One of the easiest ways to know what a group, organization, or institution is all about is to examine the process by which they initiate new members. When I became a boy scout, I had to memorize the motto and pledge. Then I had to demonstrate certain outdoor skills, including building a campfire using things I found in nature, cooking a meal on that fire, and safely handling a pocketknife. These requirements for initiation match up well to the Scouts Canada’s mission of helping kids experience adventures and learn various survival skills.
In the Church, our process of welcoming new members centers on the three Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. Most of us go through these sacraments separately, being baptized when we’re still infants and then receiving Confirmation and our First Communion at specific moments in our childhood. Others go through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults or Children (RCIA or RCIC) and receive these sacraments all together at the Easter Vigil. Whenever they might be received, having a better understanding of each of the Sacraments of Initiation can help us better understand what it means to be a Catholic.
“Baptism is the way out of the kingdom of death into life, the gateway to the Church, and the beginning of a lasting communion with God.“ -YouCat 194
“Being baptized means that my personal life story is submerged into the stream of God’s love.” -YouCat 200
One of the main effects of Baptism is our being cleansed (forgiven) of all our sin, both original sin and any we may have committed prior to our Baptism. Baptism happens when water is poured on us or we are immersed in water as the celebrant says: “I baptize you in the name of the Father of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is the moment in which a new life in Christ begins in each of us. We are brought into a covenant with God, where we are united with Christ and His death on the Cross. The ceremony of Baptism also includes other signs: anointing with oil (sign of strengthening), the white garment (being clothed in Christ – see Romans 13:12, 14), and the Baptismal Candle (the flame of faith).
Baptism is offered to any person who has not yet been baptized, provided they are willing to enter this covenant with God. In the case of an infant that is Baptized, it is the parents who “confess the Faith” on behalf of their children. They promise to raise their children in the faith, giving them opportunities to ratify their parents’ decision later in life. Whether it is an infant or adult who is Baptized, this Sacrament marks the beginning of their Christian journey – a fresh start in which they have been able to leave behind sin and will now seek to walk with Christ for the rest of their lives.
“In Confirmation the soul of a baptized Christian is imprinted with a permanent seal that can be received only once and marks this individual forever as a Christian. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the strength from above in which this individual puts the the grace of his baptism into practice through his life and acts as a ‘witness’ for Christ.” -YouCat 205
Receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation means being sent on a mission by the Church for Christ. We see examples of sending for mission throughout the scriptures. Moses encountered God in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3), and God tasked him with a mission to serve others. The prophet Samuel was sent to anoint David as the future King of Israel (1 Samuel 13). In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John confirmed new Christians by laying hands upon those who had only previously been Baptized (Acts 8). In a similar manner, the bishop (or a priest delegated by the bishop) lays hands on us, praying that we would receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He then anoints us with oil so that we would be strengthened for whatever mission God will call us to.
Being confirmed is essentially a mutual ‘yes’ declared by God and the one being confirmed. The one being confirmed asserts the faith of their Baptism and asks for the gift of the Holy Spirit that he or she may never be separated from God. God affirms His belief in each them, and gives the gift of His very self, promising to stay with them and to help them in all the joys and challenges of life. Confirmation takes the initial choice to follow Christ in Baptism a step further: recognizing that each Christian has a distinctive role to play in the Kingdom of God. St. John Henry Newman explains it beautifully: “I am created to do or to be something for which no one else has been created: I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has. Whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by name.”
“Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament in which Jesus gives His Body and Blood – Himself – for us, so that we too might give ourselves to him in love and be united with him in Holy Communion. …the Eucharist is the mysterious center of all these sacraments, because the historic sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present during the words of consecration in a hidden, unbloody manner.” -YouCat 208
In the same way as the steady beating of our heart sustains us and keeps us alive, the celebration of the Eucharist (the Mass) sustains our spiritual well-being. We have celebrated the Mass from the earliest days of the Church when Jesus commanded the Apostles to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). St. Paul writes how that’s precisely what the Church did (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), and St. Justin Martyr explained it in detail in the year 155. If you read St. Justin’s account, you’ll see how today’s Mass looks a lot like what the Church has always done.
While the other sacraments of initiation can be received only once, we are invited to participate in the Mass regularly. Catholics are expected to be at Mass every Sunday, and to receive communion at least once a year. Although it is possible and important to build up a personal prayer life, being a part of the Sunday Eucharist plugs us into the body of Christ, reminding us that we do not do this walk alone (and our own faith builds up others.) To ensure that we have a proper hunger for Christ we also choose to fast (eat nothing and drink only water) an hour before communion. Many also make a point of attending Church in some of their finest clothes (their Sunday best) in recognition of the divine encounter offered to them every Sunday.
While we speak here of “obligations” of Catholics – attending Mass and fasting – remember that with the Eucharist, as with Baptism and Confirmation, are about the renewal of our ‘yes’ to Christ. We do so publicly and in the heart of the body of Christ, knowing that He meets us there and offers us His very self. This is meant to be like married couple who are devoted to one another. You don’t need to tell them about their obligations to love, serve, and be faithful to one another… it comes naturally. As we come to know and love Christ, our hunger for Him will recognize that the Eucharist is the place par excellence that we can meet Him repeatedly, in the natural rhythm (heartbeat) of our Christian lives.
Much like my childhood experience of learning to build a fire and use a pocketknife prepared me for full membership as a boy scout, what we see in these three Sacraments of Initiation are the ways in which we are brought into the life of the Church. By Baptism, our sins are washed away, we receive the Holy Spirit, and become a member of God’s family. By confirmation we are strengthened and given our own share of the mission of the Church. And by the Eucharist, we are nourished, repeatedly, to become the man or woman that God made us to be.