olds. A key element of this pastoral policy is the reality that faith is a journey of relationship with God and that catechesis (or faith formation) is a lifelong process. We never ‘graduate’ from catechesisl

Is “restored order of the sacraments” something new in the church?

No, not at alI! This has been part of our tradition since the beginning.

During the first five hundred years or so of the history of the Roman Catholic Church (and still today in the Christian churches of the East), the sacraments of Christian initiation were celebrated in the same unchanging order: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. And almost always, all three sacraments were celebrated together at the same time, even with infants.

The Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of all our sacraments so that our practice would be more in line with our beliefs. Following the lead of official documents from this Council and other church documents published since then, more and more dioceses are restoring this original order to the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation.

After much thought, consultation, and prayer, Bishop Albert has invited our diocese to begin the process that will lead to the restoration of the order of the initiation sacraments. Some parishes are doing a pilot project this year. From their experience, other parishes will be able to move smoothly through the transition.

The Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Church do not celebrate Confirmation at the same time as we do. How did that come about?

Starting in the 4th Century, when Christianity spread more and more to the rural areas, it became harder for people to get to the Bishop’s town for Sunday Eucharist and for initiation.

Two approaches developed around the initiation difficulty.

In the East, the bishop delegated the priests to carry out the entire initiation celebration. Unity with the whole church was maintained through the Chrism being blessed by the Bishop and by the bishop delegating the priest. This meant that all areas could celebrate full initiation at the Easter vigil. However, the link to the Bishop was possibly less clear.

In the West, the bishop delegated the priests to begin the initiation with baptism. The bishop would come later in the Easter season to confirm and to admit to holy communion. Here, the unity to the whole church was maintained through the bishop delegating the priest for baptism, and through the direct presence of the Bishop for part of the initiation. While the link to the bishop was clearer, it created a slight time gap in the celebration of initiation.

This is how we came to have our current practices: baptism-chrismation and Eucharist in the in Eastern rites, and baptism, confirmation and Eucharist in the Latin rite.

Why is the church choosing to return to the original order for the Sacraments of initiation?

The Church is not simply going back to the way it used to be. Throughout its history the Church has worked with a double focus of faithfulness to its essence and roots and adaptation to the needs of the current time.

There are some very significant theological and liturgical reasons for restoring the integrity of the three sacraments of Christian’ initiation–all celebrated in proper order, even at the same time.

The catechumenate is the model out of which all initiation and catechesis should happen. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) requires that children and adults in the catechumenate receive all three sacraments together, even if the children are younger than the age at which the Catholic children of the parish are routinely confirmed.

Placing Confirmation between Baptism and Eucharist better expresses its role as the completion of Baptism.
Also, the sacrament that is the summit of a person’s Christian initiation is the Eucharist, not Confirmation.

Theologically, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit given in all its fullness at Confirmation that best prepares one to receive Eucharist, and thus to be most fully joined to the Body of Christ.

Were we wrong to be confirming after receiving Eucharist?

The practice was not wrong because of the understanding we had at the time. When Pope Pius X lowered the age for First Eucharist, he did not say that Confirmation had to remain at a later age… but the practice went that way.

Once the practice was in place, a theology of confirmation as a sacrament of maturity blossomed. The practice then struggled with what age was most appropriate. We saw a whole range of practices from Grades 5 through 12. And programs were developed to match.

The Church has many ways of celebrating the mysteries of God’s love in the sacraments. While the sacrament is central, practice can change overtime.

In its teaching documents, Rome is strongly encouraging a restored order of celebrating the sacraments of Christian initiation. So, it is not surprising that more and more dioceses choose to restore the original sequence of the three sacraments of Christian initiation.

In our own diocese, Bishop Albert has invited us to begin the reflection process that will lead to the restoration of the order of the initiation sacraments. This is an invitation to each member of our community to reflect on his or her own initiation and life as a disciple of Jesus.

Isn’t Confirmation a sacrament of maturity that should come some time after First Communion?

Not really. Confirmation is actually linked to Baptism, focusing on the full gift of the Holy Spirit.

To celebrate Confirmation requires nothing more by way of age-appropriate maturity than to receive the Eucharist. Remember, in Eastern Orthodox churches, even infants will be fully initiated with all three sacraments. In some Eastern Catholic Rites, they may delay Eucharist, but not Chrismation (their name for Confirmation).

The maturity that is required for receiving any of the sacraments of Christian initiation is only what is age-appropriate. The Church expects interior dispositions of readiness, such as understanding and freedom, that are realistic at any given age, nothing more.

The Church’s understanding is that our growth in faith does not end with our celebration of the sacraments of initiation – they are only a beginning! We are called to continue to grow in our relationship to God, study our faith and develop in our response to God’s call throughout our life.

That is why the church is insisting more and more clearly that catechesis is life-long! Each age has particular needs and questions which catechesis and faith development need to address.

Why do we say that catechesis is a life-long process? Isn’t catechesis for children?

The General Directory for Catechesis says: “Adhering to Christ sets in motion a process of continuing conversion which lasts for the whole of life.”(# 56)

Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist are an initiation into life in Christ”; development and growth follow Initiation. The process of continuing conversion goes far beyond what is given at the time of initiation. The Gospel and the Eucharist are our constant food for the journey. This brings a couple of consequences:

1) Participation in the parish community, especially in its liturgy, is an essential element of continuing conversion. We do not participate as a “duty”, but rather as a love response to Love and because we know that the liturgy will nourish, support and challenge us on our journey of conversion.

2) Study of God’s word (most often through some form of catechesis) is the second essential element. How can I grow in conformity to Christ if I do not seek to know him better – through study and prayer – so that I can discern God’s leading and call at any point?

Every baptized person has the right and responsibility for catechesis: the right to receive age and need appropriate catechesis and the responsibility to participate in catechesis and/or to assist in catechetical activity.
Lifelong catechesis helps us to live lifelong conversion to Christ

How are Baptism and Confirmation two expressions of our participation in Christ’s paschal mystery?

Baptism is our participation in the death and resurrection of the Lord. We are made one with Jesus, in the whole of our being, in his passage through death to resurrected life. It is our sharing in the re-creation of the world In Christ. From this we see why baptism by immersion is the stronger and clearer expression of the meaning of our baptism.

In Confirmation, we are anointed or sealed in our new relationship with God. In ancient times, the fragrant oil was an outward sign of God’s gracious presence in our lives. The Confirmation anointing is connected, with Jesus, who alone is the great High Priest, Prophet and King. Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One of God.

If we put baptism and confirmation together we see a double sacramental sign that uses water and oil and shows our participation in the paschal mystery. In the waters of baptism, we are made one with Jesus in his death and resurrection; and in the anointing with holy oil we are made one with Jesus in his ascension to Spirit-filled lordship at the right hand of the Father, where he is the great High Priest, Prophet and King forever.

These two initiation sacraments reveal two complementary but distinct aspects of Jesus’ passage: his death and resurrection, and his ascension to the right hand of God. In this initiatory passage we become living witnesses to the unbounded graciousness of our God.

Why do we say that Confirmation completes Baptism?

The Catechism (# 1304) says that Confirmation completes Baptism. What does this mean?

Confirmation, as a sacrament of initiation, is part of the process by which we are conformed ever more closely to Christ, molded more radically into the image of “the Christ” – the Anointed One of God.

In Baptism we were born again in Christ. We have become members of Christ, part of the Kingdom. In Confirmation, we share in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who was sent upon the apostles at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit makes us more like Christ, and helps us to witness to his suffering, death and resurrection. It strengthens us to be active members of the Church and to build up the Body of Christ in faith and love (from RCIA).

Baptism has made of us a priestly, kingly and prophetic people. Confirmation, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, reaffirms this reality and enables us to become even more deeply what we already are. Eucharist nourishes and sustains us in that life which we now share. So, Baptism and Confirmation are both oriented to the Eucharist, the sacrament for the journey.

In this way, we see again the close link of the three initiation sacraments. Our practice needs to make this link clearer yet…

What is the meaning of Baptism?

In Greek the word for Baptism means to submerge in water. From ancient times, water signifies both death and life. Water can destroy, but life comes out of it as well. So, water is a very apt symbol for the reality of baptism.

At the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over the chaos of the waters and God parted these waters and called forth all life from them.

The waters of Christian baptism plunge us into the death of Jesus Christ and draw us into his resurrected life. We are a new creation in Christ. The waters of baptism are waters of new life. We die and rise in Christ in order to share the feast of the Kingdom of God.

To be baptized is to be made one with Jesus, in the whole of our being. We participate in the death and resurrection of the Lord. We are reborn to new life, to life in Christ. We are baptized into the life of the Trinity (in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit).

The practice of baptism by immersion certainly makes this symbolism much more visible and tangible. Baptism by sprinkling is not wrong, only a little less clear.

Whether baptism happens years or moments before Confirmation and full participation in the Eucharist, the close link between the three sacraments needs to be stressed at all times. As members of the new creation, we need the strengthening of the Spirit, we need the bread of life. All three sacraments make up our initiation.

What is the meaning of the symbol of oil in Confirmation?

In ancient times, people would anoint the body with oil after a bath. Oil restores and seals the body. In the religious tradition of Israel, oil was used to anoint priests, prophets and kings. They would pour an abundance of oil over the person’s head – that person was sealed into a new relationship with God as a priest, as a king, or as a prophet. The oil was perfumed and reminded everyone of God’s grace and favour, God’s blessings and joy, God’s gracious presence in their lives.

Also, the name Christ (in Greek) or Messiah (in Hebrew) means “anointed”. As the Anointed One of God, Jesus was the great High Priest, Prophet and King. We share in his priestly, prophetic and royal mission.

The oil used at Confirmation is the Chrism – the chrism of salvation. It is also used at Baptism. So, the oil at both sacraments helps to remind us of the link between the two. The words used are “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” By sharing in Christ’s paschal mystery through our initiation, we are anointed as priests and kings, prophets and martyrs (witnesses). We are made into temples of God’s glory, sharing in God’s own life.

The Holy Spirit becomes our helper, our constant companion and teacher in our life as followers of Jesus Christ. Our “yes” to God’s call can then grow into a life of witness and service in the Kingdom.

What is the meaning of Confirmation?

By Confirmation we are more perfectly bound to the Church and enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1285). Just as Baptism makes us participate in the Paschal Mystery, Confirmation is our sharing in the full outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. Thus the two sacraments make us share in the two events at the very core of our faith.

Reborn in Christ through Baptism, we have become a new creation. Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of the grace of baptism through the outpouring of the Spirit.

There are two symbols used in Confirmation: the laying on of hands and the sealing with the sacred chrism. The laying on of hands over the candidates is a traditional sign of the gift of the Spirit. The anointing with the sacred chrism is the essential rite in both Eastern and Latin rites. The chrism has been consecrated at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week.

The seal of the Holy Spirit with chrism marks our total belonging to Christ. We are now in his service forever. We are also assured of the Spirit’s help and protection in our fulfilling of our service.

Confirmation roots us more deeply as children of God and unites us more firmly in Christ. It increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us and perfects our bond to the Church. The Spirit becomes our strength and our guide.

Why do we say that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life”?

Since earliest times, the Eucharist is the sacrament that completes Christian initiation. In Baptism, we shared in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ and we were raised to the dignity of the royal and prophetic priesthood. In Confirmation we were made more like Christ (conformed to him) through the gift of the Spirit. In the Eucharist we participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice.

In the Eucharist, we receive Christ, who is our life. The other sacraments are all linked to the Eucharist. Our whole life and our service in the kingdom of God flow from our participation in Christ through this sacrament.

The Eucharist is also a participation in the liturgy of heaven where Christ is the only priest (see Hebrews). In a very real way, the Eucharist goes beyond time and space to link us to the death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus. Two things are happening at the same time: we (and the world with us) are being made holy in Christ and we are offering ourselves (and the world) to Christ, and through him, to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

When we receive “communion” it is really a “becoming one” – we are in communion with God and with every other member of the Body of Christ. So, from week to week, all aspects in our life either lead to the Eucharist or flow from it. It is indeed the “source and summit” of our life.

Who is the minister of Confirmation?

The original minister of Confirmation is the bishop. In the early centuries the bishop presided over the full initiation of all members. When, for pastoral reasons, the practice was changed, an effort was always made to express the apostolic unity of the Church. This is important since one aspect of Confirmation is to strengthen our bond to the Church.

In the Latin Rite (our rite), the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation. Bishops are successors of the apostles and have received the fullness of Holy Orders. By administering Confirmation, they are clearly reminding those being confirmed that they are being linked more closely to the Church, to her apostolic origins and to her mission.

However, in special cases, the Bishop can delegate a priest to give this sacrament. This already happens when adults are initiated at the Easter Vigil. It also happens when a bishop is sick or unable to attend a Confirmation celebration. When a child is very ill, any priest has the power to confirm.

In a large diocese, the bishop would never be able to preside at every Confirmation-First Communion. The need to delegate priests will necessarily grow. However, even in such a case, the apostolic unity with the Church will be maintained through the delegation and through the Sacred chrism that was consecrated by the bishop in Holy Week.

What is the role of parents in Christian initiation?

Parents are the first educators of their children in the faith. When parents bring their child for baptism they ask for baptism on the basis of their own faith and of the faith of the community. Parents commit themselves in two ways: 1) to help the child grow into the faith they profess and 2) to grow in their own faith so that they can witness this faith to their child.

Ongoing and lifelong faith education begins in the cradle. Through the various faith traditions at home, through celebrating God’s gifts, through incidental teaching, through active involvement in the parish community, parents teach by example what they profess by word.

Parents have accepted to journey with their child along the way of faith. When they judge that the child has reached sufficient maturity to take the steps towards completing the initiation, they invite their child and they participate fully in the initiation preparation.

The initiation journey is intended to help the child grow into a closer relationship with Christ and to live more attuned to the Holy Spirit. It is an ideal time for parents to also reflect on their own life as disciples of Christ. Together, parents and children can grow in the ways of faith.

Of course, the journey of discipleship continues much beyond the initiation period — all the way into adulthood! Parents will foster such an understanding in their children.

What is the role of the parish in Christian initiation?

When we are initiated, it is within a Church community. It takes a whole parish to raise a new member. At a Baptism, the whole parish commits to supporting the parents and child in this journey of faith. How seriously do we take that commitment?

Every person needs prayer support. As a parish, we consciously pray for each other. We need to carry in prayer in a special way those who are obviously in greater need (the sick, those experiencing difficulties, those going through initiation.)

Every person needs witnesses. Each of us is called to be Christ for others. New members watch how we live the Gospel to see “how it is done’. Are some of my choices a source of light or a cause of scandal?

Every person needs a helping hand. Each of us is called to be the hands of Jesus to persons in need. The way we serve can stimulate another to develop and use his/her talents to serve as well.

Every person needs to belong. Each of us can practice the ministry of hospitality in a variety of ways at the parish. The more welcoming and supportive we are to others, the more Christ will be visible in our midst.

We are all stewards of the common good – we can share time, talents and treasure. New members need help in discovering their own talents and in daring to share them. Are we there to help them?

There are so many ways we can do our share. Let’s all work at supporting the newer members!

How might the transition to a restored order happen?

Transition to the restored order of initiation will involve confirming the young persons who have already received first communion and, at the same time, initiating the younger members in this new order. The size of a parish can impact on this transition process.

The first element, of course, is preparation of the parish for such a change. We need to understand the reasons for a change if we are to embrace it and to begin to think along those lines. These short inserts are part of such a process.

The actual transition can happen in several ways. For example,

1) A small or medium sized parish could realistically do the transition in one year – the first communicants and all older children not yet confirmed.
2) A medium or larger parish could choose to progressively do the older children (1, 2, or 3 grades at a time) while also doing the first communicants.
3) A family-focused approach could take children in Grade 2 and 6-7 (for example) along with their siblings needing confirmation. This approach would allow larger parishes to have a transition that is closer to option 1.

The important point is that we move toward a restored order with its implications and not simply seek to get these children “done”. The details of transition can vary.