You won't find the word initiation in your
Bible. And you won't find it in the Baltimore Catechism.
But if you look at contemporary Church documents there are many
references to initiation, Christian Initiation and the Sacraments
of Initiation. You'll find them, for example, in the documents
of the Second Vatican Council, the rites of the Catholic Church,
the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
All of these documents name the Sacraments of Initiation
"Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist" while most Catholics reading
this article received these sacraments in this sequence: Baptism,
Eucharist and Confirmation. What are the reasons behind these
changes? In this Update we'll take a brief look at the
history and meaning of the Sacraments of Initiation to help answer
this important question.
It is difficult to say why the New Testament authors
do not speak of initiation. Perhaps they looked up initiation
in their Merriam-Webster Dictionary (or its first-century
equivalent) and saw that initiation referred to "rites, ceremonies,
ordeals or instructions with which one is made a member of a sect...
" and immediately thought of the initiation ceremonies of the
pagan religions. They saw little or no resemblance between becoming
a disciple of Jesus and initiation into the mystery cults. To
use the same word for both would have been confusing to their
We become Christians by a process of conversionmetanoia
in Greek, which means literally "turning around." Conversion is
a process of turning from a life of selfishness and sina
"Me First" lifeto a life of Spirit-filled generosity and
love. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: "I give you a new commandment:
love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love
one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). And Christ,
through the Church, has provided us with sacramentsritual
ceremonieswhich help us appropriate and celebrate this conversion
process. The Sacraments of Initiation are an ongoing invitation
into this lifelong process of conversion.
Instead of the word "initiation" the New Testament
authors speak of "taking the plunge" or "being dipped into"using
the Greek verb baptizein, from which we derive our term
"baptism." Becoming a disciple of Jesus was not like joining a
mystery cult, nor is it today simply joining one more club like
the "Friends of Public Radio" or the "Classic Cars Club." It is
a "joining" that is so radical that it has eternal consequences;
we can never "un-join." Baptism is never repeated.
'BE WHAT YOU SEE'
The Sacraments of Christian Initiation celebrate and
effect a plunge into the life, passion, death and resurrection
of Christ; a plunge that is so deep and transforming that we "put
on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 13:14). We receive the Holy
Spirit, the very Spirit that directed, inspired and empowered
Jesus himself so that we become members of Christ's Body. The
prayers of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist speak clearly of
the transforming effects of this Spirit.
At Baptism, we pray over the water:
"Father, look now with love upon your Church, and unseal for
her the fountain of baptism. By the power of the Holy Spirit give
to this water the grace of your Son, so that in the sacrament of
baptism all those whom you have created in your likeness may be
cleansed from sin and rise to a new birth of innocence by water
and the Holy Spirit" (Christian Initiation of Adults, #222A).
At Confirmation, we learn what this new life
in the Spirit implies:
"All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water
and the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and
gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their
helper and guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge
and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your
presence" (Christian Initiation of Adults, #234).
This prayer names the "seven gifts" of the Holy Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah taught that these seven gifts would be the
sign of the Messiah, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit. The
word Messiah (Christos in Greek) means "anointed."
Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the one filled with the
Holy Spirit. At Confirmation we are anointed with that same Holy
At the actual anointing during Confirmation we hear
the words: "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." We are
sealed with the gift of, that is, the gift which is the Holy Spirit.
At Eucharist, with our sins washed away and
clothed with the Spirit, we are led to the banquet table of the
Lord's Supper. At each Eucharist we ask God to send the Spirit
upon the bread and wine so that they become for us the Body and
Blood of Christ. Then we pray that the Holy Spirit come upon uswe
who eat and drinkso that we may become the Body of Christ.
Each Eucharist sustains our ongoing conversion, our
ongoing faith journey into the Mystery of Christ. At each Eucharist
we are invited to enter ever more deeply into the Body of Christ.
The saying, "You are what you eat," certainly holds true here.
St. Augustine said: "If then you are the body of Christ and his
members, it is your sacrament that reposes on the altar of the
Lord....Be what you see; and receive what you are" (Sermon
Those individuals whose only experience of "eating"
is eating alone, often rapidly, simply to get rid of the desire
for food will have difficulty appreciating this sacramental dimension
of "meal." But those of us who have had rich and positive experiences
of shared meals know that much more goes on at a meal than just
eating, consuming food. Meals bring us together; they are signs
of love and signs of forgiveness. It is no wonder that Jesus chose
this human sign as the sacrament of the perfect union with his
Father which he demonstrated for us on the cross.
(If you would permit me an aside comment: I think
that one of the most important things parents can do for the religious
education of their children is to give them rich and positive
human experiences of words such as "father," "family" and "meal."
Without these experiences it is difficult for a catechist to speak
of God as "father," Church as "family" or Eucharist as "meal.")
'WASHING UP': A THREEFOLD SEQUENCE
Recent historical investigations into the origins
of our sacramental rituals reveal a rich diversity in the early
Church. It is difficult to trace with precision how the Church,
acting under the direction of the Holy Spirit, elaborated the
sacramental rituals instituted by Christ. But in its simplest
outline, the development happened along the following model.
In prophecy and parable Jesus spoke of the Kingdom
of God as a banqueta great eating together. "I say to you,
many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven"
(Matthew 8:11). God has invited the whole human family to join
in a great heavenly banquet. We respond to this invitation through
the Sacraments of Initiation.
Consider for a moment what you do when you are invited
out to eat. Let's say that you have been out working in the garden
and a friend calls and asks if you would like to come over for
dinner and you accept the invitation. What happens next? Probably,
three things: First, you would take off your work clothes and
wash up, perhaps taking a shower or a bath. Second, you would
dry off and put on clean clothes. And third, you would go out
This sequence of events is perhaps the simplest way
to understand the Sacraments of Initiation. God has invited each
of us to dine with Christ at the eucharistic banquet. When we
come to this table for the first time, we first put off
the "old self" (see for example Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22 and
Colossians 3:9) and wash away the stain of Original Sin. This
is the sacramental bath of Baptism. Second, we dry off.
In the first and second centuries, however, Romans would rub their
bodies with oil after bathing to moisturize the skin and to dry
off. In our sacramental system the bath of Baptism is followed
by the oil of Confirmation. And, third, clothed with the
Holy Spirit, we are invited to the eucharistic table.
This three-step sequence can help us understand some
of the contemporary developments and understandings of the Sacraments
of Initiation, for example, the sequence of the three sacraments
when they are celebrated together in our parishes at the Easter
Vigil. Of course, the historical development of the rites is much
more complex, especially the development of the rite we call Confirmation.
We do not find much written specifically about Confirmation
in the early Church, because when the early Christian authors
wrote about Baptism they often implied both the water bath and
the anointing with oil, what we would call Baptism and Confirmation.
For example, if you invited me out to eat and I said, "Let me
wash up first, and then we'll go," by "washing up" I would imply
both the washing and the drying; there would be no need to specifically
mention the "drying off" (or anointing, if we were ancient Romans).
Baptism and Confirmation are also intimately related
in another way. When we take a bath, we get clean by washing off
the dirt. We can speak of "getting clean" and we can speak of
"washing off dirt" but, actually, removing "dirtiness" and receiving
"cleanliness" go together. They are two ways of looking at one
action. In a similar way, early Church writers described Baptism
with the "washing off" metaphors and spoke of Confirmation with
the "getting clean" metaphors. Baptism washes away all sin, Original
and Actual; and Confirmation gives us the grace and presence of
the Holy Spirit. Of course, taking away sin and being filled with
grace are but two ways of speaking of the same action, something
like "washing off" and "getting clean." The two actions go together
even if we call them by different names: Baptism and Confirmation.
This analogy of "washing up, drying off, going to
eat" works especially well for "Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist"
when they are celebrated in that sequenceas they were in
the early Church, and as they are today in most of the non-Roman
rites (or liturgical families) of the Catholic Church, and as
they are in the Roman Catholic Church for adults and children
of catechetical age at the Easter Vigil.
However, the analogy does not seem to fit as well
when Confirmation is separated from Baptism by a number of years,
and especially when it comes after Eucharist rather than beforeas
is usually the case with children baptized as infants in the Roman
Catholic Church. How did Confirmation come to be separated from
Baptism? The bishop (episcopos = overseer) was the original
minister of all the sacraments. In the fourth century, when (for
various reasons) priests (presbyteros = elder) began to
baptize and preside at the Eucharist, the anointing after Baptism
which conferred the Holy Spirit began to be reserved to the bishop
in those Churches that followed the liturgical customs of Rome.
Because the dioceses of central Italy were very small, this was
usually a separation of only a few weeks or months. But as the
customs of Rome were extended to the whole Western Church, the
separation between the two parts of the rite increased from weeks
Although the Confirmation part of initiation came
to be delayed in the Western Church, Eucharist remained an integral
part of the ceremony. While initiation by Baptism, Confirmation
and Eucharist continued to be the norm in the East, infants, children
and adult converts in the Western, Roman Church received Baptism
and Eucharist. Infants received their "First Communion" at their
Baptism until about the 12th century, when changing Eucharistic
understanding and devotion began to worry pastors that the infants
could not have the necessary reverence to receive the Eucharist.
Furthermore, to avoid any danger that the infant might "spit up"
the consecrated host, infants began to be given only the Precious
Blood at Communion time. (A few years ago when I was studying
in Egypt, with my limited American understanding of the world
and the Church, I first thought it very strange to see the priests
in the Coptic churches give infants Holy Communion. When parents
carrying infants approached the priest for Holy Communion, the
priest would dip his little finger into the consecrated wine and
place it on the lips of the infant.)
When, in the 12th and 13th centuries Communion from
the cup was withdrawn from the laity in general in the Roman Church,
it was also denied to infants. However, since infants did not
receive the Bread, this in effect meant that they no longer received
Communion at each Eucharist from the time of their Baptism and
had to wait for their "First Holy Communion." Communion was delayed
until after a period of catechetical formation, often at the age
of 14 or 15.
Usually during the course of these 14 or 15 years,
the bishop had the opportunity to visit the parish or the parents
had the opportunity to bring the child to the cathedral and so
most of these children receiving First Holy Communion had already
been confirmed. Even though the Sacraments of Initiation were
spread out over a number of years, the sequence remained Baptism,
In 1906 Pope Pius X encouraged children as young as
six or seven to receive the Holy Eucharist. While lowering the
age for First Communion had many positive benefits, it also caused
many children to receive Eucharist before Confirmation. The explanation
of "Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist" as "washing up, drying
off and going to eat" doesn't seem to fit any more because we
"go out to eat" several years before we "dry off."
As Confirmation became separated from Baptism by a
number of years, teachers and preachers began to speak of the
meaning of Confirmation apart from the meaning of Baptism. Confirmation
began to be described as a sacrament of "strengthening." The embrace
of welcome and "kiss of peace" (which had become a "love pat"
in the case of infants) now became a "slap on the cheek" to remind
those being confirmed that they had become "soldiers for Christ."
Other explanations of Confirmation were developed which were especially
suited to needs of the adolescents receiving the sacrament.
This was the context for the sacraments of Baptism,
Confirmation and Eucharist, as they are presented in the Baltimore
RCIA: A NEW LOOK
In the years preceding the Second Vatican Council,
Church leaders looked carefully at the current state of our initiation
rites in the light of this long and rather complicated history
and decided that some changes in emphasis should be made to better
adapt these sacraments to the pastoral needs of the contemporary
Church. Following the discussion of these matters at the Council,
the Church published four documents: Christian Initiation:
General Introduction, Rite of Baptism for Children, Rite of Confirmation
and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (which has
come to be known by its initials, RCIA). Each of these revised
rites, and especially the RCIA, has had a profound effect on Church
life in the United States.
The RCIA restores the order of Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist
and emphasizes the interconnectedness of these three sacraments
(as we saw above: washing up, drying off, going to eat). These
rites are neither separate nor are they static; they are part
of an ongoing process. The RCIA speaks of our faith journey. And
this journey does not end at Baptism or First Communion, or even
at Confirmation, but continues throughout our Christian life.
The Sacraments of Initiation are a continual invitation to continued
This faith journey is not merely a matter of learning
about the faith, not merely instruction, but also a true conversion
process. It involves the whole life of the candidate and the whole
life of the Church. These sacraments are not private events. They
affect the whole Church. Conversion takes place in community.
Conversion implies initiation into that community, initiation
into the Body of Christ.
In 2000 the bishops of the United States published
Journey to the Fullness of Life: A Report on the Implementation
of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the United States.
The results of this comprehensive study make it clear that the
RCIA is renewing the life of the Church in the United States,
say the bishops. "This study also affirms that faith formation
is a lifelong process....The image of a journey is one that is
often used in reference to the RCIA and that fits with an understanding
of catechesis/adult faith formation as a lifelong process." Again
and again the report stresses that the initiation of catechumens
is a "gradual process that takes place within the community of
We are each members of that "community of the faithful."
Are we an inviting community? Do we live lives that others would
want to imitate? Each time I see the catechumens dismissed from
Sunday Eucharist, I ask myself, "Why would anyone want to join
this parish?" And I know that I am personally responsible, along
with the other members of the parish, for creating the kind of
parish that makes it easy to answer that question.