Baptism, Communion, initiation

Frank Answers About the Need for Initiation


 In your recent book “Eucharistic Body” (Fortress Press, 2017), you argue against the practice of “radical hospitality,” in which Holy Communion is served to any who attend worship. Your argument is largely based on  the need for “initiation.”  Of course, you have the weight of Christian tradition on your side. But my question is: just why is “initiation” so important?

The question is about “initiation” as such—I assume both in general and Christian initiation in particular. So this answer will not be about the practice of radical hospitality at the Communion table. I answered that question in “Frank Answers About Radical Hospitality in Holy Communion.”

The whole point of any ritual process of initiation is to engage initiates with the beliefs, practices, and values of their community. All we have to do is ask how well we are transmitting to new generations the beliefs, traditions, and values of our society or of our religious community to determine whether more intentional initiation is needed.

Traditionally, the beliefs, practices, and values of a social group are passed on by the elders of that group. The tutelage of the elders is not so much “book learning” as telling orally the stories (myths) of the community. The initiands are the subjects of ritual acts usually performed on their bodies and are engaged in activities that are important to the life of the community. Only then do new members of the community understand the deep spiritual traditions and the truth of the beliefs that lie behind what otherwise is just the cultural facade of these beliefs and traditions.

Modern American and European cultures have unfortunately lost much of the universal tradition of initiation. Processes of initiation may still exist in military boot camp and to some extent in the college experience and in job internships. Adolescents are usually the subjects of rites of initiation. One adolescent ritual process in our society is learning how to drive. It is done in stages, with supervision at each stage, much like all ritual processes. True initiation involves an experience of powerlessness, the gradual bestowal of power as the initiate successfully passes each stage, and the wisdom that potentially comes with experiences of the use of power—whether that power is wielding weapons, applying knowledge, or receiving the keys to the family car. Without the experience of powerlessness, however, most individuals will misunderstand and probably abuse power.

Marine Corps boot camp

Arnold Van Gennep, in The Rites of Passage (1908; English trans. University of Chicago Press, 1960), compared the process of initiation or life passages to taking a journey: leaving the place of origination/being separated from former roles or status; going on a journey/moving into a liminal or threshold space; arrival at one’s destination/being incorporated into the new community. Victor Turner, in The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), focused on the liminal betwixt-and-between stage of transition because it is in unfamiliar territory that one has the possibility of an encounter with the sacred. Also, in the ordeals that a group of initiates ungo in the liminal situation a bond is formed among them that Turner calls communitas. 

The group of initiates that goes through the ordeals together injects renewal into the whole social structure in which they are incorporated. This is best seen in educational processes such as enduring military boot camp and getting an academic degree. Those who go through such processes have the potential to renew society. This is precisely why a social group like the church needs to provide initiation. The rites of initiation are a constant source of renewal for the church as the Holy Spirit works faith in initiates through the sacraments of initiation.

Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, in Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), discusses five learnings from the process of initiation:  1. Life is hard. 2. You are not that important. 3. Your life is not about you. 4. You are not in control. 5. You are going to die. He admits that these learnings seem negative and demanding to Western people.  But they also represent what Christian discipleship is all about: 1. bearing the cross, 2. seeking first the kingdom of God, 3. serving God and the neighbor, 4. doing God’s will,  5. dying and rising in Christ. It is no wonder that Tertullian of Carthage said, “Christians are made, not born.” They are made in the crucible of the catechumenate.

Traditionally, the initiatory guides are elders. But in the West there are no longer  communities with elders, only communities with the elderly. Elders are those who know how to pass on wisdom, model the identity of the community, and set boundaries for the next generation.

Both genders need initiation into adulthood. But boys need it more than girls. Dr. Michael Bader puts the boys’ situation this way in Male Sexuality: Why Women Don’t Understand It — And Men Don’t Either (Bowman & Littlefield, 2008). It is based on the supposition that the primary caregivers in our culture are usually women (mothers). The question is:


how do children separate from women—mothers—and yet still maintain a loving relationship with them?

This is a universal problem, and yet it takes a different form for boys and girls. While both genders have to separate from their mothers, boys have the additional task of identifying with an entirely different gender. Boys not only have to become individuals apart from their mothers but masculine ones as well. Girls have to establish their difference from their mothers but not from their mother’s gender. In this one crucial sense, the developmental task for boys is more complicated for boys than it is for girls.

This is why rites of initiation for boys are more highly developed than for girls. One would think that fathers would help boys transition into male adulthood as mothers would help girls make the transition. But many boys have lacked fathers or father figures in their lives who can guide them into responsible male adulthood. Often their fathers also lacked initiation into responsible male adulthood. This often results in initiation by peers through street gangs and fraternities and often results in adolescent behavior that wreaks havoc on society, especially when young men act out their personal and social insecurities in acts of violence such as rape and shootings.


The churches have not been successful with men’s ministries because while they may be accused of being patriarchal, in actuality they are overly feminized in their rituals and symbols. That’s why one finds such a lack of male participation in the life and worship of the church. Richard Rohr, drawing on the work of Jungian analysts Robert Moore and Doug Gillette in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of Mature Masculinity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), proposes that men need images of Christ as warrior/prophet, as guru/wise teacher, as passionate lover, and as the king/just ruler who sees the whole picture.  He writes: “Symbols for men have to be graphic, brutal, honest, hard, and almost archetypal or they will not break through the male wall of unconsciousness and denial.”

Jesus stripped of his garments in Stations of the Cross set by Gwyneth Leech in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Some men have taken seriously the lack of adequate male initiation and try to provide rites of initiation for boys and men; for example, by giving them wilderness experiences with a high and strict set of expectations, including respect for others and for the earth. Most rites of initiation occur in natural settings, in wilderness areas, and usually entail nakedness. Thus initiates are placed in unaccustomed settings where their defenses are lowered and their vulnerability is exposed. They learn to depend on their guides, on one another, and on the creation itself.

The Headwaters Outdoor School at Mount Shasta, California provides wilderness rites of passage for boys.

Most indigenous societies worldwide have various forms of initiation rites for both men and women. For women, these are usually fertility or puberty rites, as with the Navajo people—the Diné—whose Kinaalda ceremony ushers adolescent girls into womanhood. Young Native American males may be sent on vision quests. Surviving alone in the wilderness the initiate communes with nature and does not return to the village until he has faced death, drawn upon great inner and spiritual resources, and emerges knowing his calling. Jesus himself set an example for this by his own retreat of forty days of fasting and praying in the wilderness – replicating in himself Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness and learning to depend on God’s grace alone.

Initiatory ordeals usually involve fasting and abstinence. The initiate learns to delay gratification in order to focus on higher pursuits. Being satiated with food and sex diminishes energy of body and mind needed for making judgments, engaging in combat, discerning choices in life, and ministering to others. Since the first century candidates for Baptism were required to fast. Fasting and practicing abstinence have been traditional requirements for receiving Holy Communion. The initiate learns to depend on the Spirit for guidance in surging forward or holding back.   

The initiate often receives a new name as a result of his ordeals. But the initiates are not just named; historically, many initiates were marked on their body too, like Jacob being wounded in his hip by the angel who wrestled with him and gave him the new name of Israel (Genesis 32:26); or Saul of Tarsus was who was toppled from his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus and given his new name Paul; or Francis of Assisi who bore the stigmata (wounds of Christ). Being wounded and surviving helps us understand the pattern of life-death-resurrection. Many people who have had cancer or heart surgery have the scars of the surgery on their bodies as a reminder of the profound experience they went through. Wounded people are no longer simply victims but empowered to become wise healers (See Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).  No wonder the risen Christ still bears the marks of his wounds after his resurrection and ascension. I believe that the prevalence of tattoos and body piercings is a secular substitution for what young men and women once sought by fasting, circumcision, scarification, shaving of heads, and knocking out of teeth.  [See Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth , translated by Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper and Row, 1958).]

Initiation ceremony (circumcision), Korogo Village, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, 1975. Photo by Franz Luthi.

In Christian initiation one is “marked with the cross of Christ forever.” This is usually done with oil on the forehead. But Coptic and Ethiopian Christians historically had a cross tattoo marked on their body. (See “Frank Answers About the Resurrection Body and Tattoos.”)  Many young men have cross tattoos today. One would hope that these cross tattoos, and other religious emblems, carry religious significance for those who embody them.

This interesting example does not ink in the cross but leaves it as flesh. The cross is formed by the crown of thorns and roses surrounding it, perhaps suggesting that it is suffering love that gives us crosses to bear.

Traditional societies have highly developed rites of initiation. These adolescent Massai boys are preparing for their initiation as adult members of their tribe. They will go through the ordeals of initiation in which they transition from child to adult members of their tribe. As a result of initiation they will then take their place as warriors guarding the tribe. The old traditions are maintained over against the modern secular society that engulfs tribal life.

In the same way, the community of Christ must have rites of initiation that mark a transition from the old way of life to the new life in Christ. Christian initiation comes to focus in baptism. In the ancient church baptism was preceded by a catechumenate of some duration. Baptism was administered on naked candidates whose bodies were completely anointed with oil and immersed in the font. This immersion was followed by further anointing (seal of the Spirit) and the laying on of hands (by the bishop in the Western Church), the greeting of peace (for the first time) as a gesture of welcome into the eucharistic assembly, and first communion. Holy Communion is the goal of the ritual process of Christian initiation. It is full inclusion in the life of the church. Could one receive the body and blood of Christ into one’s own body and sense a connection with the whole body of Christ in heaven and on earth without having first gone through the entire process of Christian initiation?

This baptism is being performed at the Easter Vigil. By the fourth century the church had almost universally settled on Easter as the premier time of the church year to celebrate public baptism. Being immersed in the water and coming up from it signifies being joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. Pentecost became the second day for public baptism in the Western Church, since baptism is rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). Those who were immersed in Christ’s death and resurrection and received his Spirit share in the meal that celebrates his death and resurrection and discern in faith Christ’s presence in the bread and wine according to his Word.

When the rite of confirmation was separated from baptism for reasons too complicated to discuss here, Pentecost became a preferred time to celebrate this rite of strengthening the gift of the Holy Spirit given in Holy Baptism. The laying on of hands is not just a bestowal of the Holy Spirit but a tactile gesture of being connected with the life and mission of the church. This is a reason why in the Western Church bishops as the chief pastors retained the prerogative of presiding at confirmations.

The problem we face is that as we try to renew Christian initiation with the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) with its institution of the catechumenate, and use this as a model to which child initiation needs to be adapted (rather than the other way around), we live in a society in which initiation (especially of youth) is catch-as-catch-can. There is little frame of reference for the rigors or the necessity of initiation. Initiation is not just about ordeals (taking boys on a raft trip down the Colorado or serving a stint in the military or passing an examination); it is about becoming aware of mystery and attuned to wisdom. It is about perceiving a different way of doing the world as we make our way through life in this world to the life of the world to come.

In Christian initiation one’s values have been upended by the values of the kingdom of God. We know from the experience of initiation that we must make this pilgrimage into the Kingdom in the company of others and not just as individuals and that the Eucharist is food for the journey—for this journey into the Kingdom, and for none other.

Pastor Frank Senn

Image above the article: boys awaiting  the circumcision ceremony in South Africa

Following image: Teen RCIA at St. Celestine Catholic Parish, Elmwood Park, IL

See Frank C. Senn, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Fortress Press, 2016), chapters 3, 4, and 7.

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