August 2, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Baptism and confirmation

John F. FinkIn this series of columns, I wrote about what Catholics believe about the Eucharist in the May 31 issue. Besides the Eucharist, though, the Church has six other sacraments. Sacraments, by the way, are defined as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1131).

By “efficacious signs,” we mean that they are effective. They’re effective because Christ is at work in them. Each of the sacraments brings some particular grace special to that sacrament. We believe that Christ himself instituted every one of the sacraments at some point during his life and gave them to the Church that he founded. Finally, through the sacraments, we receive divine life, or holiness.

The Church groups the seven sacraments into three categories. Baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist are the sacraments of initiation. Penance and reconciliation and anointing of the sick are considered sacraments of healing. Holy orders and matrimony are sacraments at the service of communion.

I’ll treat baptism and confirmation briefly in this column, penance and anointing of the sick next week and then matrimony the following week.

When adults who have not been baptized are received into the Church, they typically receive all three sacraments of initiation after a period of instruction which we know as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

We believe that baptism is necessary for salvation because, among other reasons, Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). He also ordered his disciples to baptize, and the Apostles did so.

There was a time when babies were baptized shortly after their birth because of high infant mortality. The Church still wants those babies to be baptized early, but not before parents are properly prepared to raise them as Catholics. Children who do die before they are baptized are entrusted to the mercy of God. The Church does not teach that there’s a limbo for such children.

Baptism can be done either by immersion or by the pouring of water over the candidate’s head while the words of baptism are said. The liturgy also includes an anointing with sacred chrism.

Confirmation is another sacrament of initiation for children who have reached the age of reason, but usually for children in their early teens. Adults, though, are also frequently confirmed, especially those who enter the Church during the Easter Vigil. Without confirmation, Christian initiation remains incomplete.

This sacrament is sometimes called the sacrament of the Holy Spirit because the third person of the Trinity comes upon the person to strengthen him or her for an adult service to the Church.

A bishop ordinarily administers this sacrament, especially to children, but bishops usually entrust priests to do so in the case of adults who are being baptized or admitted to full communion with the Church.

We believe that Christ instituted this sacrament on the night of his resurrection when he breathed on the Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22). †

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