The Disintegration of the Primitive Rite

Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West. By J.D.C. Fisher (Hillenbrand Books, 1000 E. Maple, Mundelein IL 60060, 2004; 1-847-837-4542), xvi +220 pp. PB. $24.

A reprint of a 1965 edition first published in London, this work is sub-titled “A Study in the Disintegration of the Primitive Rite of Initiation.” This primitive rite integrated baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist into one ritual as the Eastern-rite churches practice Christian initiation to this day. The separation of the three sacraments into three discrete rites on three separate occasions at three different ages of the Christian marks a “disintegration” in the author’s view because the three sacraments possess a logical, intrinsic unity. J.D.C. Fisher traces the phenomenon of their accidental separation in the course of time and argues that the change lacked sound theological principles. His meticulous, thorough scholarship and research into original sources, his judicious evaluation of all available historical evidence, and his compelling logic make this work a masterpiece of theological reasoning.

Examining primary liturgical sources from Gaul, Germany, Rome, Milan and northern Italy, the British Isles and Spain from the eighth to the twelfth centuries—works such as the Spanish Liber Ordinum, the Manuale Ambrosianum, the Gelasian Sacramentary, and the Stowe Missal—the author concludes: “Thus from the eighth to the twelfth centuries the Roman rite on initiation underwent little change; most of the ceremonies of the Gelisanium and Ordo XI have been preserved, the pattern of the rite is unchanged, and its integrity unimpaired, baptism, confirmation, and first communion still being, as in primitive times, three parts of one coherent whole.”

During these centuries the customary practice required the bishop to preside over these rites, Christian initiation normally occurred in the two seasons of Easter and Pentecost, and baptisms were administered in the see churches near population centers. Even though Charlemagne attempted to restore the ancient Roman usage and institute more uniformity in the churches of northern Europe, irregularities occurred for various reasons: attachment to local traditions, scarcity of bishops, and unstable political conditions. While the Roman rite included episcopal hand-laying, chrismation, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, many times in the absence of the bishop “the presbyter had to baptize, anoint, and communicate his candidates in the expectation that the missing hand-laying and chrismation would be supplied on the occasion of the next episcopal visitation.”

In Britain, even though the Roman rites of initiation were introduced by Augustine of Canterbury, the scarcity of priests and bishops led to deviations from the norms of initiation. The canonical seasons were not followed, the presbyter administered the rites of baptism and communion while confirmation was postponed until the bishop’s next visitation. A similar situation arose in Spain where King Alfonso imposed on his nation Roman customs as the liturgical norm. While baptism and communion were joined in one rite of initiation, confirmation again “had to be omitted from those initiations, owing to the size of the dioceses . . . .” After the separation of confirmation from baptism and communion, the communion of infant—a practice approved for a thousand years—also underwent transformation after the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and declared that infants without the use of reason were not required to partake of the Eucharist. This strange development, however, presented an awkward situation: “But the council was hard put to it to explain away the practice of the past without appearing to condemn it.”

The next step in the process of the “disintegration” of the ancient rite involves the age of the child presented for confirmation. A shift occurs from infant confirmation to age seven and then age twelve as the norm for this sacrament, and church teaching gave primacy to baptism as the sacrament necessary for salvation. In the words of the Council of Trent: “. . . after Baptism, the Sacrament of Confirmation may indeed be administered to all; but that, until children shall have attained the age of reason, its administration is inexpedient.” Many parents who overlooked the confirmation of their children and some bishops who were negligent in their annual visitations to administer the sacrament contributed to this process of “the disintegration of the primitive rite.” Arguing that this separation of the three rites was “not entirely theological” or a question of principle but rather “owing to difficulties of a practical nature,” Canon Fisher concludes his cogent argument: “Consequently baptism, confirmation, and first communion are now three events separated from one another in time, so much so that it has become difficult ever since to appreciate the organic unity of the undivided rite of initiation as we find it in the third and fourth centuries.” He praises the practice of the Eastern churches as a model for the integrity of celebrating the ancient rite “in its primitive wholeness.”

In short, Canon Fisher tells the whole story about Christian initiation from its ancient beginnings to its modern customs, proving that the ancient traditions of the Church possess a precious wisdom whose loss impoverishes the spiritual life of all Christians.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Warner, New Hampshire

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