Thursday, May 7, 2020

Ancient Initiation

Holy Saturday has passed. If you followed it as I did, you watched the blessing of the fire and Exultet, left for two hours, and returned to a live stream during the Litanies of the Saints. Very few Christians were initiated into the Church's Sacraments this year.

In prior years, and Deo volens in the future, catechumens would be cleansed in the healing waters of Baptism after the celebrant exorcised and blessed those waters. While the history of the Roman Mass and Office are well documented other facets are not. The inversion of Confirmation and Communion ages in most countries is recent enough that it requires little research. However, changes to the rites of those Sacraments themselves are more obscure.

Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession as they are given in the Rituale Romanum and Pontificale Romanum reflect the administration of those Sacraments for other a thousand years. Indeed, all the antiquarianism of the Consilium did not yield a return to public penance and public absolution. Nor did it effect a return to the passive form of Baptism given in the older books.

The Gelasian Sacramentary is an 8th century Frankish recension of the Roman orations and feasts c.700 AD. It probably reflects the practice of the Roman Church at that time, but separating what was Roman and what was local is not that straight forward. All the same, its texts for Holy Saturday are very near what comes to us in the Curial Missal published by S Pius V and which happily continues to this day. The ceremony in both the Frankish-Roman Sacramentary and the Roman Missal concludes the pre-Mass ceremonies with the initiation of candidates into the Church.

In the Gelasian book, after the blessing of the font and waters the "celebrant"* baptizes using this ritual.

C: Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
R: I do believe.
C: And do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was born and suffered?
R: I do believe.
C: And do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the flesh?
R: I do believe.

After each "I do believe" the celebrant immerses the candidate in the holy water thrice. Most ancient sources describe full submersion, which was most likely here given that the neophytes were almost always children by 700 AD, but sprinkling, splashing, and pouring are all attested as methods, too.

The celebrant then, as retained in the traditional Rituale Romanum, anoints the neophyte with sacred Chrism saying these words:

"The almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has caused you to be born over again of water and the Holy Spirit and pardoned you all your sins. May He now anoint you with the chrism that sanctifies in Christ Jesus our Lord, and bring you to everlasting life."

Then follows a very familiar Confirmation. The Sacramentary does not use the term "Confirmation" anywhere, since Baptism and Confirmation were part of the same ritual at this point and initiation was almost always performed by the bishop, but the text does state "Therefor, they are given the seven gifts of the Spirit by the bishop by placing his hands over them with these words." The words given are the same as in the Pontificale and Rituale of S Pius V without the interpolated "Amen" between the seven spiritual gifts:

"Almighty everlasting God, who once gave new life to these servants of yours by water and the Holy Spirit, forgiving them all their sins; send forth on them from heaven your Holy Spirit, the Advocate, along with His sevenfold gifts, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and fortitude, the Spirit of knowledge and piety, fill them with the Spirit of holy fear. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever."

The only addition in the post-Tridentine books is the accretion of "and seal them with the sign of the cross of Christ, in token of everlasting life" before "We ask this...."

As with Baptism, the form of Confirmation is very different from either the more recent Roman books or traditions of the Eastern Churches. The bishop merely anoints the "front" of the neophyte with the words "The sign of Christ unto life ever lasting." The neophyte responds "Amen." The bishop greets him as a Christian: "Peace be with you" and receives the reply "And with your spirit."

Without a break the Litanies (of Saints) begin immediately followed by the Gloria in excelsis and the Mass starts.

* = "Celebrant" is an ambiguous term here given that a bishop would normally be the celebrant in a ceremony such as this and he is referenced separately. It may refer to this service when a bishop is not present, in which case Baptism could be given, but Confirmation reserved to the bishop.

It may also mean specifically the celebrant of the Sacrament of Baptism. A few odd sources suggest that the bishop would baptize the first few candidates and a deacon would complete the rest.


  1. I'll have to check, but I'm quite sure I've read that in some places in Europe priests would perform Baptism+Chrismation in the absence of the bishop.

  2. This is my first time visiting your site and it is very helpful. Could you tell where or how I could find an older breviary, such as the 1910 or the 1570? Thank you.