By Dr. Judy Bullock
Sacrament of Initiation
Baptism is the first of three sacraments that the church calls the initiation sacraments, with Confirmation and First Holy Communion completing this initiation.
From the references in Scripture, the insight of sacramental theologians, the liturgical rites and texts, Baptism is understood as a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ — a rebirth in the Spirit.
The immersion of the child or pouring of the baptismal water over the child, is a symbol of not only cleansing from sin but also a sign of dying and rising to new life. When a child is baptized, he or she is incorporated into the body of Christ, the church.
As initiation implies, baptism is a beginning, the start of a journey of faith. With this inclusion the baptized have privilege and responsibility. We are children of God with a mission to live out the Gospel message, to be Christ for the world.
The baptism of children
From historical accounts of the first centuries of Christianity, there is evidence that baptizing infants and children at the same time as other family members was the practice.
The process of preparation and sacramental celebration in those days most closely resembled our present Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. However, from the sixth century onward, young children and infants made up the greatest number of those who were baptized.
With the high mortality rate for infants and children then, the primary emphasis of this sacrament was less concerned with making Christians and more concerned in making sure children did not die without the benefit of baptism. Since these children were under the age of reason, the preparation process for this sacrament diminished and rites were simplified.
The Second Vatican Council called for the revision of all sacramental rites of the church. The Rite of Baptism for Children that is used today was first introduced in 1969. Prior to this, infants were usually baptized on Sunday afternoons with a few family members in attendance.
In the revised rite, permission was given, even encouraged, for the baptism of children to be celebrated during the Mass. This follows from the expanded understanding of the theology of baptism and the close connection to the Eucharist.
Today the great majority of parishes schedule infant baptisms during Mass on specific Sundays throughout the year. Although infant baptism may still be celebrated on Sunday afternoons, it can never be called “private baptism.” This terminology, to use today’s jargon, is an oxymoron.
Since initiation into the Christian community is one of the primary reasons for baptism, it follows that the Christian community should be present for the initiation. The entire community of faith has the responsibility to guide and nurture faith from the beginning of life throughout the journey of faith.
The rite expresses it well: “The people of God, that is the Church, made present in the local community, has an important part to play in the baptism of both children and adults. Before and after the celebration of the sacrament, the child has the right to the love and help of the community.”
Let us welcome the opportunity to witness baptism, rejoice in the rich symbolism of the sacrament, and accept our responsibility for this new member of our faith community
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.