Liturgy Matters — Communal celebration of sacraments

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Why do we celebrate infant baptisms at Sunday Mass?

Some of us still remember the time in the past when babies were always baptized on Sunday afternoons with only a few members of the family and the godparents in attendance.

Although this is still an option when there is a pastoral need, the rubrics for the Rite of Baptism insist that, if possible, infant baptisms should take place during Sunday Mass with the parish community gathered around.

Why this change?

With the increase of faith formation, liturgical catechesis and Scripture study encouraged by the Second Vatican Council, the understanding of sacramental theology has been more fully developed.

Referring to baptism celebrated on Sunday afternoon as a “private” baptism is contrary to the very nature of a sacrament. All sacraments are communal celebrations. They are celebrations of the Body of Christ with Christ our Head.

The plural language, “we,” “us,” “our” used in the texts of each liturgy and the dialogical model of prayer confirms the communal nature of all the rites of the Church.

Sacraments affect not only the ones receiving the sacrament but also have a profound effect on the entire Body of Christ, the church. With this understanding of the communal nature of the sacraments, the reason for celebrations within the Christian community becomes more apparent.

Celebrating a baptism within the Christian community is especially significant since it is the first of the initiation sacraments — entry into the church, membership in the Body of Christ.

In addition to the welcome the community provides for these newest members and their families, the entire Christian community renews their own Baptismal promises and commitments and gives witness to their faith. This communal celebration reminds us of our responsibility to support and nurture the faith of one another.

Why celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation/penance in a communal rite? Isn’t the confession of sins a private matter?

The communal nature of the sacrament of baptism may be easy to see, but not so the sacrament of reconciliation. The primary image of this sacrament for many of us is the personal encounter with the priest when we confess our sins. However, in numerous accounts in Scripture the communal dimension of membership in the Body of Christ is revealed, e.g. the “vine and the branches,” the “prodigal son,” the “good Samaritan.” What happens to one member affects and is the concern of all members.

In the case of the sacrament of penance, not only do our individual sins weaken the faith of the whole, but the sins of the whole weaken the faith of the individual. We acknowledge and repent for our individual sins, but also the sins of our society, our church, our nation.

This awareness of the corporate nature of sin is brought to our attention more effectively with the communal celebration and leads us to reconciliation, healing and commitment to change. The private confession of the penitents’ sins is included in the communal rite, yet clearly illustrates that each penitent has “an opportunity to be reconciled with God and their neighbor.” (Introduction 13, Rite of Penance). The communal rite also includes a more extensive Liturgy of the Word, an examination of conscience, a homily and other prayers
that enrich the experience of reconciliation.

In just a few weeks the lenten season will begin with Ash Wednesday. Although the sacrament of reconciliation can be celebrated on any day and during all seasons of the year, the lenten season with its focus of reconciliation and the preparation for baptism make it the ideal season for the communal celebration of reconciliation.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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