Liturgy Matters — On baptism and the Paschal Candle

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville
Dr. Judy Bullock, director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville

Why do Catholic churches have a baptismal font in the entry area? 

Since baptism is the first Sacrament of Initiation into the Catholic Church and a prerequisite for every other sacrament, it is appropriate for the font to be located in the entry area of the church.

This baptismal pool, where the rite of baptism takes place, may be seen in a variety of shapes depicting biblical images, for example: a cruciform, a death to life image; a womb shape, an image of new life; an octagon, a symbol of the eighth day or eternal life.

The blessed water is either poured over the head of the candidate three times or the candidate is immersed in the water three times while the words are said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

At the Easter Vigil the neophytes, the newly baptized, rise from the waters of baptism to go to the altar, beginning a new life in Christ Jesus.

Why do Catholics dip their hand in the font and make a Sign of the Cross on themselves when they enter the church?

When Catholics enter the church each Sunday they encounter the font once more as a reminder of their baptisms. This location in the entry area enables each person to dip their hand in the water, signing themselves forehead to waist, left shoulder to right shoulder, with the Sign of the Cross.

This ritual renews the individual Christian’s commitment to the promises that were made at baptism to uphold the faith. It is also fitting to begin the celebration of other sacraments of the church at the font since baptism is the first step in the journey of faith.

When a Catholic is brought to the church for the very last time for his or her funeral liturgy, the rite begins at the door with the sprinkling of the casket with holy water from the font, one last reminder of baptism into Christ and the hoped for resurrection of the dead.

Why do Catholics have one very large candle with special markings on it in the church?

The Paschal Candle, usually much larger that other candles in the church, is an ancient symbol of the risen Savior. This candle is blessed at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night and then is carried in procession through a darkened church where each person is given a candle to light from the “light of Christ.”

During the Easter Season the Paschal Candle remains in the sanctuary near the ambo and is lit for every liturgy. At other times of the year it may be found near the baptismal font. In the rite of baptism, the newly baptized receive a candle, the light of Christ, which takes its light from the Paschal Candle. This passing of the light of Christ to the newly baptized is a powerful symbol of baptism.

The Paschal Candle is also placed near the casket at the funeral Mass as a reminder of Christ’s victory over death and the baptized Christian’s share in this victory.

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