The Sacrament of Baptism

History and Biblical context

Since Baptism cleanses us from the stain of original sin, the story of this sacrament really begins all the way back in Genesis, Chapter 3, when Adam and Eve make the choice to believe the lies of the serpent instead of the commandment of God. In doing so, they are banished from the Garden of Eden, and a chasm is created between all of humanity and its Divine Creator. The coming of Jesus Christ is what finally bridges that chasm and offers us a pathway to salvation. That pathway begins with Baptism.

The history of Christian Baptism originates with Jesus Christ himself. Before starting his public ministry, Jesus was baptized at the hands of John the Baptist in the River Jordan. The Baptisms performed by John the Baptist were Baptisms of repentance, and not strictly the same as the Sacrament of Baptism we experience today. By submitting himself to Baptism in the waters of the River Jordan, Christ both sanctified the water and showed us that we must die to self in order to be reborn raised up as sons and daughters of God from the death of sin into new life as members of the Church.

Baptism has been practiced since the earliest days of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter tells the very first converts to the Gospel: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he details how the sin of Adam is corrected by accepting the “free gift” of Christ’s sacrifice through Baptism: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)

In the early Church, when the baptism of adults was common, the long period of preparation for the sacrament was known as the catechumenate. During this time, individuals who were already baptized and known as faithful followers of Christ vouched for the integrity of the catechumen, protecting the persecuted early Church from being intercepted by agents of harm. This was the beginning of the practice of naming godparents.

The Sacrament Today

Baptism of infants is the norm most common today, as it is important for children to be cleansed, as early as possible. Through this sacrament, they are freed from the stain of original sin and become part of the Christian community, and are prepared to receive the very real graces imparted by the sacrament. The practice of infant Baptism is supported by numerous Biblical references in the Acts of the Apostles and elsewhere in the New Testament, where converts to Christianity are depicted being baptized “with their whole household,” which certainly involved children.

Today, adults are able to prepare for Baptism through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which was established by the Second Vatican Council and restored the period of adult catechumenate.

During the essential rite of Baptism, water is either poured over the person’s head three times, or the person being baptized is immersed three times under the water, while the minister of Baptism says: “(Name), I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In the ritual of infant Baptisms, parents affirm their willingness to assume the responsibility of forming their children in the faith. In both infant and adult baptisms, godparents also affirm their willingness to help form the children in the faith and to provide a witness of that faith lived out.

Only one godparent is required, but he or she must be a practicing Catholic who is at least 16 years old and who has received the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Confirmation. Where two godparents are present, there must be one godfather and one godmother; there cannot be two godmothers or two godfathers (others present are considered “Christian witnesses”).

Following the Baptism, the newly baptized is anointed with chrism so they may remain forever a member of Christ, priest, prophet and king. Then they are clothed with a white garment, the color of purity and a sign of their new Christian dignity, as they are instructed to keep the garment unstained by sin. The baptismal candle is lit from the flame of the Paschal candle, signifying that the baptized will now share in Christ’s mission to be a light to the world.

The Sacrament of Confirmation

History and Biblical context

To understand the history of the Sacrament of Confirmation, we turn to one of the earliest accounts of Baptism by Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 A.D.). In his description, when the newly baptized emerged from the water, he was anointed by a presbyter with the oil of thanksgiving, accompanied by the words, “I anoint thee with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Following this first anointing, a bishop laid hands on the head of the newly baptized, and, using the oil of thanksgiving, anoints him a second time saying, “I anoint you with the holy oil in the Lord, Father almighty, Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

As Christianity began to spread, circumstances arose that made the presence of a bishop at the celebration of baptism improbable, if not impossible. The action of hand-laying and the anointing by the bishop was separated from Baptism and delayed until a time when the bishop could travel to visit the newly baptized, where he would then perform the hand-laying and anointing ritual. While still a “post-baptismal ceremony,” the rite of hand-laying and anointing became known as a type of “confirmation” or “sealing” of baptism.

The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus Christ at the moment of his baptism in the River Jordan, signifying that he was the Messiah long awaited. At several points during his time on earth, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would likewise descend upon the faithful, giving them the graces necessary to partake in the mission of Christian discipleship. (Luke 12:12; John 3:5-8; 7:37-39; 16:7-15)

This occurred decisively for the apostles at Pentecost, in the upper room in the days following the Ascension of Christ. (Acts 2:4)

In early Christianity, the Sacrament of Confirmation was celebrated immediately following the Sacrament of Baptism, constituting a kind of “double sacrament,” an expression attributed by the Catechism to St. Cyprian. (CCC 1290) Since the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation, it was the custom in the early Church for the bishop to perform all of the Baptisms and all of the Confirmations in his diocese, making it simple to combine the two sacraments into one celebration. As the Church became larger, bishops had more faithful in their care and more geographic area to traverse, so by necessity, Baptisms came to be celebrated by priests (a development that underscores how important a timely Baptism is). Bishops would then confirm the faithful whenever they were able to visit a certain parish or town.

Originally, the sacrament was conferred through the laying on of hands, but by the second century, the use of holy oil (chrism) was incorporated.

The Sacrament Today

The Sacrament of Confirmation is still celebrated immediately following Baptism in the case of adult Baptisms, but since the bishop is still the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation, its celebration is postponed until later in the case of infant baptisms, unless the infant is in danger of death.

Canon 891 of the Code of Canon Law says that the Sacrament of Confirmation is “to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion, unless the episcopal conference has decided on a different age; or there is a danger of death; or, in the judgment of the minister, a grave reason suggests otherwise.” (CIC 891) In July 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgated the norm as “between the age of discretion and about 16 years of age,” which is why there is a variety in the ages of confirmands from diocese to diocese throughout the United States. It is left to the discernment of each bishop.

The Liturgy of Confirmation begins with the renewal of baptismal promises and the profession of faith by the confirmands. The bishop extends his hands over all those to be confirmed, implores the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them and asks for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. The essential Rite of Confirmation consists of the anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by the laying on of hands, as the bishop says the words: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The sign of peace concludes the rite.

The Sacrament of the Eucharist

History and Biblical Context

The Sacrament of the Eucharist begins at the Last Supper. Jesus had told his disciples before that he was “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51) and that partaking of this living bread was necessary for salvation. (John 6:53) Now, in the hours before his Passion and Death, “Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a chalice, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28)

He likewise makes it clear that this is a ritual which must be repeated again and again, saying: “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 21:19)

Bread and wine appear frequently in salvation to represent God’s providence and care, as is the case with the manna from heaven which sustains the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, and the water transformed to wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:11) Bread and wine are also used as sacrificial offerings to God by the high priest Melchizedek. (Genesis 14:18) Most significantly, the Passover meal that God commands the Israelites to eat before their flight from Egypt consists of unleavened bread, consumed beneath the protection of the blood of the unblemished lambs. (Exodus 12:7-8)

The Mass is the Eucharistic Liturgy, and in the Latin Church, it has maintained more or less the same twofold structure (consisting of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist) since the second century.

The Sacrament Today

The Sacrament of the Eucharist is the sacrament that we access most frequently by our participation in the celebration of Mass. At the Mass, the priest stands in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ, offering the bread and the wine which will become the Body and Blood of Christ.

But the faithful who are present in the congregation are also celebrating the Mass, and they “should not be there as strangers or silent spectators,” as it says in “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. The privilege of receiving this sacrament is that we take part in what we enact. God’s love for us is manifested in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and begs a response from us — the loving surrender of our wills and our lives to God — and we pray that we may be transformed so to be gathered into one in the unity of the Body of Christ. Our reception of Holy Communion is the “perfect form of participation in the Mass.”

“To receive Communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (CCC 1382)

The faithful may approach the Eucharistic banquet once they have reached “the age of discretion.” That age is usually determined to be around 7 years old, when a child is able to understand the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and to understand sin.

The Church has only two requirements for Catholics to receive the Eucharist. First, one must observe the Eucharistic fast, which is abstaining from food and drink (with the exception of water and medicine) for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. Second, one must be in a state of grace — that is, not guilty of a mortal sin that has not been confessed (a mortal sin is defined as a grave action that is committed in full knowledge of its gravity and with the full consent of the sinner’s will).

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

History and Biblical Context

The Sacrament of Baptism washes away our original sin, but it does not remove our inclination to sin altogether. Therefore, in his mercy, God has instituted the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, whereby we fulfill the exhortation to “repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In this sacrament, we approach our Heavenly Father, like the prodigal son in the Gospel parable, and we confess that we have sinned against him. (Luke 15:18)

Throughout salvation history, God shows mercy to those who have sinned against him. The entire history of the Israelite people takes on a pattern of offenses that are followed by reconciliation, again and again, until the coming of the Messiah. Jesus Christ has the authority to forgive sins on earth (Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:10), but he also goes one step further: he brings sinners back into the loving embrace of the community (Mark 2:17) and he calls them to interior repentance. (John 8:11)

Significantly, Christ shared his power to forgive sins with Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) He also shares it with his Apostles after his resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23)

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation has looked different at different times in Church history. In the first centuries of Christianity, prolonged public penance was required for those who committed particularly grave offenses, and people were only admitted to the “order of penitents” but once in their lifetime. The practice of “private” penance was instituted by seventh-century Irish missionaries who were inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition.

The Sacrament Today

The practice of private penance meant the sacrament could be accessible to ordinary people on a regular basis. The Catechism tells us: “It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day.” (CCC 1447)

As he does in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest acts in persona christi during the Sacrament of Penance, partaking in Christ’s ministerial priesthood and his mission to bind and loose, to forgive and retain. “The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant,” says the Catechism. (CCC 1466)

The two essential elements of this sacrament are the contrition and confession of the penitent, or the sinner, and God’s action through the intervention of the Church, or the priest.

After entering the confessional, the penitent makes the sign of the cross, and traditionally begins by saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been (number of days, months, weeks or years) since my last confession.” After confessing his or her sins, the penitent receives an assignment of penance from the priest and says an act of contrition.

The priest then prays the Prayer of Absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the Death and the Resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and poured out the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

History and Biblical Context

In the experience of human suffering, sickness of the body and sickness of the soul are intermingling realities. After Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, physical frailty and death became a constant in our earthly existence: “The wages of sin is death,” writes St. Paul to the Romans. “The snares of death encompassed me … I suffered distress and anguish,” writes the psalmist. “Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘Oh Lord, I beg you, save my life!’”

The theme of God’s mercy to the sick is more than just a recurring metaphor throughout Scripture, it is a reality of Christ’s earthly ministry — the blind see, the lame walk, the dead come back to life in his presence. But these miracles are merely evidence of his greatest gift: his ability to offer us eternal life through “bearing our diseases” on the cross. (Matthew 8:17)

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is the visible sign of that invisible grace. The Council of Trent wrote that “this sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord as a true and proper sacrament of the New Testament. It is alluded to indeed by Mark, but is recommended to the faithful and promulgated by James the Apostle and brother of the Lord,” referring to Mark 6:13 and James 5:14-16.

From the beginnings of the Church, there are accounts of the sick being anointed with blessed olive oil. As time went on, the sacrament was conferred more often on those who were close to the point of death, and became known as “extreme unction” or “last rites.” The Second Vatican Council called for broader use of the sacrament to include anyone who is in danger of death from sickness or old age. In 1972, Pope Paul VI established a new “sacramental formula” in the hopes that “the effects of the sacrament might be better expressed.”

The Sacrament Today

Today, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is available to anyone who is in danger of death due to sickness or advanced age. A Catholic may receive the sacrament each time he becomes seriously ill, or when his illness has worsened.

Bishops and priests are the only ministers of this sacrament because one of its effects is the forgiveness of sin. Variations of the sacramental ritual exist for different settings — within hospitals, when administered to groups or in emergencies, or when administered at Mass, for instance.

During the rite, the priest or bishop lays his hands on the head of the sick person. He then anoints their forehand and hands with the oil of the sick, saying, “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

The faithful are encouraged to receive the sacrament whenever they are seriously ill. It can be celebrated in private or in public, on its own or in the context of the Mass.

While recovery and good health, if such is the will of God, is always a prayed-for outcome, the effects of this sacrament go beyond the physical. The recipient receives the grace to strengthen them in the face of frailty and old age as they freely unite their sufferings to the Passion and Death of Christ.

In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, those who are about to leave this earthly life are offered the Eucharist as “viaticum” — “food for the journey.” Viaticum is “seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,’” says the Catechism. (CCC 1524)

The Sacrament of Matrimony

History and Biblical Context

The Bible is filled with significant relationships between men and women — indeed, it begins with one, as God crafts Eve from the rib of Adam and he, beholding her, declares that he has at last found “the flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23)

It is with the coming of Christ — he who makes all things new (Revelation 21:5) — that marriage is instituted as a sacrament that mirrors that of God’s covenant with Israel.

By his presence, Christ brought blessing and joy to the wedding at Cana, where he changed water into wine and so foreshadowed the new and eternal covenant.

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist during the Sacrament of Matrimony within a Mass, it is prayed, “Oh God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage by so great a mystery that in the wedding covenant you foreshadowed the Sacrament of Christ and his Church.”

The intimate community of life and love of the Sacrament of Matrimony has been established by God the Creator. This sacred bond does not depend on human choice but rather on God, who calls for it to be endowed with its own purposes and ends.

“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’?” Christ asks the Pharisees in Matthew, Chapter 19. “So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

St. Paul reiterates this in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her … husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” (Ephesians 5:25-28)

The Sacrament Today

The Sacrament of Matrimony is meant to clearly represent the model of God’s own intimate, loving nuptial covenant with the Church. Through this sacrament, the Holy Spirit helps couples —  just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her — strive to nurture and foster their union in equal dignity, mutual giving and the undivided love that comes forth from charity.

Husband and wife, united sacramentally, are “a permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the cross,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio.” “They are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers.”

The Sacrament of Matrimony usually, but not always, occurs during a Mass. Spouses are the ministers of the sacrament, mutually conferring it upon each other. Before expressing consent, the couple must answer three questions: that they are freely and wholeheartedly entering the marriage; that they intend to love and honor one another for their entire lives; and that they will accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.

Then follows the consent, or the marriage vows, which are received by the priest or deacon, who provides the blessing of the Church. The wedding rings are blessed and given as a sign of love and fidelity.

“How wonderful the bond of the two believers: one in hope, one in vow, one in discipline, one in the same service! They are both children of one Father and servants of the same Master, with no separation of spirit and flesh. Indeed, they are two in one flesh; where there is one flesh, there is also one spirit,” wrote Tertullian, an early Church father.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders

History and Biblical Context

Melchizedek, Jethro, Aaron, Eleazar — the priests of the Old Testament are numerous, and they share many characteristics. They offer sacrifices for worship and atonement, they dispense instruction, they adjudicate disagreements, they tend the sacred places and they hand on the faith.

But what none of them can do is offer a sacrifice that brings salvation to the people. It is only Jesus Christ — priest, prophet and king — who can perfect the office of the priest, for Christ is a priest who offers himself as sacrifice. “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning,” writes St. Paul in the Letter to the Hebrews.

Paul goes on to write that priesthood of Christ is conferred upon him by God the Father. “So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’, as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’” (Hebrews 5:5-6)

There have long been many “orders” within the Church — the Order of Catechumens, for instance — and the term itself derives from the Roman idea of an established civil body. Incorporation into one of these orders was done through a rite called ordinatio.

But the term “holy orders” is separate and refers to ordo episcoporum (bishops), the ordo presbyterorum (priests) and the ordo diaconorum (deacons). The term “ordination” has come to be reserved for that sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters (priests) or deacons.

Throughout history, men preparing for priesthood have been ordained to the diaconate before being ordained to the priesthood, eventually establishing the diaconate as a transitional order. One of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council was to restore the diaconate to a permanent rank within the hierarchy of the Church. Today, while there is only one ordo diaconorum, the order has either a transitional or permanent quality.

The Sacrament Today

All baptized members of the Church share in the holy priesthood of Christ — but holy orders are reserved for those who “are appointed to feed the Church in Christ’s name with the word and the grace of God,” as described in Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

“While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace —  a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit — the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood,” says the Catechism. “It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians.”

Bishops are the ministers of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, since it is the bishops who receive the fullness of this sacrament and become successors of the Apostles. A bishop belongs to the college of bishops and serves as a visible head of the Church. His primary responsibilities are to nourish the faithful people through the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, to preserve and protect the faith as handed on from the apostles and successor of St. Peter, and to build up the Body of Christ, the Church.

Priests, like bishops, share in the ministerial priesthood of Christ. As co-workers with the bishops, their responsibility is to build up the Church through the celebration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Gospel and pastoral care of the faithful.

Deacons are ordained to the ministry of service, rather than to the ministerial priesthood. Deacons can baptize, proclaim the Gospel, preach the homily, dedicate themselves to charitable endeavors, assist the bishop or priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, assist at and bless marriages, and preside at funerals.

The essential rite of the Sacrament of Holy Orders of all three degrees — bishop, priest and deacon — is the bishop’s imposition of hands on the head of the one to be ordained (the “ordinand”) and the Prayer of Ordination. During this prayer, the bishop asks God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and “for his gifts proper to the ministry to which the candidate is being ordained.” (CCC 1573)