The Christian Catholic Sacraments of Initiation

The Three Primary Sacraments of the Catholic Church

Early 1900s vintage photo of 3 boys at their confirmation
Sheri Blaney/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Most Christian denominations practice three separate sacraments or rites of initiation into the church. For believers, baptism, confirmation, and holy communion are the three primary sacraments or rites on which the rest of our life as a Christian depends. All three are practiced by nearly all denominations, but an important distinction must be made between whether a given practice is regarded as a sacrament—a special rite thought to represent direct contact between God Himself and the participants—or a rite or ordinance, which is thought to be a highly important act but one that is symbolic rather than literal. 

Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and a few of the Protestant denominations use the term "sacrament" to refer to a rite in which it is believed that God's grace is bestowed on the individual. In Catholicism, for example, there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, holy communion, confession, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. These special rites are thought to have been instituted by Jesus Christ, and they are thought necessary to salvation.

For most Protestants and evangelicals, these rites are thought to be symbolic reenactments of the messages of Jesus Christ, performed to help believers understand the messages of Jesus. For these denominations, the most important rites are baptism and communion, since they were modeled by Jesus Christ, although confirmation is also an important initiation rite. Most Protestant denominations, though, do not see these rites as indispensable for salvation in the same manner as Catholics.

The Initiation Sacraments in the Catholic Church

Originally tied very closely together, these three sacraments are now, in the Western Christian Roman Catholic Church, celebrated at different milestones in the spiritual lives of followers. However, in the Eastern branches, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, all three sacraments are still administered at the same time to both infants and adults. That is, confirmation is conferred on every new Eastern Christian as soon as he or she is baptized, and he or she then receives confirmation and communion for the first time, as well.

The Sacrament of Baptism for Catholics

The Sacrament of Baptism, the first of the sacraments of initiation, is a believer's entrance into the Catholic Church. Catholics believe that through baptism, we are cleansed of original sin and receive sanctifying grace, the life of God within our souls. This grace prepares us for the reception of the other sacraments and helps us to live our lives as Christians—in other words, to rise above the cardinal virtues, which can be practiced by anyone (baptized or unbaptized, Christian or not), to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which can only be practiced through gift of God's grace. For Catholics, baptism is the necessary precondition both for living the Christian life and for entering heaven.

The Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation

Traditionally, the Sacrament of Confirmation is the second of the sacraments of initiation. The Eastern Church continues to confirm (or chrismate) both infants and adults immediately after baptism. (In the Western Church, that order is also followed in the case of adult converts, who are usually baptized and confirmed in the same ceremony.) Even in the West, where Confirmation is routinely delayed until a person's teen years, several years after his or her First Communion, the Church continues to stress the theological implications of the original order of the sacraments (most recently in Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis).

For Catholics, confirmation is the regarded as the perfection of baptism, and it gives us the grace to live our life as a Christian boldly and without shame.

The Catholic Sacrament of Holy Communion

The final sacrament of initiation is the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and Catholics believe that it is the only one of the three that we can (and should) receive repeatedly—even daily, if possible. In Holy Communion, we consume the Body and Blood of Christ, which unites us more closely to Him and helps us to grow in grace by living a more Christian life.

In the East, Holy Communion is administered to infants immediately after the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. In the West, Holy Communion is normally delayed until the child reaches the age of reason (around seven years old).


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Richert, Scott P. "The Christian Catholic Sacraments of Initiation." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, Richert, Scott P. (2021, February 8). The Christian Catholic Sacraments of Initiation. Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "The Christian Catholic Sacraments of Initiation." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).