Sacraments of Character
The Sacraments of Character are Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. Each of these Sacraments confers a special indelible mark on the soul. Because this mark, called the sacramental character, is permanent and remains even in a person who is not in the state of grace, none of these three Sacraments can be repeated; neither can they be conferred ‘temporarily.’ This indelible character can never be lost, not even through grievous sin. The sacramental character can be described as a spiritual mark which indicates that the person belongs to Christ. Through Baptism, the Christian is first sealed with this sacramental character. Similarly, Confirmation, which completes Baptism, is given but once. It imprints on the soul a second character, a sign that a Christian is sealed with the Holy Spirit and clothed with those supernatural powers which enable him to give witness to the Savior. Holy Orders, too, is administered but once, for it also confers an indelible character and hence cannot be repeated or received only for a limited period of time. Consequently, it is impossible to become un-baptized, un-confirmed, or un-ordained. For the same reason, a person cannot be re-baptized, re-confirmed or re-ordained. A person is baptized, confirmed and ordained for all time and, we may say, into eternity.
Sacred chrism, a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam, is used in each of the Sacraments of Character. It is the valid matter for the Sacrament of Confirmation and, although sacred chrism is not absolutely essential in the administration of Baptism and Holy Orders, it is part of the sacramental ritual of both, symbolizing the conferral of grace from the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to note that sacred chrism is used in the administration of the three Sacraments that confer an indelible sacramental character.
The Catholic Church recognizes no other Baptism as a valid Sacrament except one in which natural water (not juice or a water-based substitute) somehow flows on a person’s head, while the minister of the Sacrament pronounces the essential Trinitarian Formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The same person applies the water and pronounces the invocation of the Trinity. The baptized person takes a baptismal name which should be related to our Catholic Faith. It need not be a Saint’s name, but the name of a Saint is highly recommended.
The Code of Canon Law stipulates that specially blessed natural water must be used for the licit conferral of Baptism, although the use of unblessed water in emergency Baptisms is valid. We cannot baptize with water that is mixed with other substances, nor with another natural liquid, like milk or fruit juice that is composed mainly of water. Even in an emergency, there can be absolutely no substitute for natural water because we do not have the authority to change what Jesus requires. Note well that, if blessed water were necessary for validity, then it would have to be used also in emergency Baptism.
Baptism conferred by sprinkling, known as aspersion, is valid, provided the drops of water flow a bit once they touch the person being baptized. Sometimes it is not certain this happens; hence, to avoid all possibility of doubt about validity, the Church now holds aspersion to be valid, but illicit, and to be used only in rare emergencies.
In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Baptism by aspersion was both valid and licit (cf. canon 758). Under canon 854 of the present Code of Canon Law, only two modes of Baptism are mentioned: pouring (infusion) and immersion. Aspersion is not mentioned, even to declare it illicit. In principle, however, it remains valid provided water flows over the recipient, and will remain so even if explicitly declared illicit.
Any person over the age of reason who approaches the Catholic Church for Baptism must have the proper disposition. This means that he must have the intention and the desire to receive the Catholic Faith. He must have received instruction, and he must believe the basics of the Faith. In addition, an adult desiring Baptism must have at least imperfect contrition for sins, that is, sorrow for sins out of fear of God and His just punishments. For those under the age of reason (e.g., infants), the intention and desire for the Faith are supplied by the Catholic parent or guardian, who is also responsible for the child’s future instruction in the Catholic Faith.
Faith is the precondition for the valid conferral of the Sacrament of Baptism. We may ask, “Why is faith necessary for valid Baptism?” The reason is written on every page of the New Testament. Baptism is not magic; Baptism is not a sleight of hand. Baptism is the conferral of grace by God, but conditionally. This is dramatically summarized in Christ’s closing directive to His Apostles. He told them, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). What is Christ saying? Christ is telling His disciples, and through them all His followers until the end of time, that the first duty is to teach the Catholic Faith which then must be believed before a person may be baptized.
Saint Peter’s homily on that first Pentecost Sunday restated Christ’s teaching. Saint Peter told the people that they must believe in order to be baptized. He spelled out the necessary essentials of the Faith and “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
Faith, which is the assent of the intellect to everything which God has revealed, is divinely commanded and, therefore, the necessary precondition for the Sacrament of Baptism to take its effect. We might remind ourselves that every time we make the Sign of the Cross we are repeating the act of faith that brought us into the Church in the first place. Every Sign of the Cross that we make is a repetition of the act of faith by which we were baptized.
Confirmation & Holy Orders
The valid reception of Confirmation requires that the recipients be baptized and free of any obex (obstacle), that the sacramental rite be followed, and that the recipients want to receive the Sacrament. It is recommended, but not obligatory, that a name be taken as their Confirmation name (preferably a Saint’s name) and that it be different from their baptismal name. Confirmation is the Sacrament of spiritual strengthening. It does not require spiritual strength before its reception; therefore, the sacramental character is received regardless of the state of a person’s soul. Even if a person is dead spiritually due to mortal sin, he can be confirmed, although he must go to Confession afterward for receiving the Sacrament sacrilegiously. Such a person receives the graces of the Sacrament of Confirmation upon making a good Confession.
It is the same with the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The recipient validly receives the Sacrament even if he is in the state of mortal sin at the time of his ordination. Certainly, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is a Sacrament of the Living. It should be received in the state of grace. Moreover, the state of grace is necessary for the one ordained to obtain from God the graces that he needs to exercise his priestly and episcopal powers according to the will of God.
A Bishop is not required for the valid conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation. In the Eastern Rite, all priests are ordinary ministers of the Sacrament of Confirmation. In the Western Church, the ordinary minister of Confirmation is the Bishop and only under certain circumstances may priests, as extraordinary ministers, be granted the faculties (usually by the local Bishop) to confirm. However, any priest is authorized by the Church to administer Confirmation to a Catholic who is in danger of death. It is the desire of the Church that none of Her members, even young children, should leave this world without being perfected by the Holy Spirit and fully assimilated to Christ. Therefore, children under the age of reason can be licitly and validly confirmed when in danger of death (see canons 883, §3; 891).
Under the authority of the Diocesan Bishop, the pastor, as a shepherd of his local flock, has the duty to see that his parishioners are confirmed. He also has the duty, along with the parents, to prepare and instruct these candidates for Confirmation. The Bishop of the Diocese has entrusted the pastor with the pastoral care of the people in his parish. The Bishop expects the pastor to properly teach the principal truths of the Catholic Faith to the confirmandi so that they are ready to take on the responsibilities incumbent on Christ’s followers, especially those responsibilities pertaining to the Sacrament of Confirmation, that is, to be witnesses for Christ in the Church and in the world.
The valid reception of Sacred Orders does not depend on the previous reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation. However, the Church’s law requires that a man be sacramentally confirmed. The reason for this is that Confirmation, as the Sacrament of spiritual strengthening, provides supernatural fortitude which the ordained priest so deeply needs for his priestly ministry. The ordination of an unconfirmed man would be valid, but illicit. In other words, the Sacrament would be effected, though not according to the will of the Church.
Moreover, the valid reception of Holy Orders does not depend on the age of the recipient. Certainly, a man is normally and canonically to have reached the age of reason before having been ordained a priest. But absolutely speaking, the two Sacraments of Character—Confirmation and Holy Orders—can be conferred validly at any time after Baptism. In the Eastern Church it is customary for the priest who baptizes to also confer the Sacrament of Confirmation, even in the case of an infant. During the early Middle Ages, some of the Spanish nobility would have their infant sons ordained shortly after birth. This was totally illicit, but those ordinations were valid.
Furthermore, the valid reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders does not depend on whether the recipient was previously ordained as a Transitional Deacon (that is, one who is preparing for the ministerial priesthood). If a baptized male, who was not an ordained Deacon, were to be ordained as a priest, the ordination would be valid but illicit.
Therefore, a valid and licit ordination to the priesthood requires that a candidate for Holy Orders be a validly baptized, confirmed male who is suitable for the rigors of ordained ministry. He must freely consent to Holy Orders and be free of any impediments or irregularities, in keeping with the requirements of Canon Law. Additionally, a candidate for the Transitional Diaconate must be twenty-three years old prior to Diaconal ordination; and a candidate for the priesthood must be twenty-six years old and have served as Transitional Deacon for at least six months.
Age of Reason and Consent
It is important to note that once the age of reason is reached, a person must want to receive the Sacraments of Character, because no one can be sanctified without the consent of their own will. As previously stated, for infants and those who do not have the use of reason, the intention to receive the Sacrament of Baptism is supplied by their parents or guardians, who act on their behalf. This holds true for the Sacrament of Confirmation when received with Baptism in infancy, as was often the case in the past, and still is in parts of the Eastern Church. Consequently, infants can be validly baptized and confirmed, but once they reach the age of reason even children must want to receive Baptism and Confirmation. So, too, no one can be ordained unless they want to be ordained and they, in fact, must also have a clear understanding of the meaning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The early Church experienced more than one controversy about the necessity of repeating the Sacraments of Character when apostates returned to the Catholic Faith. As a result, the Church has clarified that Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders can only be received once in a lifetime. They cannot be repeated precisely because of the unique, permanent, sacramental character imprinted on the soul when each of these three Sacraments is conferred. The sacramental character signifies that the one baptized, confirmed, or ordained bears a special and unique relationship to Christ. It first assimilates a person to the priesthood of Christ; from this primary function, secondary functions flow, in increasing order of sublimity, from Baptism to Confirmation to Holy Orders.
The impossibility of rebaptizing or reconfirming or reordaining is a testimony to the deep bond that is formed between Christ and those who receive the Sacraments of Character. No matter what they may do, no matter how they may live, no matter how they may have failed in their loyalty to Christ, Christ never fails in His loyalty to them. (For Advanced Course lessons 17, 18, 19 and 23.)