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The Sacrament of Baptism

“Baptism, the gateway to the sacraments, is necessary for salvation, either by actual reception or at least by desire. By it people are freed from sins, and born again as children of God and, made like to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church. It is validly conferred only by a washing in real water with the proper form of words.” 
(Canon 849)

An Introduction

Baptism, the foundational sacrament of the Church, is the first of three sacraments of initiation, followed in the usual order by Confirmation and Eucharist. It is the fount from which springs a full and invigorating Christian life and begins the Christian journey. In Christian history and theology, Baptism washes away the onus of original and personal sin, dresses one in Christ’s dazzling garment of pure love, oils one for the work of building the kingdom of justice and peace, and inserts one into the communion of believers stretching through the centuries. It is at once transforming, purifying, reconciling and uniting.

Although most Catholic Christians continue to experience this sacrament as infants, Baptism presupposes a journey of faith prior to its celebration on the part of the participant. Such a journey is provided in most instances of adult baptism through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) or with children over the age of reason by the similar Rite of Christian Initiation for Children.

For infants and younger children, parents provide the context of the Christian journey. Thus during the preparation for the sacrament and during its celebration, parents (and godparents) review and renew in a solemn manner their own Baptismal promises, that they may immerse their children in the faith of the Church and its practice through their own spiritual journeys.

Drawing these themes together, Baptism is most fundamentally a participation in the Paschal Mystery, a movement from death to life, which is the ongoing experience and vision of everyone who follows Christ. Therefore it is most fitting and preferred that every candidate for Baptism be immersed in the living waters, to reveal starkly the transformation that occurs in this sacrament. The one baptized is truly now risen with Christ and lives with Christ and in Christ must remain so into eternal life.

What is Our History?

When we think about the biblical origins of the sacrament of Baptism, most of us start with John the Baptist. In reality we now know that a variety of ritual acts existed in the time of the Old Testament, which provided a rich pool of symbols, rituals and practices from which the Christian community later drew. Let us briefly touch on a few of the more significant ones.

We know that for the Hebrews, a people living in a parched land, water was a powerful symbol of life. Because it was basic to cleansing, it was often used in the Hebrew rites of purification. The Hebrews did not think in terms of a body/soul split; physical purification rites like washing of hands or the cleansing of sacred utensils were also understood as a sign of an interior purification if performed in the right attitude.

In late Judaism (after about 100 BC) we can identify a “baptism” movement consisting of a variety of sects which employed frequent ritual baths as a means of preparing for the imminent Day of the Lord. At this time we find indications of the practice of “proselyte baptism”. Gentiles, as such, were considered impure and therefore needed to undergo a ritual purification. For males this was followed by circumcision as the essential part of their initiation into God’s chosen people. Following the “baptism” and circumcision the convert sometimes performed a ritual sacrifice, signifying full participation in the liturgy and worship of the community. This may have influenced the later practices of sharing in the Eucharist as a part of Christian initiation.

John the Baptizer obviously drew from much of this tradition in his own ministry. John’s basic message was one of repentance and conversion in preparation for the coming Messianic Kingdom. For those who heard John, his baptism provided a concrete sign of their acceptance of his preaching. It is a firm gospel tradition that it was John’s baptism of Jesus that marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Most scholars see this key event as a proclamation that the Kingdom for which John was the herald had indeed arrived in the person of Jesus.

Even though Sacred Scripture indicates that Jesus and his disciples baptized (John 3, 22), baptizing did not play a major part in Jesus’ own earthly ministry. What is significant however, is the biblical evidence that it quickly became a central ritual of the Christian community almost immediately following Jesus’ death. In fact, the two key historical events that were most formative in the church’s understanding of Christian initiation were Jesus’ death and resurrection and the coming of the Spirit. The earliest rites of initiation, water baptism by submersion and the laying on of hands, together sacramentalized these two historical events in one act of initiation. The convert’s public assent of faith marked the entrance into the Paschal Mystery and experience of the Spirit. In the sacrament of Baptism this action is what was celebrated by the convert and community. Meaningful faith could not be private, it was public and it was communal. Baptism celebrated this reality.

It is important that we are able to see this early development of Baptism in its proper context. It clearly was an expression of the life of the Church. It was a sacrament of initiation. As the church grew and developed in its first few centuries, the process of initiation also expanded to include what we refer to now as the Catechumenate, a faith journey undertaken by both candidate (catechumen) and community. This journey often spanning years clearly demonstrated that initiation was a process. Early in Church practice the Baptism of a convert (by this time a rich rite including the imposition of hands and an anointing) was immediately followed by the celebration of the Eucharist, the principal worship of the Church. Since Baptism was obviously associated with conversion, it was therefore administered primarily to adults for the first two or three centuries. When whole households were converted, and received into the Church, children were included in this rite.

The main factor encouraging the delay of Baptism was the harsh penitential discipline of the early Church. In the Church’s thinking of that time one had only two chances to receive the sacramental sign of forgiveness: Baptism and the reception of Penance after Baptism. It was in the fourth and fifth centuries that Baptism underwent some of the most dramatic changes as a result of a curious blend of theological insight and historical circumstance. As was mentioned earlier, Baptism was understood as a sacrament of adult conversion. The convert celebrated reconciliation with God and liberation from sin. It was St. Augustine, however, who emphasized the notion of baptismal liberation from sin and took the understanding of the Sacrament in a new direction. As an ardent foe of Pelagianism, a heresy which held that humanity could attain salvation unaided by grace, Augustine emphasized the reality of original sin and the resulting necessity for the grace of baptismal cleansing. Prior to this the people had little reason to fear for the salvation of their unbaptized children. With this new theology and given the high rate of infant mortality, parents began to appeal to their bishop for the immediate baptism of their children. By the fifth century infant baptism had become the common practice. It should also be remembered that by this time the empire had become predominantly Christian. Adult conversion and baptism was de-emphasized because there were few unbaptized adults left.

The role of the bishop in the Sacraments of Initiation was very important. In the first few centuries of the Church he was the primary minister of the Rite of Initiation which included Baptism, Confirmation, and the reception of Eucharist. Yet by the fourth and fifth centuries the Church had grown to such an extent that he was unable to visit each community as frequently as in times past. This created an issue that was solved pastorally in different ways by the East and West. In the West bishops began to delegate to the presbyters the authority to baptize, while reserving to themselves the second element in the initiation process, the imposition of hands and anointing, which became Confirmation as a separate sacrament. In the East the decision was made to maintain the unity of the initiation rites thus making the presbyter the primary minister. The practice of baptizing, confirming and administering Eucharist in one ceremony together at infancy has continued from that time to the present in the Eastern Church.

In both East and West infant baptism remained the most common practice. This is not without its wisdom. While the Church has distanced itself from the medieval preoccupation with original sin and the salvation of the unbaptized, infant baptism still provides a powerful reminder that the pilgrimage of faith is truly life-long. Furthermore, we are reminded that it is God who takes the initiative in salvation and offers his grace to all human beings. The community, for its part, wishes to begin its nurturing of faith as early as possible in the child’s life. One way of nurturing the faith of a child was the practice in the church to give the child the name of a saint who was to be the patron and model for the Christian all through life.

While infant baptism is the most common practice in the Church today, the new Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, restored at the Second Vatican Council, offers us a more ancient vision. It reminds us of the biblical connection between personal conversion and communal initiation. It also restores the ancient unity of the three presently distinct Sacraments of Initiation - Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.

By maintaining the validity of infant baptism while at the same time pointing to the vision of the adult catechumenate, the Church powerfully communicates the degree to which initiation should be viewed as a lifelong process worthy of such diverse sacramental expression.

What Are Our Policies?

Under normal circumstances adults not baptized in another Christian denomination receive the sacrament of Baptism and the other sacraments of initiation as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This is usually done at the Easter Vigil. (there are exceptions) Catechesis on all the sacraments of initiation, including Baptism, should be part of their preparation.

Children who are not baptized and who are of catechetical age, the age of discretion or reason, receive the sacrament Baptism and the other sacraments of initiation as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults adapted for children of catechetical age. Normally this is done at the Easter Vigil. Catechesis on all the sacraments of initiation, including Baptism, should be part of their preparation. (See Canon 852).

Regarding the Baptism of infants and children under the age of five, since Baptism is an expression of the faith of both the parents and the community, sacramental catechesis must be provided for the parents and if possible to the godparents. They should be provided with suitable means such as books, instructions and catechisms written for families. Group preparation/catechesis is also an option.

The pastor makes it his duty to visit with parents, or see that they are visited as a family or as a group of families. If possible, the godparents participate in the preparation/catechesis for the coming celebration.

Every effort is to be made to highlight the fact that this is an important time for families and for the parish family. Whenever possible, the baptismal rite is celebrated on a Sunday with the community as well as with the family.

The act of requesting Baptism for their child is in itself a sign of the parents’ faith. Therefore, parents are to be welcomed and shown appreciation by the minister for approaching the Church for Baptism.

Baptism of infants is normally celebrated within the first weeks after birth (Rite of Baptism for Children, 8.3). However, when there is no “founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” (Canon 868.1), the sacrament may be deferred until the parents are better disposed to fulfill their Christian obligation.

At least one parent should be baptized Catholic. The non-Catholic parent must be willing to allow his/her child to be baptized in the Catholic Church. The sacrament will not be celebrated if the non-Catholic parent expresses strong opposition because the event of the sacrament would divide the family. In cases where there is opposition, pastoral counseling will present options for future celebration of the sacrament when conditions are more favorable.

At least one godparent (sponsor) is necessary. A godparent must be Catholic, 16 years old and confirmed. There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each. (Canon 873 and 874).

The tradition of ethnic or national groups regarding godparents (padrinos) or involvement of extended families is to be respected as long as it is not in violation of good liturgical practice.

Each parish in the Diocese of Shreveport is to establish a program of baptismal catechesis for parents and godparents who are presenting their children for the sacrament. This program of preparation is to correspond to these guidelines:

Both parents/guardians and if possible, godparents are expected to participate in catechesis for the sacrament of Baptism.

Repetition of catechesis for the Baptism of other children in the same family is encouraged but left to local discretion.

Non-Catholic parents/guardians are always to be invited to take part in the catechesis and preparation along with the Catholic parents/guardians and godparent(s).

Each parish is to follow up with a post-baptismal catechumenate.

Not only is there a need for instruction after Baptism, but also for the necessary flowering of baptismal grace in personal growth. (CCC 1231).

The normal setting for the celebration of the sacrament is the parish church.

In the event of an emergency Baptism, the rites surrounding Baptism are to be performed at a later date.

People without a parish, e.g., college students, migrants and transients require special solicitude and need to be dealt with in the best pastoral way possible. Special care will be taken in each individual case.

People who are in the Armed Forces and therefore belong to the Military Archdiocese have the option of having their children baptized at their military installation or in the local parish church.

Parents requesting Baptism of their child are ordinarily registered members of the parish. With special permission of their pastor they may request Baptism in another parish. If the pastor has delayed Baptism, no priest or deacon may baptize without the permission of the Episcopal Vicar or Dean.

The following are not to be made requirements for baptism of a child:

  • The validation of an invalid marriage
  • Use of collection envelopes
  • Any other obligation not found in Church Law
  • The Baptism is to be properly recorded in the register of the parish in which the sacrament is celebrated (Canon 875-878).

Special care must be taken with regard to emergency baptisms. These are to be recorded in the parish in whose territory the baptism was administered and notification of such a baptism containing all pertinent information must also be sent to the Chancery of the diocese. All baptisms celebrated on a military installation must be recorded at the Chancery of the Military Archdiocese.


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