As practicing Catholics, we (hopefully!) receive two of the sacraments regularly: Penance and the Holy Eucharist. There are some sacraments that we receive only once in life. As we continue to reflect on the sacrament of Confirmation during December, I thought it would be helpful to see what our Catechism says about sacraments that can be received only once.
Paragraph 1304 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads, “Like Baptism which it completes, Confirmation is given only once, for it too imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark, the ‘character,’ which is the sign that Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness.”
Baptism and Confirmation change a Christian forever and can only be received once. Regarding these sacraments, you might here a theologian or a priest mention the “character” of each sacrament. As the Catechism said, the character is a spiritual mark imprinted on the soul. It is hard to image a spiritual mark – spiritual things, like our souls, are invisible, so they cannot be marked in a physical way. Speaking about a mark is simply a way to help us understand the reality of what takes place when a sacrament is celebrated. I have also heard sacramental character likened to a tattoo or a seal, such as when a king would seal a letter with his insignia. The character of a sacrament claims us for Christ and permanently marks us out (invisibly) as Christians!
The character, or invisible mark, of Baptism is a way in which the divine life is channeled to our souls from God. Any time we commit a mortal sin, we lose this grace of divine life and are separated from the love of God. This can only be restored through repentance, ordinarily expressed in the sacrament of Penance. However, throughout all of this, the character of Baptism is never erased. The same is true for Confirmation. Even if a Confirmed Catholic commits a serious sin or is not in the practice of the faith, they are still a true Catholic, even though the grace of God may not be alive in their heart.
The Catholic Church does not believe in “re-baptizing” Christians. Baptism can only truly be received one time. In cases where it is doubtful whether Baptism was received or not, somebody may be conditionally baptized just to be sure that he or she has received this gift from God. However, even if somebody were to be “re-baptized” or “re-confirmed” in another church or religious group, we believe that nothing is taking place. It is simply a simulation of a sacrament that had already been received.
As I’m writing this, I realize that this is a pretty technical piece of Church teaching, but this teaching has been a great source of comfort for many people over the years. Imagine somebody who was baptized and confirmed in childhood, but for the next 50 years of their life, did not practice the faith. Oftentimes nearing the end of life is a reason to turn to God and return to the faith they practiced long ago. For a person in this situation, all that is needed is the reception of the sacrament of Penance, and they are once again a Catholic in good standing, alive with God’s grace! The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are truly a stable and enduring gift of God’s love, offering us the chance to return to the faith no matter how many twists and turns we take in our spiritual life.