The various names for this sacrament are treated (Baptism, bath of regeneration, renewal in the Holy Spirit, illumination), for each offers a particular angle from which to study this multi-faceted mystery. The primary symbol for Baptism, of course, is water. The Catechism discusses its natural meaning which conveys the notion of life (when it comes from a living spring) and death (when of stupendous proportions, as in a sea or flood); both are to be perceived in this sacrament which brings death to sin and life to God. Various foreshadowings of Baptism are likewise presented, especially the passage of the Chosen People through the Red Sea [1217-1222]. “All the Old Covenant prefigurations find their fulfillment in Christ Jesus,” with His baptism by John in the Jordan; that, in turn, becomes paradigmatic for Christians as the disciples are commissioned by the Risen Christ to evangelize and baptize all nations in the name of the Triune God .1
A brief history of the sacrament is given and followed by a detailed explanation of the process of Christian initiation: “proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion” . The Catechism notes that these are the necessary elements, regardless of whether we are talking about a unified catechumenate which precedes the sacraments or a post-baptismal catechumenate, as when infant baptism is celebrated. Without taking an absolute position, the Catechism does consistently come down on the side of the contemporary discussion which favors restoring the order of sacraments to that of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist; it does so simply by repeatedly offering that as the appropriate sequence without, however, proscribing what has developed .2
Since the Church has always subscribed to the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, not surprisingly the text goes on to analyze the constituent parts of the baptismal rite [1234-1245], in order to plumb the depths of the truths to be apprehended: The sign of the cross, the proclamation of the Word of God (wherein great play is given to the role of faith which is stirred up and responds), exorcism (“since Baptism signifies liberation from sin and from its instigator the devil”), confessing the Faith of the Church, consecration of baptismal water, the baptism proper (a preference seems to be indicated for triple immersion), anointing with chrism, clothing with the white garment, presentation of the lighted candle, and recitation of the Our Father (since the neophyte is now truly a child of God).
The Catechism also observes that in the Eastern Churches sacramental communion is then administered (even to infants), to highlight the linkage between Baptism and Eucharist; it notes that this connection is even maintained in the West by bringing the child to the altar during the praying of the Our Father. “The solemn blessing concludes the celebration of Baptism. At the Baptism of newborns, the blessing of the mother occupies a special place,” which is not quite the situation in the English ritual which has the mother’s blessing as but one of the three invocations for the solemn blessing .
Who can be baptized? “Every person not yet baptized and only such a person is able to be baptized” . In other words, baptism cannot be repeated, and only humans (not dolls or cats!) are eligible recipients. In discussing catechumens, the Catechism stresses that these people “are already joined to the Church” . The treatment on infant baptism is careful to handle several important points:  Infants are “born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin”;  “The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism”;  Since Baptism confers on an infant “the priceless grace of becoming a child of God,” the sacrament should be received “shortly after birth” . All these items were in the Catholic consciousness (even among non-practicing Catholics) but three or four decades ago, but conviction about them has often been eroded, even among the devout, because of defective and at times malevolent catechesis – hence, their most welcome clear restatement here.
An excellent presentation is made on the relationship between faith and baptism for candidates, parents, godparents and the whole Church [1253-1255]. The ordinary ministers of Baptism are given as bishops and priests (and deacons as well for the Latin Rite); extraordinary ministers include anyone (baptized or not) who, in an emergency, intends to do what the Church intends and uses water and the proper Trinitarian formula . Clear mention is made that a valid formula requires the use of the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” ; thus, efforts to circumvent “sexist” language by resorting to alternatives like “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” would result in invalid baptisms. After all, the Trinity into which we are baptized is a trinity of interrelated persons, not of mere differentiated functions.3
While holding for the necessity of baptism, the Catechism is very nuanced here: Yes, indeed, “God has bound salvation to the Sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” [emphasis added, 1257]. What is being said – and not being said here? Baptism is the normal means of bringing a person into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, but God can choose to use other means in His unbounded wisdom and providence. Scholars of St. Thomas Aquinas will quickly pick this up as the teaching of the Angelic Doctor. This position thus allows for the salvation of those who, through no fault of their own, have not heard the Gospel and so cannot respond with faith and the request for baptism ;4 it also comes to grips with the condition of children who die without Baptism by asserting that “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children. . . caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them’”. Apparently, the Catechism wants to put to rest the theological speculation which gave rise to the theory of limbo, a theory which many treated with the respect and authority due to dogma.
The Catechism teaches that there are two principal effects of Baptism: remission of sins (negative) and new birth and life in the Holy Spirit (positive). Once the first is effected, room then exists for God’s life, “sanctifying grace, the grace of justification,” which imparts the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; grants the gifts of the Holy Spirit; provides for growth in goodness through the moral virtues – all of this happening as a result of the reception of Baptism [1265-1266]. In all honesty, one must ask when was the last time a catechesis or homily on Baptism was heard to present all these truths, instead of the more sociological “incorporation into the Church” approach or the even more “folksy” image of “joining the community.”
Once sin has been removed and divine life has been imparted, one is indeed incorporated into the Church , but things must be viewed in priority order. Now, part of the Church, the baptized “is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church, and to ‘obey and submit’ to the Church’s leaders, holding them in respect and affection” . Such responsibilities also bring in their wake certain rights, namely, “to receive the sacraments, to be nourished with the Word of God, and to be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church” .5 Flowing from one’s baptism is likewise the duty and privilege “to participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God” , which is to say that all the faithful (not just clergy and religious) are called to embrace the evangelical work of the Church. We are also reminded that “Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church”; therefore, Baptism is, in truth, “the sacramental bond of unity” .6
The section ends with reference to the indelible spiritual mark of Baptism which is nothing other than the “seal” or “character” of the Lord imprinted on the soul of the baptized, destining one for eternal life. As the Roman Canon puts it, such have been marked “with the sign of faith,” and in that faith is awaited “the blessed vision of God – the consummation of faith – and. . . the hope of resurrection” .
It is interesting how issues now current apparently have a long pedigree, as the following excerpt from an 1828 (!) Anglican sermon of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman attests, as he rails against the notion that this sacrament is little more than a social convention:
To conclude. Let me beg of all who hear me, and who wish to serve God, to remember, in their ordinary prayers, their habitual thoughts, the daily business of life, that they were once baptized. If Baptism be merely a ceremony, to be observed indeed, but then at once forgotten,—a decent form, which it would neither be creditable, nor for temporal reasons expedient to neglect,—it is most surely no subject for a Christian minister to speak of; Christ’s religion has no fellowship with bare forms, and nowhere encourages mere outward observances. . . . . But for me, my brethren, I would put it before you as a true and plain pledge, without reserve, of God’s grace given to the souls of those who receive it; not a mere form, but a real means and instrument of blessing verily and indeed received; and, as being such, I warn you to remember what a talent has been committed to you. There are very many persons who do not think of Baptism in this religious point of view; who are in no sense in the habit of blessing God for it, and praying Him for His further grace to profit by the privileges given them in it; who, when even they pray for grace, do not ground their hope of being heard and answered, on the promise of blessing in Baptism made to them; above all, who do not fear to sin after Baptism. This is of course an omission; in many cases it is a sin. Let us set ourselves right in this respect. Nothing will remind us more forcibly both of our advantages and of our duties; for from the very nature of our minds outward signs are especially calculated (if rightly used) to strike, to affect, to subdue, to change them.
Blessed is he who makes the most of the privileges given him, who takes them for a light to his feet and a lanthorn (= lantern) to his path. We have had the Sign of the Cross set on us in infancy,—shall we ever forget it? It is our profession. We had the water poured on us,—it was like the blood on the door-posts, when the destroying Angel passed over. Let us fear to sin after grace given, lest a worse thing come upon us. Let us aim at learning these two great truths:—that we can do nothing good without God’s grace, yet that we can sin against that grace; and thus that the great gift may be made the cause, on the one hand, of our gaining eternal life, and the occasion to us, on the other, of eternal misery.7
“Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the ‘sacraments of Christian initiation,’ whose unity must be safeguarded” . Thus begins the treatment of Confirmation – with a caution repeated many times during the entire section – namely, a nervousness about the practice of the Latin Rite which may suggest a change in discipline in the offing. Immediately following this is the strong statement that “it must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.” Why? Because “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ.”
Confirmation is placed in the total picture of “the economy of salvation,” in both Covenants. Citing Old Testament texts, the Catechism notes that the coming of the Spirit, however, would reach its fullness in and through the Messiah and, through Him, “be communicated to the whole messianic people” , which event occurred on the Day of Pentecost. Tracing out the history of the Sacrament in the Church, it is said that “very early, the better to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit, an anointing with perfumed oil (chrism) was added to the laying on of hands” , from which chrism comes the name of “Christian,” that is, “one who has been anointed” (like the Christ Himself). The Sacrament has different names in the Churches of East and West, highlighting different but complementary notions: In the East, it is called “chrismation,” precisely to stress the act of making one into another Christ through the holy anointing; “in the West, Confirmation suggests both the ratification of Baptism, thus completing Christian initiation, and the strengthening of baptismal grace – both fruits of the Holy Spirit” .
The Catechism offers a fine analysis of the two different traditions between East and West in regard to this sacrament [East: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist received, even by infants, all within a unified rite performed by a priest; West: the temporal separation of the sacraments for infants and, in some cases, even the inversion of Confirmation (usually reserved to a bishop) and Eucharist]. Citing St. Cyprian, it mentions how he saw the unity of Baptism and Confirmation, all the while seeing the distinctiveness between them, so that he spoke of them as a “double sacrament” .
The text summarizes the pluses of both practices: “The practice of the Eastern Churches gives greater emphasis to the unity of Christian initiation. That of the Latin Church more clearly expresses the communion of the new Christian with the bishop as guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church, and hence the connection with the apostolic origins of Christ’s Church” .
The signs and symbols of Confirmation are reflected upon, with special emphasis on the “mark” or “character” conferred. And so, we read: “A seal is a symbol of a person, a sign of personal authority, or ownership of an object. Hence, soldiers were marked with their leader’s seal and slaves with their master’s.” Therefore, “this seal of the Holy Spirit marks our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service for ever, as well as the promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial” [1295-6]. Going through the rite, the Catechism observes that to demonstrate the relation of Confirmation to Baptism, when the two sacraments are celebrated separately, “the Liturgy of Confirmation begins with the renewal of baptismal promises and the profession of faith by the confirmands” . The unity of the sacraments is also brought out by having Confirmation celebrated within the context of the Eucharist Sacrifice .
The imposition of hands, of course, is an ancient and apostolic gesture: “In the Roman Rite the bishop extends his hands over the whole group of the confirmands. Since the time of the apostles this gesture has signified the gift of the Spirit” . “The essential rite of Confirmation is anointing the forehead of the baptized with sacred chrism (in the East, other sense-organs as well), together with the laying on of the minister’s hand and the words: ‘Accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti’ (Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.) in the Roman Rite, or ‘The seal of the gift that is the Holy Spirit’ in the Byzantine rite” . “The sign of peace that concludes the rite of the sacrament signifies and demonstrates ecclesial communion with the bishop and with all the faithful” .
Why is Confirmation so important? Consider its effects:
– “it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, ‘Abba! Father!’;
– it unites us more firmly to Christ;
– it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
– it renders our bond with the Church more perfect;
– it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” .
Again, one must regrettably ask when such a list of effects formed part of our sacramental catechesis in the past several decades.
Who can receive this sacrament? “A candidate for Confirmation who has attained the age of reason must profess the faith, be in the state of grace, have the intention of receiving the sacrament, and be prepared to assume the role of disciple and witness to Christ, both within the ecclesial community and in temporal affairs” . Several times the Catechism talks about “the age of discretion” being the normal age for the reception of Confirmation. What about “making a personal decision for Christ,” about which we have heard so much and so the delay to the teenage years? Taking direct aim at such theories, the Catechism warns: “Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective” .
In what should catechesis for Confirmation consist? “Preparation for Confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit – his actions, his gifts, and his biddings – in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life. To this end catechesis for Confirmation should strive to awaken a sense of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the universal Church as well as the parish community; the latter bears special responsibility for the preparation of confirmands” . Again, we see the gaps in recent theory and practice.
The text notes that a sponsor is needed as a spiritual guide and that, ideally: “To emphasize the unity of the two sacraments, it is appropriate that this be one of the baptismal godparents” . “The original minister of Confirmation is the bishop,” we are reminded. Then follows a restatement of the divergent approaches of East and West. Latin-rite bishops are presented with an admonition to take seriously their obligation to administer this sacrament personally and not delegate this power frivolously, “mindful that the celebration of Confirmation has been temporally separated from Baptism for this reason” .
With Confirmation as “the gift of Christ’s fullness” well handled , it might be good to call attention to the effort of this Catechism truly to be the Catechism of the whole Church, both East and West. Repeatedly, we are given the theological perspectives of the Churches of East and West and led to appreciate our catholicity, whereby both traditions are complementary and mutually enriching. Not by accident was this text promulgated by the very Pope who incessantly urged the entire Church once more to “breathe with both lungs.”
Again, Cardinal Newman addresses issues which sound so contemporary in this Anglican sermon of his from 1835. First, a general reflection – an appeal for elders to promote this sacrament:
Confirmation is the last act on the part of the Church before she parts with them [youngsters]. She blesses them, and sends them out from the home of their youth to seek their fortunes in the world. She ends her constraint of [= influence over] them by a blessing; she blesses them by force [= with power] and lets them go. They are sent to receive it by their friends; they submit, and are then set free. O my brethren, both young and old, this is an awful [= awesome] thought,—a most affecting thought, indeed, to those who witness a Confirmation, but a most awful thought to those who take part in it. You who have the care of young people, see to it that you bring them to be confirmed; let not the time slip by; let them not get too old. Why? because then you cannot bring them; the time of constraint is passed; they are their own masters. But you will say that you may perhaps still have influence with your children and dependents, and can get them to come, though they be past age. O but what if we be not willing to receive them? So perchance it may be. I mean, that when a man or woman is grown, much more is required of them than before, and they less likely to be able to answer it. When persons are young, before their minds are formed, ere they have sullied their baptismal robe, and contracted bad habits, this is the time for Confirmation, which conveys to them grace whereby they may perform that “good work” which Baptism has begun in them. But when they have gone into the world,—whatever their age be, for it varies in different persons,—when they have begun the war with world, flesh, and devil, when their minds are now grown into some determinate shape, and much more when they have wilfully sinned in any gross way, are they likely to be fitly prepared for Confirmation, even if they are persuaded to offer themselves? . . . Beware, then, all who have the care of the young, lest you let slip the time of bringing them for God’s grace, when you can bring them, for it will not return. Bring them while their hearts are tender: they may escape from you, and you may not be able to reclaim them.
And then, a specific explanation as to why Confirmation should be administered sooner, rather than later, evincing a good grasp of adolescent psychology:
On the other hand, the same considerations come home with greater force to the young themselves: it is their own concern. They who are of an age to be confirmed should come to be confirmed at once, lest they get too old to be confirmed,—I mean lest they be first confirmed in another way, a way which will keep them from this holy confirmation, lest they receive that miserable confirmation, which those have who rush into sin,—the touch of this infectious world, and the imposition of the devil’s hand upon them. You do not know yourselves, my brethren; you cannot answer for yourselves; you cannot trust your own promises about yourselves; you do not know what will become of you, unless you receive the gifts of grace when they are offered. They are, as it were, forced upon you now. If you put them from you, doubtless you can in this case overcome that force, you can be stronger than God’s mercy. You may put off this holy ordinance, because you do not at present like a strict religious life,—because you take no interest in your eternal prospects. Alas! for what you know, you will be taking a step never to be retrieved. This blessed means of grace, perchance would change your heart and will, and make you love God’s service. But the season once lost will never return. Year after year may pass, and you will be further and further from God. Perhaps you will rush into open and wilful sin: perhaps not; but still without loving God at all the more. Your heart may be upon the world; you may pass through life in a cold, unbelieving, narrow spirit, with no high aims, no love of things invisible, no love of Christ your Saviour. This will be the end of your refusing the loving compulsion of Almighty God:—slavery to this world, and to the god of this world. God save us all, young and old, from this, through Jesus Christ.8
It would seem that even in 1835 Confirmation was viewed (or at least treated) as the “Sacrament of Exit”!
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