The Order of the Sacraments of Initiation

Friday, September 29 2006

Most Rev. Gerald Wiesner, O.M.I.
Bishop of Prince George


Recent church teaching calls for the three now-separated initiation rites to be more closely integrated. This article takes a historical look at the initiation sacraments, and examines what church teaching has to say about restoring their traditional sequence (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist).

Questions about the initiation sacraments

In what order should the sacraments of initiation be celebrated? This question has been an issue of concern in the church. But even before considering the order in which these sacraments are to be celebrated, there is the more basic question: Which are the sacraments of initiation?

A Historical Perspective

Initiation into the early church – one ritual

When we return to the earliest rituals of the church we find that people were initiated into the faith community in a single celebration. This ritual included:

– a water-bath,

– an imposition of hands and

– the reception of the Eucharist.

The majority of people initiated in the early church were adults. As a result, the actual initiation ritual typically followed a lengthy catechesis and familiarization of the Christian way of life, an apprenticeship of sorts. Evidence indicates that the ritual was presided over by the bishop.

Separation of the rites

As large numbers entered the Christian community and the church grew it was not always possible for the bishop to be present for the ritual. In these situations priests presided over initiation. In the Eastern church the priest presided over the entire ritual; in the Western church the imposition of hands and anointing was left for the bishop to celebrate at a later date. This marked the beginning of the separation of the rites of initiation, although the order of the celebration of the rites remained the same.

Prevailing order of the rites

Over the centuries it is difficult to determine a consistent practice in the order in which the rituals were celebrated. However, the more pronounced practice appears to be that, for children, the water bath was celebrated at birth; the imposition of hands and anointing at a later date – often after the age of reason –; and the reception of the Eucharist completed the initiation. At the beginning of the 20th century this took place around the age of 15.

Reordering of the rites

In 1910, St. Pius X, desiring that children receive the Eucharist at an earlier age, declared the age of reason (around age seven) was an appropriate time for children to receive the Eucharist. The imposition of hands and anointing (confirmation) was now celebrated after the Eucharist at a later age. A direct result of this was that the imposition of hands and anointing became disconnected from baptism and the Eucharist, having lost its place within the traditional order of the reception of the rituals. As a consequence, the imposition of hands and anointing became a ritual in search of a meaning, a theology.

Restoring Confirmation’s Place Within Initiation – Recent Church Teaching

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent teaching of the Magisterium lead to several conclusions about the nature of confirmation and its relation to the other initiation sacraments: namely, that confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, and that it is to be celebrated after baptism and in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

The liturgical renewal introduced by the Second Vatican Council called for the link between confirmation and the other initiation sacraments to be restored. The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, for example, states that “The rite of confirmation is to be revised so that the intimate connection of this sacrament with the whole of the Christian initiation may more clearly appear” (no. 71).

Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity

The Decree Ad Gentes on the Church’s Missionary Activity, in reference to the catechumenate process of initiation, affirms confirmation’s central place among the initiation sacraments: “Then, when the sacraments of Christian Initiation have freed them from the power of darkness, having died with Christ, been buried with Him and risen with Him [baptism], they receive the Spirit who makes them adopted sons [confirmation] and celebrate the remembrance of the Lord’s death and resurrection together with the whole People of God [Eucharist]” (no. 14).

Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church, in discussing how the priestly community is brought into operation, also expresses the initiatory character of confirmation. As well, it lays out the complimentary order in which the sacraments are to be received. “Incorporated into the Church through baptism… bound more intimately to the Church by the sacrament of confirmation… [then] taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine Victim to God” (no. 11).It is quite clear from the above teaching that the official Magisterium of the church emphasizes the initiatory character of confirmation. What needs to be singled out is the overt reference to the revised Rite of Confirmation, which shows the intimate connection that this Rite has to the whole of Christian initiation.

Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation

In the Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation, Pope Paul VI refers often to confirmation as a sacrament of initiation. “By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation [baptism, confirmation, Eucharist] they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity”.Pope Paul VI speaks further of the relationship of confirmation to the other sacraments of initiation, namely baptism and Eucharist:

“In baptism, the newly baptized receive forgiveness of sins, adoption as sons of God, and the character of Christ, by which they are made members of the Church and for the first time become sharers in the priesthood of their Saviour. Through the sacrament of confirmation, those who have been born anew in baptism receive the inexpressible Gift, the Holy Spirit himself, by which they are endowed with special strength. Moreover, having received the character of this sacrament, they are bound more intimately to the Church and they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith both by word and deed as true witnesses of Christ. Finally, confirmation is so closely linked with the holy Eucharist that the faithful, after being signed by holy baptism and confirmation, are incorporated fully into the body of Christ by participation in the Eucharist.”

The revised Rite of Confirmation

The church as always looked to the liturgy as one of the primary expressions of its faith. An examination of the Rite of Confirmation itself reveals a number of things. The Introduction to the Rite affirms: “those who have been baptized continue on the path of Christian initiation through the sacrament of confirmation” (no. 1). Paragraph 3 of the same Introduction, in speaking of the task of parents, says, “They are to form and gradually increase a spirit of faith in their children and, with the help of catechetical institutions, prepare them for the fruitful reception of the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.”

When speaking of the sponsor for confirmation it recommends that if a person is present, they be the same as the godparent at baptism, as this “expresses more clearly the relationship between baptism and confirmation” (Introduction, no. 5). Paragraph 11 of the same Introduction also speaks of the identity, unity and order of the sacraments of initiation. In the revised Rite of Confirmation, three points stand out concerning the nature and sequence of the initiation sacraments:  – First, confirmation is never spoken of as a sacrament of “adult” commitment to faith, but always as a sacrament of initiation. – Second, confirmation is always spoken of as completing baptism and preparing for the Eucharist. – Third, the Eucharist is always spoken of as the climax, the completion of initiation into the Christian community.

Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults

To what has been offered thus far, one can add the teaching found in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The whole thrust of the RCIA is that initiation into the community takes place gradually, in stages. This process reaches its climax in the celebration of the initiation sacraments:

“The sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are the final stage in which the elect come forward and, with their sins forgiven, are admitted into the people of God, receive the adoption of sons of God, are led by the Holy Spirit into the promised fullness of time and, in the Eucharistic sacrifice and meal, to the banquet of the kingdom of God” (RCIA, no. 198).

Paragraph no. 208 of the same Rite also emphasizes the interconnectedness of baptism and confirmation. It gives important theological and sacramental reasons for this connection, which “signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close relationship between the mission of the Son and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the joint celebration of the sacraments by which the Son and the Spirit come with the Father upon those who are baptized.” While the direct reference her is to the condition of adults, the theology underlying the connection between these sacraments applies as surely to children of catechetical age.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recaptures, clarifies and summarizes the teaching on the sacraments of Christian initiation. It very clearly affirms that baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are sacraments of initiation (nos. 1211, 1212). Confirmation is spoken of as the completion of baptismal grace (nos. 1285, 1302, 1303, 1304, 1306, 1314, 1316). Likewise, it clearly describes how the Eucharist completes Christian initiation; baptism and confirmation enable the individual to participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church directly addresses the issue of confirmation as the “sacrament of Christian maturity”. Repeatedly it states that confirmation is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit and not dependent on the faith-choice of the individual for its efficacy (nos. 1302, 1303, 1316). Likewise, there is a clear distinction made between adult faith and the adult age of natural growth (no. 1308).

Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in America

In yet one more magisterial document we find a clear and straightforward teaching on the nature, relationship and order of celebration for the sacraments of initiation. The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America on the Church in America of Pope John Paul II expresses clearly and in summary form the position that is expressed in this presentation:

“Communion of life in the church comes through the sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. Baptism is ‘the doorway to the spiritual life; it makes us members of Christ and draws us into the body of the church’. In Confirmation, the baptized ‘are joined more completely to the church, they are enriched with special strength by the Holy Spirit and thus are more solemnly obliged to spread and defend the faith in word and deed as true witnesses of Christ’. The journey of Christian initiation comes to completion and reaches its summit in the Eucharist, which fully incorporates the baptized into the Body of Christ … The Eucharist is more than simply the culmination of Christian initiation. While Baptism and Confirmation serve as a beginning and introduction to the life of the church and cannot be repeated, the Eucharist is the living and lasting centre around which the entire community of the church gathers …” (nos. 34, 35).

Related Readings

Several back issues of the National Bulletin on Liturgy offer an in-depth treatment of this topic, especially:

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