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Catholic Activity: On Celebrating Baptism



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Article by Therese Mueller from Orate Fratres, Vol. XVIII, April 1944, No. 6.


Years ago we celebrated the anniversary of the baptism of two of our children, by visiting again the hospital chapel where they had been "reborn through water and the Holy Ghost." One of the godfathers came with us. The children, although still under kindergarten age, were quite familiar with the symbolism of the "first sacrament": they had watched their mother embroider the baptismal garment for an expected godchild, and they had carried the large candle for the baptism of this same godchild to the blessing on Candlemas. It was only natural that on the long walk out we also talked about baptism, explaining what seemed understandable. Great was our surprise when we arrived just in time to witness the baptism of nine new-born babies. Our children watched almost breathlessly. A few whispered explanations, and the ninefold repetition gave them time enough to "catch on," at least with their eyes.

We adults were deeply moved by the greatness of the ceremony, and we felt rewarded for the long and rather tiring walk to get there. With some shame we admitted that we had never before watched a baptism so closely and attentively. The children, however, soon broke our solemn spell with many questions: "Why didn't they have a bowel to catch the holy water—like the one you made on the picture for the baptismal robe? Did you see what they had for the holy water? Wasn't it the same kind of pitcher we use at home for our milk? And wasn't that a funny brown bottle they refilled it from? And why did the priest take the robe and candle away so quickly and give it to the next child? Who is going to keep it finally?" And so it went, on and on.

"Well," stated the godfather (a distinguished professor of Greek and Latin) with an air of superior spirituality, "well, that just goes to prove that children are concerned only with outward external things." He had not even noticed the things which the children found worth inquiring about. "What has all that to do with the essence of the sacrament?" I was not so sure myself just what was essential and what was accidental. Uneasily, I remembered that I too was rather peeved by the appearance of the beer-bottle and of something that looked very much like a cheese platter from my own cupboard—in addition to the oddities which the girls had already mentioned. Somewhat depressed by my own lack of spirituality and feeling rather guilty of my superficiality, I tried to give the children some answer: a hospital chapel has no baptistry like a parish church, no baptismal font, and—since they rather poor—they have to use what they have on hand, etc.

Not long after, I had to visit the aged pastor of one of the oldest parishes in our city. On the table in the room in which I waited there were two beautiful hand-wrought silver receptacles. I was so captivated by their beauty that I almost forgot my reason for coming. One was a rather large, deep bowl of hammered silver upheld by three fishes: the other was a vase-like container of driven silver carried between the wings of a dove—the most spiritual dove I have ever seen, so swift and upward in its movement. There was no use talking about my business when the pastor entered: I had to know about this silver set. I stammered something about the excellent design and fine craftsmanship and frankly admitted that I was under something of a spell. Would he please help me to get back on my feet by telling me all about it? "So you like my silver set, do you? I use it for baptism. Whenever I have to administer the sacrament I take it over to church. you see, I want my people to realize what baptism is worth to me. That is why I had them made: a container for the baptismal water, with a dove as a handle, and the bowl to receive the overflowing water. Everybody can see that this set is very beautiful and precious. And so is baptism. Everybody can understand the symbols. They might learn more about baptism this way than by listening to many a sermon, don't you see?"

When I left the old pastor much later I was ready to apologize to my children: for now I was sure that their child-like and straightforward reaction on the anniversary of their baptism had not been just superficial and "external" but natural and sound, inspired by their simple understanding of the true value of external signs. And perhaps the superior "spirituality" of our good professor was pretty close to spiritual "superbia," underestimating the outward means that were to express and impress the meaning of the inner reality.

"I want them to see how much it means to me..." The wisdom of the old pastor's remark was impressed upon me again, later, in regard to the baptismal robe. A university chaplain we know was about to become the pastor of a rural parish. He had been a famous preacher and writer on the liturgy and the sacraments, and we all knew that he would be in for a shock. When he officiated at his first baptism in his new parish that "shock" had come. The "white garment" which was handed to him toward the end of the ceremony was such that he refused it spontaneously and ordered "something clean and white" from the sacristy. "I want the people to know what it is all about. But how can I explain the text—Receive this white garment, which mayest thou wear without stain before the judgement seat of our Lord—when I put an untidy, grayish piece of cloth on the child?" The next day he contacted a talented young designer of church vestments, ordering an "elaborate, carefully designed and embroidered, white, washable baptismal robe that can be put on a child—something like a dalmatic." So it was done and the pastor himself sees to it that it is always kept ready, splendidly clean.

"What a fuss," sighed a young assistant to whom we told this story. "Haven't we got enough to think about—instructions, confessions, visiting the sick and the poor and the fallen-away? Why bother at all about such things—it'll only make trouble with the sexton. Just take the white end of the stole and touch the child with it. That's all the ritual requires. Anyhow, nobody is interested enough to watch what's going on." This time I was ready to put up a fight—all the more since I knew well enough the fine work this priest was doing with the young people of the parish. I sensed that only a spell of depression and discouragement could make him talk as he did, and that he would so talk only to people like ourselves who (he hoped) would take up the challenge. And so we did. All I had failed to say to my Greek professor, all I had learned from the wisdom of the old pastor, all that I had gained in understanding by becoming a godmother myself: all this was put at the disposal of the Holy Spirit—should he deign to use it. And to make our suggestions "practical"—for we knew well that he worked on an overloaded schedule—we told him of the practice of another rural pastor. At high Mass he would usually announce the children's sermon and Benediction for the afternoon. But whenever there was to be a baptism, instead of having this regular service for the children, he would extend a cordial invitation to all children to be a "guard of honor" at the reception of their new brother or sister in Christ. He would have the children stand in a semicircle as close as possible so that they could see and hear everything: he "preached" by the ceremonies and prayers of the rite. The children were allowed to make all of the server's ordinary responses, and they felt proud and important. No wonder that this "service" became so popular that the baptismal font had to be moved in order to accommodate the growing crowd of "witnesses."

Not only were the pastor's Sunday afternoon duties thereby considerably lightened, but he also was rewarded for introducing this "new" service by the reaction of the children. For them the world of external signs had become a world of spiritual reality. A solid understanding of the "first and most necessary sacrament" was awakened in their mind by the happy and proud and repeated assistance at the rites and ceremonies. They were impressed by the palpable, external means used: salt, oil, water, the white robe, the lighted candle. Their own baptism gained in meaning and importance as they eagerly watched the solemn actions of the rite unfold: the priest's taking possession of the child in the name of God by the laying on of his hand, his leading it by the stole into the house of God, the solemn exorcisms, the repeated signings with the sign of the cross.

It is only natural that children prefer this "visual education" to the memorizing of catechism questions. And consequently they will forget less soon. But does not Mother Church rightly expect that all her children—no matter how old—will react in the same way?

This children's service centering around baptism suggests another very meaningful custom which is observed in some parts of Austria. The betrothed couples of the community serve as a guard of honor for the children to be baptized. In their festive costumes they lead godmother and godfather in procession from the house to the church, witness the administration of the sacrament, and then accompany the new little Christian home again. Surely such a custom not only increases their appreciation of baptism but is an admirable preparation for matrimony.

When we took our own godchild to be baptized, all of the participants were provided with texts and were prepared to make the responses themselves. The baptismal robe and candle were provided by godfather and godmother and were to remain the personal property of the child. We asked the officiating priest of the would repeat in the vernacular whatever was permissible—since the Lutheran grandparents were also to be present and we wanted to give them "the right idea." Father gladly agreed to our request and officiated at the ceremony with a deliberateness and understanding that impressed everyone. Afterward he himself admitted that this baptism was for him a new experience, that the dramatic greatness of the rite had revealed itself to him as never before—partly through saying the prayers in the vernacular. We were even told that he went back to the mother's club of his parish and gave them a talk on the rite of baptism. The mothers were so enthusiastic about this talk—or better, about this topic—that then and there the priest was requested to follow up this initial instruction with a whole series on the rites of the other sacraments. Like a revelation it had come to these mothers—average women with but little education, in a rather poor city parish—that the skeleton of their catechism knowledge of long ago could be restored to life, could be clothed with flesh and beauty, a beauty they had but just begun to realize.

We all need to become more and more baptism-minded: at home, in school, and in church. Eastertide especially should be a joyous and grateful celebration of the Paschal-baptismal mystery: the renewal of our life in Christ "who makes all things new."

Therese Mueller

Activity Source: Orate Fratres/Worship: A Review Devoted to the Liturgical Apostolate , The Liturgical Press