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Catholic Activity: Baptism Catechesis

Ideas on how to explain the sacrament of Baptism in all aspects: original sin, types of Baptism, rites, etc.

DIRECTIONS

The best way to teach children about Baptism is with babies, either an infant brother or sister, or an infant neighbor. Then they learn about Baptism in terms of some one, not just some thing.

A newborn baby is not in the state of grace; he is marked by original sin which he inherited from his first parents. To a child who understands what the state of grace is, this is a terrible shock.

"But Mother, that's not fair. It isn't his fault they committed original sin." So God looks mean, or the Church looks mean, and an older sister will make a private reservation that they may say he isn't free of sin, but he must be.

It doesn't help to answer, "Well, he is. You'll have to believe it because it's true." Too many answers like this can add up to future apostasy, all because truths which could be explained (if we would bother to explain them) were not explained. Many of the mysteries cannot be explained, but it is not hard to explain original sin.

The Reason for Baptism Suppose God had given Adam a stack of money. "Now you are rich," He would have said. "Take good care of the money. Don't lose it, because one day you will have a big family and they will need it. It will buy them food, and clothes, keep a roof over their head, and all these things will keep them happy and well. If you lose the money, your children will have a very hard time. They will be cold and hungry and naked, and have no home, all because of a wasted inheritance you might have left them."

Now suppose Adam paid no attention to God and instead wasted his money. He would have had none to pass on to his children. Even if it wasn't their fault, the inheritance would be gone. Nothing could bring it back. So they would suffer because of their father's wastefulness.

God didn't give Adam money. He did give him sanctifying grace. That was the wealth Adam could have passed on to his children. But he lost it, and what he did not have he could not pass on. Because he disobeyed God by committing original sin, the only thing he could pass on to his children was his sin. That is why even the dearest new baby is born with his soul stained by sin.

Only two people were conceived without original sin, and we must teach our children about this. One was Christ, the Son of God, Who was like men in every way excepting sin, and the other was His mother. Logically, God could never have permitted His Son to be born of a mother stained by sin, and Sacred Scripture proves it: if Mary had inherited original sin, the angel Gabriel could never honestly have addressed her as, "Hail, full of grace."

A third person was born free of original sin, although his soul was stained by it at his conception — St. John the Baptist. He was sanctified in his mother Elizabeth's womb at the moment of her meeting with Mary, at the Visitation: "For behold, the moment the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy."

This is why Our Lady's birthday and St. John's birthday are the only two birthday parties for saints in the entire liturgical calendar. The other feasts of the saints celebrate events in their lives, or their deaths — the day they were born to eternal life in Heaven.

So, in terms of the Mystical Body, a lovely new unbaptized baby doesn't belong. Even though he is born into our family, and we are Catholics, he is not a member of the Church. If he died with original sin on his soul, he wouldn't go to Hell. He wouldn't suffer in Purgatory. But he wouldn't see God, because no soul stained by sin can enter into the presence of God. He would be as happy as he was capable of being, without ever seeing God.

Far too many people fail to realize that this is made very clear in the Gospels; if we are to teach our children convincingly about Baptism, we will have to use the Gospels as our source. The Church teaches what Christ taught about Baptism, and He made it so clear that it is not possible to misunderstand His words.

How Baptism Came to Be Rites like Baptism, ceremonies that include washing in different ways to symbolize purification, have been part of almost every religion ever since the beginning. At the time of Our Lord, St. John the Baptist was baptizing crowds of people who came to hear him preach repentance for sin and the coming of the Messias. This baptism was not a sacrament. It was a symbolic ritual, which signified that those who asked for baptism had repented of their sins and resolved to live a more holy life. John baptized them by submerging them completely in the water, then raising them up again. Disappearing under the water was a sign of their death to sin, a symbol of descending into the grave. Rising out of it was a sign of their desire to live a new life.

Now St. John had not seen his Cousin since He was a little boy; so he had no way of knowing Him. But the Holy Spirit revealed to him that Christ would come one day, and that there would be a sign for John by which Christ would be known. So one day when a crowd of people came to be baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus came with them. Although St. John said later that he did not recognize Christ, still he must have wondered, and he asked Him: "I ought to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?"

And Our Lord told him to baptize Him just the same, because there was a reason. So John baptized Jesus, and the heavens opened and he saw a dove descending and he heard the voice of God the Father saying, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased."

Certainly Christ had no need of baptism, but by submitting to the rite He sanctified the waters of Baptism and gave an example to those who would follow Him. Even at this time, however He did not affirm the absolute necessity of Baptism.

One night not long after, a sincere Pharisee named Nicodemus went secretly to Jesus to question Him about His role as a worker of miracles. And to Nicodemus Jesus said: "Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Now surely Nicodemus knew that Christ did not mean literally "born again." But to find out what He did mean, he asked: "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb?" And then Jesus described the necessity of Baptism.

"Unless a man be born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." We should memorize this, and teach it to our children. It is one of the doctrines about which Catholics are most often questioned.

Between that time and the post-Resurrection period, both Jesus and His disciples baptized, but not until after the Resurrection did He command His Apostles to baptize. With this, it is clear that Baptism is to be a sacrament.

"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded of you."

We should know and love these words.

"But suppose someone were dying and wanted to be baptized, and there was no water?"

Water is always necessary, even if it is not clean. The water used by the priest for Baptism is especially blessed, but in case of an emergency where a lay person must baptize, if there is no plain water, liquids composed of water with some flavoring added could be used. Tea, coffee, carbonated beverages, even beer, may be used in an emergency. Milk, vinegar, wine, or any other liquids may not be used. Unless a child should ask about these exceptions, it would be more confusing than helpful to mention them, but it is always good to know the facts.

There are two other kinds of Baptism, Baptism of blood and Baptism of desire, and they show God's infinite mercy.

Baptism of blood is received by those unbaptized who die as martyrs for the love of God or for some Christian virtue. Baptism of desire is received by those unbaptized who, sorry for their sins, die desiring either Baptism or the complete will of God, so far as they are able to know it. This answers the question of children who worry about pagans who die without any knowledge of Baptism (though only God knows who receives these kinds of Baptism). Even a pagan, if he believes sincerely in one he thinks is God, tries to do his will perfectly and is sorry for his sins, probably dies with Baptism of desire. Such a pagan, put to death for the one he believed was God, would probably receive Baptism of blood. God's demand for Baptism is just, and we must help our children understand this. Sentimental substitutes for it are no good. We should be satisfied that His mercy provides for those faithful souls who are unable to receive Christian teaching about it in time.

A Note on Stillborn and Mentally Defective Children In families where the children know that a new child is expected, and then are told that the baby will not live to be born, they may ask if he is able to be baptized; then it is good to know that the Church insists that a foetus be conditionally baptized. Doctors and nurses are instructed how to baptize conditionally the stillborn, even if the foetus is unrecognizable, and husbands and wives should also know about conditional Baptism if a miscarriage takes place at home. The procedure is the same for any emergency Baptism, pouring water on while saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

We have near us a State Hospital for the mentally defective and our children have asked about baptizing the babies who go to live there. Babies born mentally defective may always be baptized, up to the age of reason, and should be, and it makes a child very happy to be told such a baptized child is a temple of God. Such a child is always in the state of grace because he is incapable of committing deliberate sin. An adult who is mentally diseased may be baptized if, in a lucid moment, he shows a desire for it or if, in anger of death, he has ever shown a desire for it before losing reason.

If these points seem superfluous here, they are included to provide answers to questions that may and probably will be asked. Just as children will ask about suicide and murder and we must answer in a way that gives them confidence in God's mercy, so we must answer their questions about the necessity of Baptism in the same way.

The Baptismal Rite Learning about Baptism can really be fun when it is a feature of the preparation for a real Baptism, or the celebration of a baptismal feast. Celebrating the birthday of St. John the Baptist on June 24 is a good time for learning about Baptism. A group of children sitting around the kitchen table while their mother mixes a feast day cake will listen far more attentively to her talk about Baptism, than the same group sitting around the dining-room table, catechisms in hand — especially if there is a bowl to lick afterwards.

We ought to invite more people to attend our babies' Baptisms — that is, the sacrament part (which no one seems to want to attend) instead of the party (which can't always accommodate all the people who think they should attend). And we ought all to celebrate our baptismal feasts with as much enthusiasm as we celebrate our birthdays. After all, this is the day, for the Christian: the day he is born again in Christ. Moreover, learning about Baptism in connection with all these occasions means learning more than the catechism teaches. Then when it is time for this lesson in the catechism, children will say, "But I know that lesson. I just have to learn the catechism words, but I know what it means."

It is a lovely custom for the family to provide their own baptismal garment and candle for a baby's Baptism. White garments can be bought ready-made and embroidered with liturgical symbols, or can be made and embroidered at home. Sometimes they are like a bib or sacque or, as in our family, a piece of fine linen cloth can be used for each child. This is embroidered with the symbols of each sacrament as the child receives them, and parts of it are appliquéd to a First Communion dress, a Confirmation dress, a wedding dress; or it can be made into a pocket handkerchief to carry at a boy's First Communion, Confirmation, his wedding, or even as an amice at Ordination.

The candle used at a Baptism (two are used, but one is handed to the sponsors) must fit the candlesticks in the baptistry; hence it is usually more convenient to have an ordinary-sized blessed candle, decorated either before or after with appropriate symbols and lettered with the child's name and the date. For baptismal feasts at home, there are large liturgical candles available at religious supply stores, currently priced under a dollar. These can be taken to the church before Candlemas (February 2), when Father will be glad to bless them with the rest of the candles.

Decorating a baptismal candle is not difficult, even for people who can't draw a straight line. Liturgical symbols are all over the place, in missals, prayerbooks, on the walls of churches, on altars and vestments, on religious greeting cards; if none is found to describe a child's patron saint it is quite all right to invent them. First, a thin coat of white shellac goes over each spot where a design will be painted. Shellac and a cheap paintbrush (shellac is death to good paintbrushes) can be bought at the Five and Ten, and shellac can be removed from brushes with rubbing alcohol.

Next, the designs are drawn or traced on paper with a soft lead pencil, then reversed and transferred to the candle by rubbing. Be sure to plan the spacing of the designs to leave enough room near the bottom of the candle for the child's name, date of birth, and date of Baptism. Oil paint with a little turpentine for thinning and a small pointed brush are best for the designs. After the paint is dry, another coat of shellac over them will be protection against handling.

The first three symbols at the top of our candles (reading down) are for the Holy Trinity, to remind the children that their souls become the dwelling of the Trinity after Baptism. There are many symbols for each Person, but we have chosen those easiest for the children to remember. A hand describes God the Father as Creator. The crown of thorns, three nails, and five drops of blood describe God the Son as Redeemer. A dove describes God the Holy Spirit. Very little children must have it clearly explained that the Holy Spirit is not a dove. A dove has been seen at times as a sign of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is really the love of the Father for the Son, and the love of the Son for the Father.

Next comes a shell with water, because water is the most important outward sign of the sacrament of Baptism. Then we have used a cloud with wind, to remind them of the priest breathing three times gently on the face of the child at Baptism, bidding the evil spirit to depart in the name of the Holy Trinity. Next, a salt cellar with grains of salt. This is the symbol children love best because it is so interesting to see a baby taste the salt at his Baptism, and because it is symbolic of things they know in daily life. At home we use salt to bring out the flavor of our food and to preserve such things as cucumbers (pickles), cabbage (sauerkraut), and fish (codfish cakes). In Baptism a little blessed salt is put on the baby's tongue as a pledge that it may have a taste for heavenly wisdom, and that it may be preserved from the corruption of sin. It reminds us of the words of Our Lord: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing any more but to be cast out, and to be trodden on by men."

Then we put a little oil lamp, a symbol of the Holy Chrism with which a child is anointed after the pouring on of water. This is a sign that he is now a member of Christ's Mystical Body and has some share in the work of Christ's Priesthood. In this sense, he is a lay priest. He may offer the Mass with the priest and Christ, as an act of adoration to the Father. A man and a woman administer the sacrament of Matrimony to one another, with the priest present as witness. In this they act as lay priests.

Next, there is the white garment. This is a symbol of the gift of sanctifying grace which infuses the soul at Baptism. In the early Church the candidates for Baptism wore white garments, but more recently the priest has used a fine white napkin, laying it across the child's head. Last of all on the candle is the child's name and birth date, and then — lettered in red — the date of his Baptism.

An English translation of the Rite of Baptism for Infants is needed if a child is to renew his baptismal vows at a baptismal feast. ] [Editor's Note: The rite following is the baptismal rite before Vatican II. Find a current version of the Rite of Baptism to follow.These leaflets cost very little and are available in religious supply stores or from a number of publishers. A brief rehearsal the day before helps the child to understand what each part means and what is expected of him. On the evening of the feast, before the meal is served, the family stands around the table and the father reads the questions asked of the sponsors when the child was too little to reply for himself, then gives the responses the child repeats after him. The father does not imitate any of the things the priest did, but merely explains them, and for little children it is best to keep the explanation short and interesting rather than risk boredom with too many hard words or long prayers.

It starts with, " — — , what do you ask of the Church of God?"

"Faith."

"What does faith bestow upon you?"

"Life everlasting."

Then the father explains how the priest breathed upon the face of the child, signed him with the Cross upon the forehead and breast, laid his hand upon the head and said a lovely prayer asking God to keep the child from sin and help him grow in perfection day by day. Then he explains about the salt and the prayers of exorcism.

Next comes the Apostles' Creed, followed by the Our Father. Once too small to speak for himself, now the child can do it alone. It is very moving to hear it.

Then the father explains how once more the priest commanded the devil to depart and then, using the words of Our Lord when he cured a man deaf and dumb, he touched the child's ears, saying: "Ephpheta, that is, be opened," and touching his nostrils he said: "Unto the odor of sweetness. But thou, devil, begone, for the judgment of God is at hand."

Then come the "Do you renounce?" questions that children love to answer.

" — — , do you renounce Satan?"

"I do renounce him."

"And all his works?"

"I do renounce them."

"And all his pomps?"

"I do renounce them."

"But what does pomps mean?" someone will ask. "Pomp" is defined as "a show of magnificence, display, brilliant splendor." It is easier to explain to grown-ups than to children. It could apply to the way the devil uses worldly displays to make us forget the holy meaning of the great Christian feasts — Christmas, New Year's (the Feast of the Circumcision), and Easter. It could apply to the way the splendor of impure movies or TV shows can blind us to the fact that they might arouse temptations in us and be occasions of sin.

Then the father explains how the child was anointed with the oil of catechumens on the breast and between the shoulders, and the priest changed his purple stole for a white one, to signify the joy of the Church receiving a prospective new member.

Next the "Do you believe?" questions, and then the priest asked the sponsors, for the child:

" — — , do you wish to be baptized?"

And the sponsors answered for him, "I do."

Then came the wonderful moment. Pouring water over his head, the priest said the words of Baptism, and the Holy Trinity came to make their home in the soul.

The bestowing of the three gifts came last of all. First, the anointing on the crown of the head with the sacred oil of priesthood to signify membership in Christ. Second, the presentation of the white garment to signify the gift of sanctifying grace. Third, here the father hands the lighted baptismal candle to the child, saying as the priest did:

"Receive this burning light and safeguard your Baptism by a blameless life; keep God's commandments so that when Our Lord comes to the marriage feast you may be worthy to greet Him with all the Saints in the heavenly court, and live forever and ever."

With, "Go in peace, and may the Lord be with you," everyone kisses the child. It is a very proud moment, and seeing him there with his lighted candle, a symbol of the living Christ Whose life he shares, everyone feels the same — so glad to be baptized.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961

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