Most religions, cults, clubs, gangs or communities have a form of welcoming or initiating new members into their community. The Christian community is no different, and the earliest Christians tended to use baptism and communion (the Eucharist) to initiate their newest members into the faith. Over time, these initiation rites developed and evolved, and Christians developed ways to initiate the faithful. Early on, this initiation was referred to as the catechumenate (from the Greek meaning “to let re-echo”), and the individual who was being initiated was called the catechumen. You were required to have a sponsor, and at the time the process could last about three years. You would learn about Jesus and the disciples, what Jesus taught, Christian theology, prayer life, Christian heroes and Christians who had died for the faith. Since Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire for the first three centuries, the catechumenate process took so long in order to transpire safely (Note: This article is based on Ray Noll's chapter on Christian initiation rites, "Baptism/Confirmation/Eucharist").
Once the individual was finally ready, the forty days leading up to Easter and thereby their baptism were spent in preparation – in prayer and in fasting. One the night before Easter during the vigil, the “elect” (as they were called at the time) would remove their garments and descend into the baptismal pool, where they were dunked into the water three times. The new initiates would then be anointed by the bishop with oil (later considered one of the seven sacraments) and would then greet the believers and have their first Eucharist. This process was placed on the eve of Easter for symbolic purposes: the plunging into the watery tomb of sorts and coming out of the water to new life represented the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. This entire process was carried out by the early Christians until the 300s during the time of Emperor Theodosius. Although Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity legal in the early 300s, Emperor Theodosius had declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire and that his subjects had to convert to Christianity. This mass amount of people forced the catechumenate process to become significantly shorter, and was reduced to the six weeks prior to Easter (this is now called Lent). With this mass of new converts, the ability to administer these initiation rites could no longer feasibly be held only by the bishops – thus, it was also given to the local pastors.
The Eastern and Western churches took different approaches, however. The Latin West churches would allows their deacons or pastors to baptize the believer, but in order to maintain a unity with The Church as a whole, waited until the bishop would come to have the final anointing of baptism – they called this confirmation. The term first came into usage from the Council of Riez and the Council of Orange in the AD 400s. Infant baptism came to be accepted rather quickly by both the Eastern and Western churches, however, the church had to deal with the fact that it is always adult baptism seen in the New Testament. At Vatican II in the 1960s, the bishops decided to attempt to restore the catechumenate and change other rites such as infant and adult baptism as well as confirmation. There were three key documents to come out of this: the Rite of Baptism for Children, revised Rite of Confirmation, and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), which also has a section on the RCIC (rite of Christian initiation for children).
The RCIA is used to usher adults into the Catholic church, and it has been shown before to best reflect and represent the catechumenate from the second century. Bishops around the world were given these liturgical rites and it is understood that the entire community is to be involved in these rites, not simply pastors or bishops. There are four periods in the RCIA: that of inquiry and stories, that of prayer and studies, that of internal reflection and purification, and finally a period celebrating the initiation which takes place during Easter-time. Much like the catechumenate from the early church, there are also three major events that the initiate goes through: being accepted into the RCIA, the rite of election and finally, the ceremony at the Easter Vigil (the evening prior to Easter), just as in the early church. Following this, the new initiates meet with their sponsors and participate in the celebrations.
As aforementioned, however, Vatican II also sought to revise and reform infant baptism, and the documents on initiation certainly addressed the matter. In a post-Vatican II world, there were various theological views that came out of this, but there are four major viewpoints to be considered. The first is the “Mature Adulthood” viewpoint held that baptism is for committed Christians and believed that infants did not fall under this category, the second is the “Environmentalist” viewpoint which held that infant baptism is allowed as long as the family intends to raise the child in the church, the third viewpoint supports the initiation rites as is in the RCIA, and the fourth held that the diverse views should remain as they currently are – both infant and adult baptism would be accepted. There have been several arguments put forth for infant baptism as well.
For example, in ancient Israel, infants would be initiated into the religion via circumcision; this is compared to baptism by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians. It has also been a practice utilized consistently by the Eastern and Orthodox churches, which are as old (if not older than) the Roman church. Along with this, St. Augustine’s concept of original sin as well as the infant mortality rate led to individuals in the Latin church desiring to have their newborns baptized immediately – a practice that has been carried down to the present day. Significantly, infant baptism is also mentioned by Hippolytus in the early 200s, so it was a practice of the church at least by that point. The major point that is often made by supporters of infant baptism is conveyed by quoting Mark 10:15, which declares that one must receive the Kingdom of God “as a little child” (or “like a little child,” the rendering of which is not as strong as “as” for the argument).
On the other side of the argument, there are various reasons to stick with believer’s baptism as opposed to infant baptism. For example, some liturgical theologians point out that the infant who goes through baptism will later partake in reconciliation and the Eucharist when they are older and later confirmation, yet they are being reconciled into a church with they have not been fully initiated into, which creates a conundrum. Another point made by supporters of believer’s baptism (as an adult, freely choosing to be baptized) is that the Biblical texts used by St. Augustine for his concept of original sin are not looked at in the same light by most Christians today, and thus infant baptism would lack the scriptural support. Along with this, although the New Testament refers to entire families being baptized and infants were likely sometimes a part of this, the normal baptismal rite in New Testament times was to be baptized as an older individual who chooses to commit themselves to the faith – something of which an infant cannot do.
As a result of these various arguments, Catholicism in today’s world has a mix of both infant baptism and believer’s baptism. Many Catholic parents still bring their newborn babies to be baptized, and many adults in the RCIA still become baptized as adults. There are also children who are learning the rites of initiation in order to be baptized during the Easter vigil as well. Along with this, there are also a number of teenagers or young adults who have been baptized and have already received their first Eucharist, yet they are waiting for their confirmation from the local bishop. Believers continue to be divided today in the Catholic Church and also in the Anglican, Orthodox and other churches. The Catholic response is simply to allow for both options and not prefer one or the other, allowing the individual believer to choose. This lets the believer choose to be baptized as an adult, but also allows young parents to choose whether or not they wish their infant to be baptized. Finally, as for confirmation, there is not much debate about whether or not there ought to be a time at which the individual publicly declares their faith and confirms their belief and commitment to the faith. This certainly has support in the New Testament and in church tradition and history. There are different understandings of confirmation and how and when a person should be confirmed, but the idea of confirmation itself is seen as biblical. Once confirmation has occurred, the next major commitment for an individual would be that of marriage, which is also considered a sacrament in the Catholic Church (the sacrament of intimate friendship). It seems, then, that the catechumenate used in the early church has returned to practice today, albeit mainly in the Catholic church.