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What Does the Church Teach about Infant Baptism

February 16, AD2013 19 Comments

\"Joel

We’re those people. In our families and social circles, we are usually considered to be the über-Catholics. We pray before meals, even when we’re dining out. We plan our weekend schedule around going to Mass, even if we’re traveling. We strictly observe all Holy Days of Obligation. In discussing issues of moral significance, we first ask, “What does the Church teach about that?” We assert these practices are the baseline for any practicing Catholic, but they’re still rather counter-cultural. However, we’re not perfect, not even close. We’re still learning; here’s an example.

Our son Jude was born January 27, 2012. We wanted him baptized as soon as possible, but first there were a few issues to navigate. One, Lisa was recovering from a Caesarian section delivery and was physically limited for several weeks after Jude’s birth. Two, Joel’s parents live six hours away and we wanted to schedule a date when they could attend. Three, Ash Wednesday was February 22, less than a month after Jude\’s birth. Since we knew the Church doesn’t celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism during Lent, we grudgingly waited until after Easter, when Jude was almost three months old.

Hopefully, right now you’re thinking, “What do you mean, the Church doesn’t celebrate the sacrament of Baptism during Lent?” If so, good for you; you’re further along than we were. We could never make good theological sense out of the withholding of one of sacraments of initiation, but that had been our experience at two different parishes. We took it as a given. In fact, we thought parishes that conferred Baptism during Lent were doing something wrong.

Following Jude’s Baptism we asked the priest why the Church doesn\’t celebrate this sacrament during Lent. He looked puzzled and thought for a moment before he inquired, “Did your previous parishes drain the baptismal font throughout Lent?” Yes, they did. In fact, one of them would fill the holy water stoups with sand or gravel. He replied, “Yeah, that would make it hard to do baptisms. That’s not correct liturgical praxis; in fact, it’s specifically forbidden by the Congregation for Divine Worship.”

How did we not know this? We looked it up, and sure enough …

CONGREGATION DE CULTU DIVINO ET DISCIPLINA SACRAMENTORUM

Prot. N. 569/00/L

Dear Father:

March 14, 2000

This Congregation for Divine Worship has received your letter sent by fax in which you ask whether it is in accord with liturgical law to remove the Holy Water from the fonts for the duration of the season of Lent.

This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being praeter legem (outside of the law) is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the [sic] of her sacraments and sacramentals is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The “fast” and “abstinence” which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).

Hoping that this resolves the question and with every good wish and kind regard, I am,

Sincerely yours in Christ, [signed]

Mons. Mario Marini Undersecretary (who later went on to be named secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Mons. Marini died in 2009.)

So holy water doesn’t get drained until Holy Thursday and Baptisms are absolutely allowed during Lent. Glad we know now. Misinformation notwithstanding, we still missed the opportunity to baptize Jude during the first four weeks of his life. Is that really such a big deal? From the Catechism:

Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. (CCC 1213)

The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (CCC 1250)

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. (CCC 1257)

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Sorry little big man. Not only were we woefully ignorant of the Church’s willingness to baptize during Lent. In hindsight, we concede that we put too much emphasis on the production and not enough on the sacrament itself. From the Code Canon Law:

Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks. As soon as possible after the birth, indeed even before it, they are to approach the parish priest to ask for the sacrament for their child, and to be themselves duly prepared for it. (Can. 867 §1)

Now we understand why only a couple of generations ago it was not uncommon for the father to have the infant baptized before the mother was even home from the hospital. We are not advocating a return to that practice, but it certainly underscores how culturally lax we’ve become with this most important sacrament. To that point, when our first-born was baptized at less than a month old along with five other babies, she was the youngest by far.

It really makes us wonder about state of parish baptismal preparation. Recalling ours, we watched an outdated video and discussed the mechanics of the rite, but there was no real catechesis. Not to throw all Adult Faith Formation Directors under the bus (we know several good ones), but are we as a Church missing a critical opportunity to catechize the parents? How best can we help parents be properly prepared for the Sacrament of Baptism rather than simply scheduling the most convenient date? As a deacon candidate, Joel may soon be tasked with this responsibility. We would love to hear from you.

© Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life ... not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel's bio; Lisa's bio).

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