The Sacraments of Initiation

The Three Primary Sacraments of the Catholic Church

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

The sacraments of initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion—are the three primary sacraments on which the rest of our life as a Christian depends. Originally tied very closely together, these three sacraments are now, in the Western Church, celebrated at different milestones in our spiritual lives. In the Eastern Church, both 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 then receives Communion for the first time as well.

The Sacrament of Baptism

The Sacrament of Baptism, the first of the sacraments of initiation, is our entrance into the Church. Through Baptism, we are cleansed of Original Sin and receive sanctifying grace, the life of God within our souls. That 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 the grace of God. Baptism is the necessary precondition both for living the Christian life and for entering Heaven.

The 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 still respected as well 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).

Confirmation is the perfection of Baptism, and it gives us the grace to live our life as a Christian boldly and without shame.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion

The final sacrament of initiation is the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and 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 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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