By Luke Eggleston / sun staff writer
The Family Life Education team had an opportunity to celebrate the culmination of seven years of labor Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Bishop Harrison Center in Syracuse.
In 2000, the team endeavored to develop a new approach to baptism, one that would embed the rite in a comprehensive process. The program is detailed in a new manual, A Holistic Approach to Infant Baptism, which was unveiled at the Sept. 27 event.
“It’s like waiting for nine months for your baby only for this it has been seven years and the day is finally here and it’s just very, very exciting to see it done and to see how beautiful it looks,” said Pat Ennis, who quarterbacked the project for over half a decade.
Father Joe Phillips, a priest who works wherever there is a need on any given weekend, provided moral support and spiritual supervision for the team. At the Sept. 27 event he offered an opening prayer at the event.
“Seeds planted in spring time, come to fruition in autumn,” Father Phillips said during the prayer.
Father Phillips underscored what children can symbolize for Christians.
“The children remind us of Your gift of life,” he said.
Before introducing Ennis, Father Phillips described the manual as, “A gift to families.”
During her presentation, Ennis said, “I told my husband this morning that this is one of the biggest days of my life.”
Barb Whaley, who was on the committee that developed the program, was unable to attend the unveiling due to another commitment, but Ennis insisted that Whaley was a crucial component in each phase. Whaley, who attends St. Agatha’s in Canastota, has worked with couples at her home parish for many years. She also teaches confirmation classes and is a Eucharistic minister.
“It [finally seeing the manual] was very rewarding….We’ve been working together for a long time and it’s an exciting time in parents’ lives and it’s a very teachable time,” Whaley said. “It’s exciting seeing couples coming together.”
The protracted development stage was simply a matter of limited time on Ennis’s part and also the nature of collaboration. Ennis oversees three ministries. In addition to parenting, she is responsible for The Third Option marriage program as well as the separated and divorced support program. Moreover, the collaborative process involved numerous participants and that created a beneficial field of ideas but, with so many voices, the process was bound to be prolonged.
“Collaborations are wonderful and, in the long run, they’re definitely the way to go. But they take a lot more time,” Ennis said.
The idea for the manual grew out of Ennis’s position as the Syracuse Diocese’s parenting coordinator. She said that one of the most significant challenges to her in that role is simply convincing parents that the parenting programs offered by the church can help them.
“We were offering lots of parenting programs but it’s difficult to get parents out,” Ennis said. “And we said, ‘This should be a habit for people.’”
Over time, it occurred to Ennis that baptism plays a vital role in Christian parenting and that it could serve as the fulcrum for getting parents involved.
“Baptism is also an initiation into parenting,” Ennis said. “We need to start at the beginning.”
“I’m the parenting coordinator for the Syracuse Diocese and I always felt that the parenting coordinator should be more closely linked with the baptismal team because during the time of baptism that pretty much corresponds to when parents become parents and it seems like we should be making a connection then,” Ennis said. “So that’s why I thought it would be a good idea to bring the baptismal team leaders together and see how we could work better together. When I brought them together it kind of exploded and I realized there was a much bigger project here that needed to be done. That’s when we identified the four stages and started looking at baptism from a holistic point of view.”
According to Ennis, the Syracuse Diocese’s new baptismal program is holistic and “unique.”
The program breaks down the baptismal process into four phases: the hospitality/pastoral phase, the preparatory phase, baptism itself and follow-up.
During the hospitality/pastoral phase, the program stresses the importance of the church being a welcoming place for parents.
“The hospitality pastoral piece is one that hasn’t been addressed really very much. And I think one of the reasons that it has become so important is that so many of the young parents that are coming to us now and want their children to be baptized, so many of them haven’t even been baptized themselves. Or they’ve been baptized but they’ve been away from the church for a long time. So how we welcome them and how we speak with them and the kinds of options that we give them and the way we encourage them is extremely important,” Ennis said.
During the second phase — preparation — the church’s baptismal team prepares the individuals for Christian parenthood. The manual notes that many of its contributors consider this the most important phase of the baptismal program.
The third phase is the baptismal rite itself. The manual details each aspect of the rite.
The final phase is follow-up. During the follow-up period, the team endeavors to retain the parents and keep them involved in the church.
The manual refers to this phase using the imagery of “planting seeds.”
“For seeds to grow we must provide sunshine, water and occasionally fertilizer,” the book notes. “We may also have to pull weeds. This is an apt analogy for nurturing faith as well.”
The principle is to keep young families involved in the church and the model was already in existence in the Syracuse Diocese, according to Ennis.
“If we just sprinkle the babies with water and we don’t do anything to help the parents then what are we doing?” Ennis asked.
Ennis described the program as “unique, revolutionary, cutting edge and, on top of all of that, practical.”
“You won’t find it all under one roof anywhere else,” Ennis said, explaining why the program is unique. She also noted that its comprehensiveness is what makes it so revolutionary and that it emphasizes the role of lay people in baptism, making it “cutting edge.”
Sister Francis James Paris, OSF, is a pastoral associate at St. Mary’s in Minoa. Her parish already has programs in place to support young families. During her years at St. Mary’s, Sister Francis James said she has observed a steady decline in Mass attendance and parish involvement.
“As it stands now, most of what happens is the kids are baptized and you don’t see them again until they come for First Communion instruction. So how do we get young families involved in the parish? So, part of that vision was having instruction for moms and dads,” Sister Francis James said.
In order to keep parishioners around the church and active in it, Sister Francis James established both the Ministry of Mothers Sharing and another program Mothers Of Pre-Schoolers. In addition, she helped set up an Effective Fathers seminar, inviting John Ream of Effective Fathers Ministries. Her parish has also offered retreats for parents.
Sister Francis James was astonished with the success of the parish’s early retreats. She noted that after praying for 12 people to attend a 2004 retreat, 70 registered. Ultimately, she hopes to have monthly retreats.
“I would love to see this go throughout the diocese. Maybe we can get some of our lost sheep gathered together,” Sister Francis James said.
Elaine Crough has been volunteering with the Family Life Education Office ever since she retired from her teaching position within the Liverpool School District. During her presentation, Ennis noted that Crough’s efforts were instrumental in compiling the manual. During her years as a teacher, Crough, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Baldwinsville, observed that parents needed more support than they were receiving.
“I decided when I retired – I was a school teacher – I could really see how parents could use some more support so I volunteered my time with the Family Life Office and that’s how I got involved in this whole baptismal thing,” Crough said. “I see baptism as an evangelical moment and a way to support parents and families. And I know that the most impressionistic years of children are zero to six and that’s when baptism happens.”
The program was generated through dialogue between different parishes, which offered up their own ideas regarding baptism and exploring a holistic approach to it.
In addition to the manual, the Family Life Education Office helped develop a Web site on which interested parties can read about the new program. Ennis said it will include a message board on which Catholics may offer their own ideas. To read the page, go to http://home.catholicweb.com/familylifeeducation/ and click on the “Baptism Manual” button on the upper right-hand side. Ennis noted that the team hopes to continue updating the page with new ideas.
Copies of the manual are $39.95 and may be obtained by writing to the Web site referenced above or by writing to Baptism, 1342 Lancaster Ave., Syracuse, NY, 13210.