Sacraments of Initiation

Baptism gets its name from the Greek verb to plunge into water, and that is one of the important things about a valid baptism – that it be natural and flowing water. We pour it over the persons’ head, or we put the baby down into the font, but there is always living water involved.

Deacons get to do a lot of baptisms, and in the rite there is a wonderful prayer to bless the water in the font, and that prayer reminds us of the many ways God gave a hint of the sacrament of baptism in stories from the Old Testament. From the creation story to Noah’s ark, and the crossing of the Red Sea and later the Jordan River, God used water as an image of life and freedom from slavery and entry into the promised land.

Baptism forgives all personal sin, takes away original sin, infuses sanctifying grace, and is necessary for salvation. Baptism imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible sign, which is why it can only be received validly once. There is no age restriction on when one can be baptized, from infant to adult. As the gateway into the Church, baptism is necessary to receive the other sacraments. The grace received by baptism may be lost by the commission of an actual mortal sin. So, baptism gives spiritual life, but grave sin leads to spiritual death. And, if we remember from our discussion about Original Sin, baptism is commonsensical: if original sin is true – how else are we to get back into right relationship if we are born outside it? Baptism is our death to sin and rising to new life in Christ, and we see that example clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus told his disciples to offer baptism to everyone; it was basically the last thing he said to them before ascending to his throne in heaven.

Early practice mostly involved adults but certainly infants were baptized. We hear that the house of Cornelius was baptized in the Acts of the Apostles, for example. The practice of baptism evolved after the end of persecutions toward infant baptism. Parents and godparents stand in for the child and make promises on its behalf.

Confirmation makes common sense if we believe the stories of Pentecost and personal conversion recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – Cornelius, St. Peter seeing the Holy Spirit fall on the pagans. That was one of the reasons why he understood Christianity was not just for Jews but for all people who sought to follow Christ. It imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible Sign, and so can only be received validly once. We have seen this with Baptism, and we will see it in other sacraments. Some, like confession and eucharist can be received more than once, but not all of them.

Confirmed persons are called to profess faith in Christ publicly, and to spread the Gospel message, in accord with the ability and circumstances of their life. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. 

To impart the sacrament of Confirmation, it is necessary to lay hands on the confirmandi. This is to impart the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And those gifts are what empowers the confirmed to live a public Christian life. It would be too much without the strengthening of the seal, and the root word for confirmation is strengthening. So, the confirmed Christian is now equipped to go out into the world and spread the love of Christ, to be one of his disciples.

There is a difference of practice between the Eastern and Western Churches in terms of how much time passes between baptism and confirmation. In the East, the priest is the ordinary minister for baptism and confirmation and those are done in a double sacrament in one rite. (And the baby receives first eucharist at the same liturgy.) In the west, the bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament of confirmation, and the practice of having the bishop travel around for confirmations grew out of this understanding. But he can grant the faculty to do confirmations to his priests and in Atlanta he has. That’s why you will see a bishop come to our parish for confirmation but you will also see our priests confirm adults at the Easter Vigil.

The Second Vatican Council declared the Mass to be the source and summit of our faith, and the Mass includes the liturgy of the eucharist as basically the second half of the Mass, from the Offertory through Holy Communion. So, when we talk about the sacrament of the Eucharist we are talking about two things: the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated host, and we are talking about Holy Communion when those who are in the right relationship with Jesus and his Church come and receive his body and blood into their bodies. Remember that when consecrated, the bread and wine of the holy Eucharist becomes literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ, such that all of Christ is present: His human nature and His Divine Nature, united in One Divine Person.

The liturgy of the eucharist is many-faceted, but the fundamental characteristic is it is a sacrifice. It is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. In a mysterious, sacramental, way, that sacrifice on the Cross is made present to us. We do what we do because Jesus told his apostles to do the memorial in remembrance of Him. Part of doing what he commanded is participating in this memorial action with our community.

The Eucharist, or the Real Presence, is just common sense if we believe the words of our Lord in Holy Scripture, or those of St. Paul. Catholics are not doing things that are not biblical despite some claims to the contrary. Acts 2:42 is an excellent summary of the Way of the Apostles and of what we are supposed to do as Christians today: “And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Our Mass is “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And here we are outside of Mass devoting ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching.

There is an excellent teaching series being held here at St. Catherine’s on Monday evenings that is examining the seven cardinal virtues and looking at saints whose lives exemplify those virtues. Justice is one of those virtues, and a definition we get from St. Thomas Aquinas is: “Therefore the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own.” So, what does one render to God? Since he is God and we are not, we offer worship and adoration to God. And the Mass is one of the public, communal, acts of worship and adoration.

I mentioned that Communion is reserved to those who are in right relation with God and his church. It may only be received by baptized Catholics who are not aware of any unconfessed actual mortal sins. It doesn’t work if we are in a state of mortal sin. That is the principal issue of being in right relation with God. But, it is also true that reception of this Sacrament is a sign of unity with other Catholics and with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Faith. So it is reserved to those who believe what the Church teaches to be true. Those who obstinately doubt or deny any of the required beliefs of the Catholic faith should not receive Communion. (cf. Canon Law 751, 1364).

You are probably aware of the habit of a few leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States to announce themselves proudly as Catholics while loudly and persistently supporting wider use of abortion. Abortion is prohibited, and it has been consistently since the first century of the Church, as demonstrated in something called the Didichae (the Teachings of the Apostles) that specifically said, “Practise no magic, sorcery, abortion, or infanticide” as the second teaching in the document. So, a self-professed Catholic who publicly disagrees with a core teaching of the Catholic Church should not be receiving Communion.

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