ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
67. The rite for the baptism of infants is to be revised, and it should be adapted to the circumstance that those to be baptized are, in fact, infants. The roles of parents and godparents, and also their duties, should be brought out more clearly in the rite itself.
68. The baptismal rite should contain variants, to be used at the discretion of the local ordinary, for occasions when a very large number are to be baptized together. Moreover, a shorter rite is to be drawn up, especially for mission lands, to be used by catechists, but also by the faithful in general when there is danger of death, and neither priest nor deacon is available.
While we are inclined to think of the Eucharistic as the central sacrament of our Faith, and the Council does indeed refer to the Liturgy as the “source and summit” of the Church’s life, it is equally true that without Baptism there would be no other sacraments, because there would be no one to celebrate the other six sacraments if no one has been born again into Christ and recreated into a new man or a new woman. The “metaphysics” of baptism, or how this sacrament has developed its identity over time, is complex. John the Baptist poured water upon his converts as a repentance for the judgment to come. St. Paul described baptism as the re-creation into a life in full union with God through rebirth in Christ, a remaking of identity that extended into the next life. In the fifth century St. Augustine understood the baptismal washing as a cleansing from the inherited sin and guilt of Adam and Evil, a guilt incurred by actual conception and birth with a need for immediate baptism of washing and forgiveness as soon as birth after possible.
When the Council called for a renewal of the Baptismal ritual books, it found itself caught in several theological and pastoral conundrums. To cite just one, how does one square the circle of the immediate need for baptism with the fact that this sacrament is the climax of a long journey toward faith by which one makes a subjective and internal decision to “put aside the old man” and to live in the image Christ? Or another: the variant ages of those seeking baptism, ranging from infants presented by their parents for sundry reasons to teenagers and adults who have taken several years to process the idea and the inner conscience commitment they will be asked to profess.
Paragraphs 67 and 68 focus upon infant baptisms, though not exclusively so. The last post in this stream, on Paragraph 66, discusses adult baptism and the ritual accommodation, and assumes the reintroduction of the catechumenate of the first four centuries. Para. 67 does not explicitly say that infants must pass through the elongated catechumenal process, which would be impossible anyway. But the same paragraph introduces a previous grave omission, the active role of parents in the rite book itself. In my youth, parents did not attend the baptism, strange as this may seem today. My newborn siblings were taken to church by the godparents, while my parents stayed home to prepare the luncheon. This may have been a holdover from an earlier day when the urgency of immediate baptism trumped a mother’s recovery time after birth, and it is true that in some countries and cultures there are legal-moral bonds between godparents and their godchildren, as in adopting them if the parents should die. [“Michael Corleone, do you reject Satan?”]
The inclusion of the parents into the baptismal rite is one of the best reforms to come forth from Vatican II, but as several generations of clergy and parish ministers will tell you today, particularly posters on the “Catholic Directors of Faith Formation” Facebook site, which I find intriguing, parents and sponsors themselves are often poorly catechized and thus limited in meeting the commitment in today’s new rite of infant baptism, where the minister addresses the couple as “the first teachers of your child in the ways of the faith; may you be the best of teachers….” It may be that some form of a catechesis journey may prepare parents for the baptism of their children where understanding of the faith is lacking. At the very least, this might eliminate our present practice of “parent classes” or even just one class before baptism, which seems to inspire frustration in teacher and student alike and deviates from the multifaceted faith to conversion model of the catechumenate.
Para. 68 introduces another masterful reform, the restoration of infant baptism as part of the parish’s life and contribution. The practical application has been the celebration of baptism of infants in clusters of families. Para. 68 calls for the creation of such a rite, and most parishes of my acquaintance have such a rite perhaps once a month where several families bring infants to church for a group rite. There is excellent theology behind this practice, as Baptism is not a private sacrament [no sacrament is, actually] and it is fitting for there to be a congregation of the Body of Christ at every infant’s baptism. You may recall from an earlier post that Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a Mass rite to be composed for such group occasions. To my knowledge, this project was never completed or fell into disuse as the practice of baptizing infants began to take place at a Saturday/Sunday parish Mass where the assigned Mass of the weekend takes precedence over other formulas.
Celebrating infant baptisms at the parish Mass is an excellent practice, on paper. Theologically speaking, there is no better place for it than amid a large representation of the local Church of the Baptized, and the optics of the rite bring home an entire parish’s commitment to display faith formation and example to the infant and his or her family. However, a May 2017 essay on information in the independent Catholic news service, Zenit, discusses some of the practical difficulties of frequent infant baptisms at weekend parish Masses. Quoting from the diocesan directives of Brisbane, Australia, Zenit reports that “…the Rite also says that baptism at Sunday Mass ‘should not be done too often.’ In fact, surprisingly few parishes have made it a regular feature of their liturgical practice. There are some common reasons behind both these statements.
“From the point of view of the worshipping community, there may be resistance to Sunday Mass being unduly prolonged on a regular basis or to the pattern of Sunday readings and homilies being frequently interrupted. To priests, musicians and liturgists who are already fully occupied with the demands of Sunday Mass, it might just seem too much extra to take on.” This has been my reservation over the years. I attend the same Saturday night Mass every week and I have noticed fewer infant baptisms.
The final instruction in para. 68 speaks of a shorter rite for extreme cases covering a multitude of circumstances. In parts of the world the day to day affairs of Catholic communities are overseen by lay catechists, who routinely baptize infants when a visit by a priest or deacon is rare. However, Baptism can be administered by anyone in a case of dire necessity, without previous permission if there is no time. Anyone means anyone, even someone who is not Christian but performs the essentials of the rite: pouring of the water and the use of the Trinitarian formula. The assumption here that the “baptizer” is doing what the dying person or his or family has always desired.
The reform of the rites of Baptism consistently brings one point home: that no one should be baptized if they have already been baptized with water in the Trinitarian formula. The Catholic Church holds that “rebaptizing” someone from another Christian denomination violates the good will of all churches who believe that baptism saves. Moreover, the Catholic doctrine of Baptism holds that the sacramental rite changes the inner life of a person, literally rendering them a new person in Christ. The effects of this sacrament cannot be undone nor may they be repeated. It is permissible for someone who has been baptized in danger of death to later experience the full sacramental rite of anointings and blessings, but under no circumstances can the pouring of water occur.
I don’t hear this much today but for a while it was common for Catholics to complain that they could not be born again as adults like their evangelical friends. To this I would say that the altar call baptisms at evangelical churches or revivals are, at their heart, opportunities for penitential desires and expression; they have something in common with our sacrament of Penance. We have done a very poor job presenting our Sacrament of Penance as a potential life-changing altar call moment, possibly because of overemphasis upon legalities and form. There are other ways for Catholics to awaken their baptismal fervor, from retreats to religious rallies to even pilgrimages. When we undertake these conversion ventures, it is not a matter of attaining something we never had before, but of awakening the full dimension of what our early baptism recreated us to be.