Earliest Church Practices
At the beginning, the Christians did not have formal practices. They were guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ and the writings of the apostles. The one essential belief or practice that they performed was the celebration of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, at various assemblies. These assemblies were the first church gatherings. In fact, the English word
Catholics believe that the sacraments, or the rites of the Catholic Church, are the sacred base of a good Catholic lifestyle. The sacraments also remind us that we carry Jesus through our daily lives. The seven sacraments, which have been given to us by Christ, include Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. (For a detailed description of the sacraments, refer to Chapter 8).
Celebration of the Eucharist symbolizes the Last Supper and commemorates Christ's death and Resurrection. Partaking of the Eucharist — literally the Body and Blood of Christ — is at the very essence of Catholicism. That is because through the Eucharist, believers partake of the Divine, coming as close to God as they can.
The practice of baptism, the cleansing away of sin, began when John the Baptist baptized Jesus at the River Jordan. Converts to early Christianity underwent baptism as a symbolic cleansing of sins and a public demonstration of their faith. Not until the Middle Ages did infant baptism become an accepted practice: Infant mortality was high, and many parents feared their unbaptized babies would not get into Heaven.
Before the Middle Ages, Confirmation was part of the baptismal rite, not a separate sacrament. Originally, immersion in water (Baptism) was followed by the ceremony in which a bishop anointed the new believer with oil (Confirmation). Eventually, though, there were too many people to be baptized and the bishops could not officiate at every baptism. At that point, the sacrament of Confirmation broke off and was performed separately.
Another new sacrament was Penance, also called reconciliation or confession. In the early days of persecution, some people denied Christ to save themselves from death by torture. Catholic communities accepted the apostates' public reconciliation, following in the spirit of Christ's message of forgiveness and compassion. Later, confessions became private.
Catholicism adopted the sacrament of Matrimony from the Jewish tradition. Formalizing the sacraments of Anointing the Sick and Holy Orders came later, as the Church grew and developed.Origins of the Catholic Liturgy
The Catholic liturgy originated in private gatherings. Christians read from the missives of the apostles, which were copied and passed from one community to another. (By