The new people given birth by the Holy Spirit in baptism are fed by a spiritual food. We shall cover the third sacrament of initiation, the Mass and Eucharist, later. Confining ourselves to the first two, we will look at baptism first. Baptism is the sacrament of rebirth through which Jesus Christ gives us divine life and joins us to his mystical body, the Church. It is the Catholic practice for most members to receive the sacrament within a few weeks after birth. In this manner, Catholics show their desire to share their faith and the life of grace with their children. The ritual is not magic. It is the start of a process in which the parents will model Christian discipleship: inviting their children into a pattern of prayer and service. Education is particularly crucial if the young one is to follow the ways of faith. Baptism incorporates the child into Christ, makes him a child of God, and a member of both the universal and local Church. Adult catechumens experiencing the movement of grace in conversion are instructed and then baptized or received into the Church. Often they are baptized, confirmed, and given their first holy communion at the same celebration.
Let us briefly review the history of baptism. We know for a fact that Christians during the New Testament days baptized in the name of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19). There is also some evidence that immersion into a pool was one of the forms of baptism, experientially symbolic of a dying with the Lord so that we might rise with him (Romans 6). Anyone who has ever been on the verge of drowning, knows the exhilaration of that first gulp of air. Today just as well, when baptisms are performed this way, the spiritual experience immediately mimics and parallels the physical. There is al a clear bonding with those who lower one into a pool or river; to trust them means to place one’s life quite literally into their hands. As for the spiritual bond in baptism, the sponsors or godparents take upon themselves the role of aiding the newly baptized in the life of grace.
During the early centuries, as the pagan peoples came to Christ, there was a definite emphasis on the baptism of adults. Once the parents were initiated, their children would follow in the natural course. Several factors would move the center-of-gravity to the baptism of children. First, there was the Scriptural passage of Jesus calling the little children to himself, and his condemnation of any who would hinder them. Second, it was obvious that as parents began to embrace Christianity, their faith concerns would turn to their offspring. They wanted them to be incorporated into the Church as members– given the gift of everlasting life. A high mortality rate would accentuate this pressing need. Whole households and families were converted, including servants. Third, as conditions became more favorable for Christians in the empire, the majority of adults accepted the new faith. This only left the children. The Church would consequently reflect upon her practice of baptizing children, discerning it to be according to the Spirit of God alive in their midst and guiding the community of faith. St. Augustine, who lived in the latter fourth and the early fifth centuries, would be a prominent Catholic thinker on this topic. According to his reasoning, since children had no personal sins to be forgiven in the sacrament of baptism, he discerned that what was remitted was the original sin of our first parents. This teaching about the inheritance of original sin through sexual generation is a component of the deposit of faith. The only uncertain matter was the destiny of infants who died prior to baptism. The Scriptures argued that unless one was born again (through water and the Spirit), one could have no part in Christ. Consequently, St. Augustine theorized that such small children were damned. He was not heartless. He placed them, not at the center of hell, but upon its more tolerable fringes. But, can any such distinction about hell really be made? Later theologians wrestled with this verdict and speculated that a good God would not send babies to hell. The problem was that the biblical data for any contrary conclusion was wanting. In any case, St. Augustine’s views made the importance of early baptism even more significant.
Later, between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries, the Scholastics, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas, systematized the teachings of the Church. Although Aquinas elaborated on much of Augustine, though no longer in a neo-Platonic but Aristotelian fashion, he did not accept Augustine’s view on the fate of infants. The Scholastics theorized upon a sort of half-way place wherein unbaptized infants would be eternally happy in their natural state, but ignorant of the God whom they would never see. More recently, this theological construct of limbo, which was not absolute doctrine, has come under heavy criticism. It does not even appear in the new universal catechism. It separated man’s natural end (to be happy) from his supernatural goal (to be with God). It seemed unlikely that such a separation fully appreciated the totality of the human person. Additionally, the definition of hell had always been that place where God was absent and where there was some sort of pain or fire; some intelligent progressive threw a monkey-wrench into the whole works by simply observing that limbo was like hell (God was absent) except that there was no pain and the kids were dumb as to what they were missing. Today, in all honesty, we have had to admit that we simply do not know the full answer on this score. Jesus did not tell us. Perhaps the absence of a direct statement from the Lord is itself hopeful? Further, there has been the long tradition of the Holy Innocents (those children who died in Christ’s stead) as having achieved heaven. Perhaps all innocent children, as reflections of the Christ-child, would be blessed with paradise should they die before reaching the age of reason? Or perhaps they would be enlightened and given an opportunity to make a personal choice, a choice wherein their innocence might far outweigh the stain of Adam– and they would have the greatest of freedoms to choose the Greatest Good, God himself? Some have argued that the desire of parents and of the Church for their salvation might suffice.
Along with the legalization of the Church, particularly between the third and fifth centuries, a preparation program for adults emerged, called the catechumenate. Restored in a modified form, it is called today, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It consisted of a formation in study, prayer, and in introspective examination of readiness. If deemed worthy, the adults entered the Order of Catechumens for a two or three year instructional stage. Today, instructions are usually limited to a year or less. Sponsors supported and pledged for their integrity and good conduct. When deemed ready, their names were enrolled and an intensive forty day preparation was engaged. The entire faith community involved itself in this special retreat time– which developed liturgically into Lent. They were baptized at the Easter Vigil, confirmed, and given first Eucharist. Following initiation into the Church, they would enter into a period of mystagogia (reflecting upon the sacraments). As infant baptisms increased, these adult rites were increasingly shortened and/or abrogated.
The practical difficulties related to the reservation of confirmation to the bishop, along with other factors, led to is increased separation from baptism. What has become a Catholic “coming of age” ritual was not so originally. The baptism itself was confirmed with this final anointing and invocation of the Holy Spirit. When an adult enters the Church, the ancient practice is often retained of offering baptism, confirmation, and holy communion– all at the same ceremony. Most dioceses give priests the delegation to confirm in such instances. The Eucharist is the third sacrament of initiation– it is the living source of what the Church is about– it is the mystery by which our lives in Christ are constantly nourished.
Using the ritual of baptism for children, so often experienced among our families, it might be worthwhile to examine its various elements:
WELCOMING CEREMONY – The assembly is greeted, the child’s name is given, the parents indicate their willingness to raise the child in the faith, and the celebrant signs the child’s forehead with the cross.
LITURGY OF THE WORD – The Scriptures are read, a short homily is offered, a silent prayer follows, and the saints are invoked to be present and to pray and rejoice with the community. (The child is also here anointed with the oil of catechumens or of baptism which is a sign of strengthening the child who is being offered to God.)
CONFERRAL OF SACRAMENT – At the baptistry, the water is blessed, the adults renew their baptismal promises, and the child is baptized with either thrice flowing water or immersion in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Then the child is anointed with holy chrism oil (into Christ who is priest, prophet, and king) and clothed in a white garment (sign of the elect), and the baptismal candle is lit and handed to either the father or one of the sponsors, usually the godfather.
EUCHARIST OR CLOSING CEREMONY – The Eucharist may be celebrated, the Lord’s Prayer is said, and blessings are offered.
For adults, the rite is similar. However, the candidate makes his own profession of faith and all three sacraments of initiation may be received. The final anointing becomes the confirmation rite. If someone is already baptized in a Protestant faith, there is either a conditional baptism or a rite of reception, a profession of faith, and then confirmation and first Eucharist.
The following are the principal symbols of baptism:
1. WATER – a symbol of both life and death.
2. OIL – the chrism identifies the recipient with Jesus and the high calling of a Christian as Priest, Prophet, and King. It also signifies the sealing of one with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The oil of catechumens, which precedes the baptism is a sign of strengthening the child; in the case of adult converts, it might be offered earlier in the preparation process as a strengthening of the person to be steadfast in the catechumenate against falling away or temptations.
3. WHITE GARMENT – a symbol of being clothed in Christ and spotless.
4. LIGHTED CANDLE – a symbol in its brightness of Christ as the Light of the World, so that we might see the Truth, and in its burning warmth, feel the healing of Christ. The larger candle is called either the Paschal or Easter Candle, representing the risen Christ. The smaller candle is a sign of Jesus and of the newly baptized who becomes a new Christ. It is our hope that when we have burned ourselves up by giving light and warmth to others, that the same loving Father who raised Christ from the dead will restore us to life as well.
The sacrament of confirmation was instituted by Christ who promised that he would send his Holy Spirit to remain with the Church forever. Historically, the sacrament of confirmation became distinct from that of baptism. However, to properly understand it, confirmation must be viewed within the context of the other two sacraments of initiation: Baptism and Eucharist.
When we talk of sacrament, it is necessary to speak of the Holy Spirit. He is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity– the gift of the Father, the Spirit of Love and Truth, the Giver of Life. The Holy Spirit lives in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful. Having already become a temple of the Holy Spirit in baptism, the Christian receives a more full outpouring of the Spirit in confirmation.
1. It effects a more full sharing in God’s life through saving grace (as long as not obstructed by mortal sin), the (actual) grace of the sacrament, and a permanent character or seal upon our soul.
2. The traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and holy fear (reverence).
3. The virtues which issue from the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, benignity, long-suffering per durance, mildness, fidelity, modesty, continence, and chastity.
4. The Beatitudes, as a foretaste of heaven, are also fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The sacramental grace associated with confirmation empowers a person to live out his faith courageously. The lasting spiritual seal of the sacrament marks the believer as a true Christian witness.
The mechanics of the sacrament are as follows:
1. The bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament; however, he can delegate any priest to do confirmations, which is often the case with adult converts.
2. The matter of the sacrament consists of the laying on of hands upon the head of the candidate with the accompanying anointing using chrism in the sign of the cross on the forehead.
3. The imposition of the hand signals a bestowal or invocation of the Holy Spirit. The anointing points to the spiritual character offered by the Holy Spirit. The cross represents our redemption and our openness to partake and to participate in the Paschal Mystery.
4. The sacred chrism is a perfumed oil blessed by the bishop. What was formerly used for physical strengthening and body building is now used for spiritual strengthening and the health of our souls. The fragrance is connected to the sweetness of virtue, Christ himself, overcoming the stench of sin.
5. The form of the sacrament consists in the formula spoken by the minister: “N., be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” A saint’s name is chosen as a particular patron, either a new one or the baptismal name.
6. The sponsor must do all in his power to insure that the newly confirmed fulfills the duties of a Catholic Christian. Consequently, the sponsor must be a practicing Catholic, already confirmed, and committed to the faith. The sponsor places his right hand on the candidate’s shoulder during the ceremony to illustrate that he has taken him under his wing.