March 1982, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 27-38.

Frank C. Quinn:
      The Sacraments of Initiation and Christian Life

The whole of Christian life and spirituality, including celebration of the Eucharist, is the unfolding of baptism understood in its fullness as manifested in the rites of the Easter vigil.

Father Quinn, O.P., is professor of liturgy and pastoral theology at Aquinas Institute, St. Louis, Missouri.

THE catechumenal journey is concluded with the celebration of the sacraments of initiation -- baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. The journey of faith is brought to sacramental fullness; marginal existence within the Christian body is exchanged for full membership. But even this climactic celebration is not the end. Rather, in order that the neophytes (that is, the newly baptized) "may become more perfectly like your Son,"(1) the ritual process of Christian initiation is the beginning of a journey that concludes only with the vision of God. In other words, one is initiated into a way of life, a living out of the implications of baptism. Such a journey is not concluded until each Christian meets the Lord: "When the Lord comes, may you go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom" (RCIA 226; R 102).

The thesis of this article is that baptism is complete neither with the conclusion of the catechumenal journey nor with the celebration of God's mighty acts in the initiation sacraments.(2) Admittedly, the liturgical celebration is complete once the candidate has been baptized and confirmed and has participated in the Eucharist. But subsequent life is lived in the power of baptism. Baptism's meaning can be unfolded only over the course of life, especially the profound Pauline insight that in baptism we die with Christ and are given a pledge of resurrection. A complementary thesis is that the ordinary spirituality of the Christian is a baptismal spirituality. Baptism is the foundation of Christian life and ministry. James White, in commenting on Luther's statement that "there is no greater comfort on earth than baptism," suggests that for Luther, as well as others, it is necessary to perceive "Christian life as a baptismal spirituality, i.e., as a lifelong living out of one's baptism."(3)

In order to flesh out these theses we shall consider the sacraments of initiation in three ways: first, historically; secondly, in terms of the themes and images arising from Scripture and the early development of liturgy; and finally, with reference to the newly revised rites of initiation. At the same time we must caution ourselves that much of this is "foreign to the thinking of those Catholics for whom baptism is only a means of escaping original sin, confirmation is a source of some kind of' strength, and Eucharist is what one is bound to attend on Sunday."(4) At the conclusion of this study, we shall ask some questions about what all of this exploration into the meaning of initiation has to do with contemporary Catholic practice.


The ritual activities referred to by the term sacraments of initiation are the third stage of Christian initiation (the first two stages being, respectively, entrance into the order of catechumens and election or enrollment of names). They consist of the celebration of baptism, confirmation, and first Eucharist at the Easter vigil. Thus we have the name paschal sacraments. This stage marks the end of the candidates' marginal existence within the church. With these concluding rites the neophyte is fully incorporated into the body of Christ through water and Spirit as well as through the offering and receiving of the body and blood of Christ.

In the beginning baptism, Eucharist, and the Easter vigil developed separately. Baptism, either from its origin or very soon thereafter, included accompanying rites. One of these would later be treated as the separate sacrament of confirmation. The early postpaschal community recognized that baptism -- on the model of John's baptism but with its meaning centered on Christ -- was the means whereby one entered the Christian community.(5) The Eucharist, founded on the meals of the disciples with Jesus, particularly the Last Supper and the postpaschal meals, early on was celebrated on Sunday. This day was the normal time for commemorating the resurrection of the Lord, a commemoration which did not exclude the passion and death of Jesus. Since the Eucharist is the community celebration par excellence centering on the paschal mystery of Christ, it is not surprising that such a rite would be the normal means for making Sunday the "Lord's day of the Lord."(6) The Easter vigil, at least insofar as it would influence future developments, does not seem to have come into existence until after the middle of the second century. Although Jewish Christians would most likely have continued to celebrate Jewish Passover once a year, such a practice would not have been obligatory for gentile Christians. Furthermore, each Sunday was a commemoration of Christian "passover," that is, the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

Despite their separate development, baptism came to be celebrated at the Easter vigil during the second half of the second century. The Eucharist of the vigil concluded the rites of baptism. This development should come as no surprise. Baptism, Eucharist, and Easter vigil celebrate the very same reality: the passover of Jesus from death to life, the model and means for the passover of the community (Eucharist) and of the individual who is welcomed into the community (the rites of baptism). There was not, as of yet, any commemoration of Holy Thursday or Good Friday, the vigil being a unitive festival of the paschal mystery. Also, there was no Lent. These would come later. Christians fasted for several days before the Saturday vigil. They kept watch through the night, listening to the word of God and celebrating the entrance of new members into their midst. The vigil was concluded at dawn with the celebration of the Easter Eucharist -- the Easter Eucharist, since the vigil Eucharist and the Easter Sunday Eucharist were one and the same. The Easter vigil inaugurated the Easter season (or, as it was also termed in the early church, the period of Pentecost), a fifty day period during which the neophytes learned to live as ordinary Christians, being instructed in the mysteries that they had participated in at the Easter vigil and being guided in the manner in which they should continue to live out their baptism.

It should be clear that baptism was ordinarily a sacrament for "adults." This does not mean that, since today children of precatechetical age are the ordinary subjects of baptism (with later reception of confirmation and Eucharist), the newly recovered rites of Christian initiation have meaning only for the few adults who "missed" baptism when they were young. What is evident from any study of the history of initiation is that it cannot be understood if it is assumed that infants were the ordinary subjects of baptism from the beginning. Today, even though infants are the ordinary subjects of baptism, it is in the rites for the Christian initiation of adults that the full meaning of baptism is found.


The New Testament reveals different theologies of baptism. Although there is no contradiction between these theologies, it would be wrong to think that each New Testament community (and author) has the same view of baptism. This anachronistic approach stems from a contemporary theology of baptism which, understandably, uses all the theological strands of the New Testament in order to develop a rich theology of baptism. There are, then, different levels of baptismal interpretation in the New Testament, some more primitive (for example, Luke and the other synoptics) than others (Paul and John).(7)

The earliest theology of baptism is found in the Lukan Acts. The underlying theme is that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. Secondly, Christian baptism, unlike that of John, is in the name of Jesus. Thirdly, the gift of the Spirit is loosely attached to baptism. Note this passage, for example: "And Peter said to them, '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).

Washing in water for the forgiveness of sins is fundamental to all other theologies of baptism. The message of Peter, demanding personal repentance, metánoia, is the basic message of Jesus' preaching in the Gospels: "The time has come . . . and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News" (Mark 1:15). In modern times, when sin and repentance seem to have lost their force, it may be difficult to perceive how the primitive preaching on baptism restored hope to those in despair. The preaching emphasized the forgiveness of sins, the ability to forget the past and have a future, the possibility of starting over again, and, finally, the involvement with a person, Jesus Christ, who made such forgiveness possible. Again, many associate contemporary baptism with the removal of original sin, not personal sin. The New Testament neither minimizes sin and repentance nor associates baptism with original sin exclusively. The forgiveness of sins spoken of by Peter refers to the personal sins of each individual, the life of sin which is contrary to the following of the Lord. On the other hand, this message of repentance and forgiveness emphasizes the fact that Christianity is not a religion which places no requirements upon the shoulders of its practitioners. Instead, Christianity is a way of life.

In no way contradictory to the theme of forgiveness of sins, but building upon it in a positive way, is the more advanced theological intuition of St. Paul into baptism as participation in Christ. Thomas Marsh terms Paul's theology of baptism a "peak theology" of the New Testament.(8) Although it seems to have had no influence upon the early theology of baptism and the evolution of baptismal practice, Paul's profound insights into baptism were "rediscovered" by the mystagogues of the fourth century and, from that time to our own, have been fundamental for an understanding of baptismal initiation. Paul views baptism as the Christian's union with Christ through participation in his death along with the pledge of future resurrection. Nowhere is this theological theme better expressed than in Romans 6:3-8 (a pivotal reading in the contemporary Easter Vigil):

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his .... If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
Allied with this theme is another Pauline theme, that of participation in the church, the body of Christ.

Another insight into baptism is introduced by the johannine corpus -- the theme of being reborn as children of God. Where Luke and the synoptics conceive baptism negatively, where Paul views baptism much more positively and with an intrinsic connection to Jesus Christ, John, although continuing the positive approach to baptism, does not see baptism all that closely connected with Christ. Instead, men and women who are baptized and born again are regenerated through "water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). All the above themes are related. Baptism for the forgiveness of sins is the negative side of the coin, absolutely essential to any notion of sharing in Christ, the sinless One, or in his body, his spotless robe, or of being born through cleansing water and loving Spirit.

These different approaches to baptism are based upon differing views of the Holy Spirit.(9) How the Spirit is related to baptism, candidate, and community provides another thematic complex for understanding Christian initiation. Luke does not connect the Spirit with baptism because the prophetic Spirit has nothing to do with sin. Instead, such a Spirit is given after sins are forgiven. As a consequence, in Luke's church, baptism is followed by the laying on of hands for the ecstatic Spirit. Paul and John view the Spirit as a personal possession. For them the Spirit is the agent of the forgiveness of sins as well as of participation in Christ (Paul) and of rebirth as children of God (John). Thus, the theologies of the New Testament relative to the Spirit are diverse, beginning with the more primitive notion of the Spirit as a transient prophetic power and ending with the theme of the Spirit as personal gift to individual and community, the means whereby Jesus would continue to be remembered and celebrated in the future church.

Today, one theology is not chosen over another. Rather, all of these theologies taken together express the multifaceted relationship of the Spirit to the church and its sacraments of initiation. There is not simply one moment during initiation when one could say, "Here is where the Spirit figures in exclusively." Instead, all of initiation is a work of the Spirit. It is true to say, though, that, insofar as we are concerned, the Spirit fulfills different functions. At times the pneumatic aspect of initiation is more apparent, as in the rites of confirmation, than at other times.

The liturgy and theology of initiation, as they evolved during the first five centuries of the church's existence, were influenced by the themes and images of initiation found in the New Testament. But East and West did not always emphasize the same themes. For example, the Western postbaptismal rite that is today called confirmation, with its focus on handlaying with prayer for the sevenfold Spirit (and subsequent consignation of the forehead with chrism), seems to be modeled upon the Lukan description of baptism that is found in Acts. The Eastern rites do not seem to have paid that much attention to the Lukan practice. The contemporary church is the recipient of all these past developments. Since Vatican II and with the recovery of the full process of initiation, the meaning of baptism for Christian life, founded upon the many scriptural theologies of baptism and Spirit, is once more revealed in its richness.


The general introduction to Christian Initiation utilizes all the scriptural themes spoken of in the previous section. The very first paragraph of this document highlights the importance of initiation for the life of the community and of the individual:

Through the sacraments of Christian initiation, men and women are freed from the power of darkness. With Christ they die, are buried and rise again. They receive the Spirit of adoption which makes them God's sons and daughters and, with the entire people of God, they celebrate the memorial of the Lord's death and resurrection.(10)
Such exalted language would seem to establish the thinking of the church that baptismal initiation is at the foundation of the church itself, of Christian life, and, in particular, of Christian spirituality. If this is so, then the rites themselves should be the vehicles of an overwhelming experience that affects candidate and community.

Any examination of the spirituality of the contemporary sacraments of initiation begins with the context in which these sacraments are to be normally celebrated: the Easter vigil. It is on the "night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth and humanity is reconciled with God,"(11) that the whole process of initiation reaches its ritual climax. The Easter vigil is the celebration of transitions, of passovers. On this night Christ passes from death to life, the church journeys with him, and new members become full members of the ecclesial body of Christ for the first time. During each subsequent vigil in which they participate, they will remember their "birthday" into the church and again renew their intention to follow the Lord, whose death they have shared. The Easter vigil is the Christian Passover. Each of the rites of the vigil speaks in one way or another of transition.

The light service rehearses Christ's passage from death to life through fire and procession and candle and poetic utterance.(12) The service of readings reveals God's plan throughout the whole of history, that all men and women should pass from the darkness of sin to the light or adoption through Christ and in his risen Spirit. The litany of saints -- a processional chant during which the community processes to the font -- invokes the whole of the church triumphant to witness the events of this night. All of the holy ones who have gone before us and made their own passage from death to life, who have now completed their earthly initiation by rejoicing in the fullness of the kingdom, are asked to pray for the candidates.

The blessing of water reflects all of salvation history in terms of water, from the Spirit brooding over the waters at the beginning of creation to Christ's baptism in the Jordan, a baptism which is consummated on the cross where "your Son willed that water and blood should flow from his side as he hung upon the cross" (RCIA 215; R 97). The renunciation of evil and profession of faith provide another rite of passage in which the candidate turns from evil to God. Only a few words are said. But these words are extremely important because such a rite acknowledges our ability to make promises to God and to carry them out. In a world in which forgotten promises are legion, we affirm here that words do have meaning for us.(13) Furthermore, the renunciation of evil and profession of faith reveal the need for the personal commitment demanded by baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of faith, of full, personal commitment to Christ. In this sense, baptism is the sacrament of Christian maturity.

The water bath, the center and heart of the initiatory ritual, is an extremely simple action in which the Trinity is invoked and water is employed. As a consequence of this simplicity of ritual and profundity of meaning both preliminary and subsequent rites unfold the meaning of baptism. For example, the anointing of the head after baptism expresses the neophyte's membership in the priestly people:

As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life. (RCIA 224; R 101).
The clothing with the festal garment, an extension of the ancient anointing of the whole body, speaks of our putting on Christ; the candle flame reminds us that baptism is an enlightenment and that all Christians should "walk always as children of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in . . . [their] hearts" (RCIA 226; R 102).

Confirmation supplements the Christic dimensions of baptismal initiation with a necessary pneumatic emphasis. As indicated above, this in no way implies that the Spirit is operative only at this point in time. A perusal of the baptismal prayers is sufficient to dispel such notions. However, this view has been proposed by eminent liturgists, especially those in the Anglican communion, such as Gregory Dix. But not only is the Spirit invoked over the water so that through immersion in the consecrated waters the Spirit may effect the candidate's burial "with Christ in the death of baptism" (RCIA 215; R 97), but all the rites which follow baptism in water commemorate the fact that the candidates have been "given . . . a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit" (RCIA 225; R 1 O1).

Confirmation focuses more directly on the Spirit, particularly upon the Spirit as prophetic force. The celebrant prays over the candidates and imposes his hand upon them. Remembering their redemption in Christ through water and Spirit -- "you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life by water and the Holy Spirit" (RCIA 230; R 104) -- the presider asks God to send the prophetic Spirit upon the neophytes, to empower them, as the rest of the community has been empowered, to preach to others what they have received. Confirmation brings out the fact that those who have been given the gift of life in Christ must hand it on to others. The parable of the buried talents is instructive here. Baptism is a gift, not to be hoarded but to be cultivated. Confirmation completes baptism by invoking God to enable Christians to live out their baptism throughout their lives. In particular, confirmation reminds us that baptism is a gift to be both cherished and given to others.

The concluding sacrament of initiation, the final rite of the Easter vigil, is the Eucharist. The candidates' journey is finished. They join the redeemed community around the eucharistic table, standing as equals in the sight of the Lord. The neophytes can now bring their own gifts to the altar, make the eucharistic prayer their own by their shouted acclamation "Amen," and receive the food from heaven along with their new sisters and brothers. Thus, they reach their goal in the eucharistic sacrament: the celebration of the union of each baptized member of the body in Christ, the head. Centuries ago, Alcuin echoed this sentiment when he spoke of the Eucharist "confirming' baptism: "Thus it [baptism] is confirmed [that is, completed] by the Lord's body and blood, in order that he [the neophyte] might be a member of the head who for him suffered death and rose again."(14)

In the Eucharist the community continues to "remember" its baptism into the Lord who died and was raised that all might be saved. Commemorating the mighty acts of God among his people, particularly the paschal mystery of Jesus, they petition God that they may continue to live in the power of these signs of God's love. With assurance that they can, they offer themselves, through and with Christ and in the power of the Spirit, to the Father who calls the community to fullness of life and love.


It may be difficult for some Catholics to widen their spiritual horizons in order to allow baptism to be a formative element in their lives. For the past thousand years the emphasis in sacramental theology and in spirituality has been on the Eucharist in itself. Such a focus, with no advertence to the Eucharist's relationship to baptismal initiation, has concentrated attention almost exclusively on the Real Presence, particularly in terms of the reserved sacrament. Such a concentration has reinforced the notion that the Eucharist is an object of individual piety. Prior to the Middle Ages the emphasis, in theology and spirituality, was on baptism -- but that baptism included the Eucharist. Recognizing once again that Eucharist fits into the broader context of baptismal initiation, Christians will realize that the former is a celebration of a community as well as of each individual members commitment to Christ. When Christians never reflect upon baptism's connection to Eucharist, both suffer. For it is in baptism that passage into Christ, dying and rising with him (and the heart of the Eucharist is the commemoration of Jesus' dying and rising for us), is personally experienced by members of the church. Thus, every Eucharist becomes a celebration of our baptismal profession of faith and our promise to walk continually in the light of Christ. The yearly commemoration of Christ's passover at the Easter vigil becomes the moment for recalling our own passover; the vigil is the baptismal birthday par excellence, no matter when baptism was actually celebrated.

Secondly, it may be objected that most Catholics are baptized as infants and thus never experience the sacrament personally nor the connection of baptism with confirmation and Eucharist. Precisely because of this practice, the history of Christian initiation and the contemporary rites for the Christian initiation of adults are so important. Neither allows us to forget the essential connection of the sacraments of initiation with each other. Consequently, even though these sacraments are celebrated separately, we are not allowed to ignore the relationship of baptism to confirmation and Eucharist. Furthermore, even though most Catholics may not remember their baptism, they continue to witness baptism in the community, celebrate the Eucharist, and keep the yearly Easter vigil. All of these are occasions for personally reviewing their own baptism. The more that they sense the relationship of baptism to the Eucharist, the more will members of the Christian community enrich and deepen their collective and individual spirituality.

Finally, a consideration of spirituality as baptismal reminds us that the body is not to be ignored. Sacraments are actions of human beings. Baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist involve all the senses: washing, anointing, the smell of perfumed oils, tasting food and drink, speaking words of commitment, feeling the touch of others. Baptismal spirituality is a robust spirituality, never allowing us to be tempted to discount the place of the body in the scheme of salvation.

The sacraments of initiation conclude the catechumenal journey to full membership in the body of Christ. They inaugurate the journey of the Christian, within the community called church, to the Father who calls each man and woman to salvation through Jesus Christ. The journey to God is lived in the power of baptism, the womb of the church and the tomb of Christ: "May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life." (RCIA 215; R 97)

  1. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, no. 389; the text may be found in The Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. 1 (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1976), p. 176. Henceforth the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults will be referred to as RCIA followed by the article, or paragraph, number. The Rites of the Catholic Church will be referred to as R followed by the page number. Both references will be given in parentheses in the text.
  2. In this article, the words baptism and baptismal initiation will be quite often used to refer to more than the rite of washing in water. The context should make clear how the words are being used.
  3. Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 195.
  4. Frank C. Quinn, "Christian Initiation," in Christian Initiation (Archdiocese of Dubuque, 1979), p. 1.
  5. Reginald R. Fuller, "Christian Initiation in the New Testament," in Murphy Center for Liturgical Research, Made, Not Born (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), p. 11.
  6. Didache, 14, 1.
  7. Cf. Fuller, passim; Thomas Marsh, "A Study of Confirmation," Irish Theological Quarterly 39 (1972): 149-63; 319-36; 40 (1973): 125-47.
  8. Marsh, "Study of Confirmation," 40: 139.
  9. Thomas Marsh, "The Holy Spirit in Early Christian Teaching," Irish Theological Quarterly 45 (1978): 101-16.
  10. Christian Initiation, General Introduction, no. 1; Rites of the Catholic Church, p. 3. Cf. Vatican Council II, Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, no. 14. Note that the general introduction under the title Christian Initiation is the preface to all the initiatory rites promulgated since Vatican II. Thus, it is not simply introductory to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972) but covers the Rite of Baptism for Children (1969), the separate Rite of Confirmation (1971), and the Rite for Reception into the Catholic Church of a Christian from Another Communion (1972). The model for this article is RCIA, since this series of rites gives the fullest expression to baptismal initiation.
  11. From the Easter Proclamation of the Easter vigil.
  12. The following pages are based upon Frank C. Quinn, "Christian Initiation: The Ritual Process," in Christian Initiation (Archdiocese of Dubuque, 1979), pp. 86-92.
  13. It should also be noted that the renunciation of evil was not originally part of the profession of faith. The renunciation belonged to the catechumenal rites. The profession of faith, in the Western church, was the actual "formula" of baptism for the first six or seven centuries. The candidate, while standing in the pool, was asked the creedal questions. This practice reinforces the notion that baptism demands personal commitment.
  14. Epistle 134 (A.D. 798), written to the priest Oduin.