Baptism – Opening the Door of the Church

by Connie Berry   SUN editor

A few years ago when the chancery staff helped Bishop Thomas Costello celebrate his 70th birthday, he said, “This may be the date of my birth but I consider my baptism my real birthday.”

Whether the cleansing waters of the baptismal font are poured over a baby’s head or over the head of a mature adult, the symbolism is the same: a transformation into new life, the Christian life. The symbolic nature of water is simple — just imagining soiled dishes or laundry being washed in a tub of water is enough to draw a parallel. In the Catholic Church, the blessed baptismal water washes away original sin, welcomes the baptized into the faith community and designates the baptized as a member of the church. When an adult is baptized, forgiveness of all personal sin takes place. Baptism acknowledges the members of God’s family on earth and carries with it the responsibility to live as one human family. In other words, by virtue of baptism, all are called to serve the family of God. So, when analyzing the meaning and Christian significance of baptism, dressing a baby in an heirloom christening gown is barely a ding in the enormous totality of what the first Sacrament truly entails. The faithful can spend the rest of their lives determining just what their baptism means.

Scripture accounts of Jesus’ baptism by John emphasize the union of Jesus to his heavenly Father. The Gospel description of baptism explains that when Jesus was baptized by John he was immersed in the Jordan River. When he rose out of the water, Jesus saw, “the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:10-12).

The Second Vatican Council not only opened up the windows to let fresh air into the church, it also emphasized the important role of the church community. Concerning the rite of baptism, among other rites of the church, Vatican II documents state: “It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private. This applies with special force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.”

Nowadays it is more common to have baptisms take place during or following the Sunday liturgy so that members of the parish can welcome the newest member of the faith community. Before Vatican II, baptism was a more private affair with the godparents and parents the only persons attending. Pragmatically speaking, that norm also accounted for the fact that recuperating mothers sometimes were not able to attend a baptism if it occurred within a week or so of the infant’s birth. In essence, the church came full circle with Vatican II.

The Second Council also describes the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults — the RCIA program’s roots can be found within the Vatican II documents. This teaching connects directly with the early church and the large numbers of baptized which followed Jesus’ death on the cross. Thousands were baptized, Scripture tells us, in the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection. According to, in the early church, those wanting to become Christian lived within a small Christian community so they could learn the way of life by the mentoring of the members. In the fifth century, Christianity was more widely accepted and infant baptism became the norm. Today, both infant baptism and a program to address the baptism of those who are of knowledgeable age, RCIA, are acceptable.

The Council of Florence states that “Holy Baptism holds the first place among the sacraments, because it is the door of the spiritual life; for by it we are made members of Christ and incorporated with the Church.” Considering the climate filled with suspicion and plague at the time, such practical instruction coming from the meeting of church leaders is notable. There are other purification rituals that were practiced by other groups. Washing the exterior to cleanse the interior was found among Jews, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks,  Romans, Hindus and more according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, online version.

In the Scriptures, John baptizes for the forgiveness of sin. By Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the meaning of the ritual changed. Of utmost significance, John baptized with water; Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit. Jesus commands his disciples to baptize and He declares the necessity of baptism in John 3: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he can not enter into the Kingdom of God.” The oldest form of Christian baptism was immersion in water. Today in the Western church it is common to have the water poured over the head of the baptized with the valid form of baptism spoken, “(Name) I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is best provided by a bishop or priest in the communal parish setting, but a deacon or, in cases of emergency or when no priest is available, a lay person may confer the sacrament.

For a sacrament with roots so explicitly in Scripture, the manner of conferring baptism and all the intricacies involved have developed over the centuries. In the Syracuse Diocese, the Family Life Education Office has devised a holistic approach to baptism insisting that baptism is so much more than the one-time ceremony it sometimes appears to be. Evangelization can spring from the waters of baptism. Sister Francis James Parish, OSF, serves in the baptism and parenting ministry for the Family Life Office in Syracuse. She acknowledges that sometimes when parents call a church to inquire about baptism, the parish offices may not come across as welcoming; especially considering that the parish may not be the least bit familiar with the family. However, Sister Francis said, this initial contact is the perfect opportunity to welcome members into the church. The late Father Joseph Champlin summed it up well in his forward to the diocese’s parish manual published by the Family Life Office. He wrote: “When parish leaders greet such people warmly and provide a positive presentation on the meaning of this sacrament and its liturgy, they are in effect nurturing that faint flicker of faith which originally prompted those parents to seek the baptism for their child.”

The newly instituted holistic approach begins with hospitality afforded by the parish, followed by preparation by the parents, the baptism rite and then follow-up suggestions to keep the parents and their children among the members of the faith community they were baptized into. The holistic manual is practical as well as a terrific educational tool. Those seeking baptism for their child may or may not be married in the church. They may not be married at all. The siblings may not be baptized. The parents may not be baptized. There are many scenarios in today’s society which make the rite seem a bit more complicated. There are answers to these complexities, however, and there should not be barriers in the way of a new member entering the family of God.

Anyone desiring more information about baptism can call Father Joseph Scardella in the Office of Ministerial Formation, Liturgy and RCIA at (315) 424-1830 or Sister Francis James at (315) 472-6754.

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