I was looking through the pictures of a friend of mine on Facebook the other day and saw something that disturbed me. There were pictures of a group of people sitting around a swimming pool in an apartment complex, with a fully clothed man in the middle, motioning for one of the onlookers to come in. It seemed like any number of FB pics of swimming pools. But the caption beneath it read simply, Baptism. The friend who posted the picture is a sincere Christian, a member of one of these emerging house church communities that are the reaction to the megachurch phenomenon in the evangelical world. For those unfamiliar with this kind of religion, it seems be very much Calvin on justification, Wesley on personal holiness, Jars of Clay on music, and post-modern in its approach to religious practice. At any rate, the picture was very different than the FB pics of the Extraordinary Form Baptism of my youngest godson.
The way that a Catholic approaches Baptism is obviously going to be different than the way an Emerger (what else does one call them?) would. For the Emerger, Baptism is an outward sign that expresses an internal conversion of a believer towards Jesus Christ. Water is a symbol, nothing more, and the reality that Baptism symbolizes could be had just as well without the water, but in obedience to the LORD’s command, water is used as an external symbol of what is going on internally. Precisely because it is just a symbol, then it makes just as much sense for Baptism to take place in an apartment complex swimming pool as it is does in the Baptistery of St John Lateran in Rome. There is no accompanying ritual or ceremony. On the contrary, it is a highly casual affair even if the conversion that it symbolizes is very deep and sincere. If there is anything sacred about the Baptism, the sacred is Jesus Christ Himself who saves the sinner through that conversion.
Catholic belief in Baptism is very different. But I wonder if, you gave the average Catholic the above description of Baptism according to the Emergers and asked if it were Catholic teaching, they would say yes. In reality, for the Catholic Church, the sacralization of the world and human flesh by its union with the Divinity in Jesus Christ means that there can be such a thing as sacraments, in which outward signs produce what they signify: as the water cleanses the body, the action of the creature water accompanied by the action of the Spirit cleanses the soul. But Baptism is not just a sacrament of Regeneration. It is also one of Initiation. Baptism does not only appropriate, as it were, the merits of the Redemption wrought by Jesus. It grafts its recipient onto Jesus Christ, inserts him in the life of the Trinity, and makes him a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Precisely because it is not a symbol, Catholic Baptism is celebrated in a way different than that of the Emergers.
Of course, when there is an emergency, all bets are off. I have baptized infants in incubators using the Trinitarian formula and no accompanying ceremonies or prayers, when time was of the essence. But generally, Catholic Baptism happens first of all in a church. Why? When I went to the Holy Land, I saw Protestants baptizing believers in the Jordan River. We Catholics renewed our Baptismal Promises at the River, but it would never have occurred to us to baptize anyone there. Surely the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is as if not more sacred than the faux marble font in Our Lady of Suburbia in Peripheria, Illinois?
As Catholics, we are members of the Church Universal. But the Church also is very local. According to canon law, the Pastor has a right to baptize his flock. Catholics belong to a Parish, a local manifestation, as it were, of the Church Universal. The relationship that a Catholic has to Church Universal, his Pastor and his Parish is different than that of an Emerger. For the latter, the Church Universal is the Church of the individual soul, and the Pastor is merely a witness, as it were, to help the believer on the Way. For a Catholic, there are bonds of communion which bind the believer to a real community, which exists in Heaven and Purgatory as much as it does on Earth, and a community which is very particular, with a particular sub-grouping of the faithful and a particular shepherd. That is why Baptism generally takes place in the parish church at the parish font, in the same place where the sub-grouping, so to speak, also celebrates the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Communion. Baptism is ordered to all of the other sacraments, and particularly to the Eucharist.
The sacred in Baptism extends to more than just the church and the parish. It extends to all of the rites and ceremonies which accompany the sacramental action. The water itself is natural water, but is set apart, made holy, by the prayers of the Church. These consecratory prayers give God’s natural creation back to Him in thanksgiving, as it were, and in return are given back to the Church as a means for supernatural re-creation. The blessing of the water, the consecration of the oil of catechumens and chrism, the exorcisms, and the rites of clothing the neophyte in the white garment and handing him a lit candle are not just explicative rites. They are not just pious traditions which some people call sacramentals. They all actually “do” something, as they are intimately united with the action of the sacrament of Baptism. Whether the Baptism takes place in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or the Byzantine or Maronite Rite, the Church vests her newly baptized not with a customary rite of passage, but with a sumptuous wedding feast to Christ filled with the richest of symbolic and real fare.
The reason that I present here such a stark comparison of two very different conceptions of Baptism is not as an exercise in comparative religion. It is because I wonder to what extent many who present their children or themselves for Baptism in Catholic churches have an essentially Emerging theology of Baptism, combined with respect for the external visuals of the rite as pious tradition.
A pastoral problem the Catholic Church is grappling with is this: if the largest religious group in the US is Catholics, the second is lapsed Catholics. Statistics are beginning to indicate that our ability to retain Catholics is decreasing even as the number of Catholics increases. And how many of those who were baptized as Catholics have migrated to ecclesiastical communities of the Emerging type, especially in Latin America?
We can argue all day long as to the reasons for this phenomenon. We can blame secularism, the American consumerist mentality of religion, the sex abuse scandal in the Church, the lack of valid marriages, the unwillingness of many to accept the Church’s teachings on family life, and so on. But where the rubber hits the road is Baptism. It is time to stop the blame game and go back to where it all starts.
There are two extreme policies about administering the sacrament of Baptism in our day. One, which we may cite as more evangelical, states that Baptism should only be administered to the children of serious Catholics who know their faith, and have been prepared by a rigorous preparation akin to the catechumenate. They point to the Patristic era, with its comparable stinginess about baptisizing people, as an example. The other, which we may cite as traditionalist, looks at the famous relic of the arm of St Francis Xavier who baptized everyone in sight to free them from the possibility of eternal hellfire, and seeks to baptize every human being in arm’s length. Both policies are being seen in our parishes today, along with the policy that “we just baptize anyone who asks because it is our custom.”
I would like to propose that we need to re-think these policies in light of what is going on in the Church and the world today. If Our LORD stated, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them” then it is clear that we are supposed to baptize everyone we can. But that Baptism is also connected with a life of discipleship. Baptism is the beginning of discipleship, not only for the child or adult convert who is plunged into the saving waters, but often for the parents and godparents as well.
I think it is less important whom we baptize than that the person who is baptized, or their family, is catechized well. How many times in our parishes does Baptismal preparation consist of some agonizing paperwork, a 1970s video about Christian initiation, and a poorly expressed dress code for the baptizee, all done in 45 minutes by a parish volunteer? How many times do we reject families who have not darkened the door of their parish church, failing to seize a moment to bring them to faith, and then make our faithful families jump through endless hoops to get their sixth or seventh baby baptized?
In the Extraordinary Form, Baptism begins with the simple question, “What do you seek of the Church of God?” The answer is, “Faith.” When anyone comes to our doors seeking Baptism, it is because, in some way, they want faith. They may also come to our doors for all kinds of less than authentic reasons (they hate the priest in the neighboring parish, they want to do less paperwork, because Grandma will disinherit me if I don’t baptize the baby), but when they are there, we have a sacred duty to transmit to them the faith.
The liturgical rites of Baptism already give the structure for a meaningful catechesis, not only on the sacrament itself, but the entire Christian life. Somehow I think that a 45 minute video presentation by a parish volunteer does not do justice to the evangelizing possibilities for the faith and for people’s lives that the Baptismal liturgy can offer. The questions that the rite asks of the parents can be the springboard for lively discussion and explanation of what it means to live as a Catholic. The Creed can be the occasion for explaining what we believe and why we believe it, something many parents were never taught.
Many pastors worry about the fact that of the children who are presented for Baptism, few return for Holy Communion, even fewer for Confirmation, and fewer still for Marriage. The sacramental economy seems to be breaking down. We can make the Church smaller and purer by admitting to the sacraments only those who measure up to our exacting standards. We can make it larger and broader by watering down the meaning of the sacraments and producing more uncatechized semi-pagans. Or we can roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done. Engage every person who comes for Baptism as if they were sent by God, which they have been, to learn the Faith in its entirety. Maybe, if we do that, the downward spiral of Catholic faith and practice might begin to turn around? If Christian faith and practice begins with Baptism, then Baptism has to be where we assure, not just a bare minimum, but a comprehensive introduction to faith and practice.