Make a splash at Sunday Mass

IN THE MOVIE CLASSIC IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and his future bride, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), take an unintended plunge into the high school swimming pool during a Charleston contest, which they gamely try to continue even in the water. After some initial consternation others dive in to join them until the pool is a frolic of dancers-turned-swimmers. It seems no one can resist the water.

This urge to “jump in” should be familiar to us Catholics. As baptized Christians we, too, are drawn to the water, under the spell of the element in which we were reborn. Few of us carry the water-consciousness of the early Christian apologist Tertullian, who said that Christians never leave the baptismal water, that like fish we cannot live outside the water; the initiation font is our sustaining environment. He reminds us we are all swimming together in that pool. Meanwhile, like George Bailey, we might be dancing blissfully through life unaware that the water continues to claim us. We might think of our Baptism as a past event in an unremembered moment of our lives.

Probably in our youth we gave no thought to how our baptismal awareness might be deepened by participation in someone else’s Baptism. But Bill Huebsch, in Rethinking Sacraments (Twenty-Third Publications), suggests that a celebration of Baptism affects everyone present.

“Baptism doesn’t affect only the newly baptized. The others present at this moment find themselves mysteriously linked to a great spiritual force. They are, in a sense, refreshed themselves in their own inner life. They are then re-empowered and re-united to Christ.” They are also called to reclaim and more deeply experience their own Baptism. The water continues to call and claim them.

We know that sacraments continue to affect us long after they are celebrated. A priest is conscious of drawing daily strength and guidance from the sacrament of Holy Orders. Joining in someone else’s ordination celebration may further heighten his consciousness, renewing his ordination and deepening in him the effects of the sacrament.

Similarly a married couple is more married after a couple of decades than on their wedding day because they continue to be nourished and shaped by the vows they exchanged years before. Participating in another couple’s wedding often becomes an occasion for refreshing and confirming their own vows.

Maybe when we studied Baptism as children the focus was on those effects that were immediate and individual. Today theologians are inclined to give equal attention to other effects that are more gradual and communal. Father Richard Fragomeni’s Come to the Light (Continuum) comments that Tertullian’s fish image for the baptized means “we are always being baptized. We live in a baptismal mode.”

Beyond that, we need a continuing relationship with the other swimmers, with the community of faith, a relationship established in Baptism: “Our tradition says there is no salvation apart from a community of faith.” We are not in the pool alone.

Whenever my niece Laura cried as an infant, her mother learned that running water was the most reliable cure. She would open the faucet in the kitchen sink and the baby was instantly soothed, mesmerized by the sound of the flowing, splashing water. It’s a response, some say, rooted in a prenatal memory of a watery environment—as if the sound of water evokes and reinforces this formative experience.

Regardless of our age at Baptism, we continue to be similarly connected to that event with a bond that transcends conscious memory. “The water, which is the divine holds us, owns us,” says Fragomeni. “It is the power of God into which we are baptized.”

The community pool
Some of our Catholic practices serve to evoke and renew our earliest sacred experience of water. The sprinkling of the assembly at the beginning of Mass, especially in the Easter season, is one such reminder. Our rite as we enter a church building is another. We dip our hand in water and sign ourselves with the cross in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, evoking our original entrance into the living church by water and the invocation of the Trinity.

Most of all, participation in someone else’s Baptism can plunge our adult consciousness into the initial sacramental experience that continues to shape and define our lives. Like the priest at an ordination or the married couple at a wedding, all of us gather around a baptismal font with the deeply-felt recognition that we have been there in the initiate’s position, that we carry irreversibly the effects of that experience. We continue to be defined and shaped and activated by that saving water.

Impelled by that realization the church does not let us witness the Baptism of new members at the Easter Vigil Mass without challenging us immediately to answer once again the questions posed at our own Baptism. “Do you renounce Satan? Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

Even without an actual renewal of vows, the celebration of Baptism during Sunday Mass effectively renews the Baptism of everyone present. In fact, one might reasonably ask how parishioners can sustain a belief in the foundational importance of Baptism for their faith community if they never experience it as a community event.

If part of the effect and significance of Baptism is membership in the community of believers, how can this be effectively expressed if the community is absent? If Baptism empowers the recipient for an apostolic and missionary role in the church, how can this be made evident in the absence of the community?

A parish community that does not witness and participate in the Baptisms of its new members seems poorly positioned to meet its ongoing responsibility. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.”

A warm welcome
My first experience of Baptism at Sunday Mass was a dozen years ago in a parish where I was a weekend visitor. The parish enjoyed a reputation for adult formation, social consciousness, and active involvement of parishioners. So I was not surprised by the welcoming spirit and conviviality or the gusto of the opening hymn.

But nothing prepared me for the pastor’s dialogue with the couple in the front row about their baby and what they asked of the church. There was tangible excitement in the whole assembly as people signed the baby’s forehead. After the readings and homily (which included reference to the new member who would join us in living our faith) the baby was baptized and then held aloft and presented to the whole assembly. Even for a stranger it was a profoundly moving experience that enriched the entire liturgy.

Later my wife and I were blessed to belong for eight years to a parish where a number of Baptisms occurred at Mass. The infant and parents and godparents sat in the front pew with relatives and friends clustered just behind them. The priest invited all of them to repeat his signing of the baby. Then the parents carried the child up and down the main aisle, pausing at more than a dozen pews to allow parishioners to sign the child again.

After the homily the relatives and friends all gathered at the font for the rites of water and chrism and white robe and candle. Often the children of the parish were invited to join the family group for a better view of the sacrament. Then the newly baptized infant and the parents were introduced to the community, who received them with sustained applause. At the end of Mass the baptismal party stood at the edge of the sanctuary so parishioners could meet and congratulate them and offer a blessing for the baby.

Those parishioners welcomed the infants baptized at Sunday Mass as enthusiastically as they welcomed the adults baptized at Easter Vigil Mass. They had a gracious openness and an appreciation for the sacraments that joined us all together.

These public Baptisms became a familiar and precious aspect of the Sunday cele-brations. If we occasionally saw a family group gathering for a Baptism after Mass, we assumed they didn’t know what they were missing and probably had no idea how much they were depriving the parish community.

A child will lead them
Some Baptisms still stand out in my mind. There was the girl about a year old being held in her father’s arms. Her eagerness for Baptism took the form of a near swan dive into the fountain. An audible gasp passed through the assembly as only the father’s watchfulness restrained her from lunging headlong into the water. But I still see her laughing eagerly, seemingly suspended in mid-air, with both hands stretched out toward the water.

From another Sunday I remember a sturdy 3-year-old, a solemn-faced Central American girl recently adopted by parishioners, being presented for Baptism. Her age and obvious independence posed a new challenge for the introductory ritual: This was clearly no docile babe-in-arms. I watched with interest as her family signed her forehead and gently but firmly pried her fingers from the pew and guided her into the main aisle.

Her resistance was obvious. They steered her to the end of the second pew where a hand traced a cross on her forehead. Again she was forcibly positioned at the next pew, where suddenly her whole demeanor changed. She shrugged off the guiding hands of her family and presented her forehead for signing. Then she marched under her own power up one side of the main aisle and down the other, eagerly pausing at each pew to receive the signings by the assembly.

She got it—with a child’s aptitude for ritual, she actively entered into the role and allowed the parish family to welcome her as a new member.

This signing ritual especially touched the parishioners. Children jostled to outreach their parents and trace the cross on the infant’s forehead. There was a tangible sense of loving ownership, a sense of expanding the parish circle to embrace the new member. The signing carried an implicit willingness to share faith with the newcomer. I rarely got past this preliminary rite with dry eyes.

I remember how my mentally disabled pew neighbor one Sunday clenched his hands to his chest in uncontainable excitement as he described to his sister how he had just signed the cross on the baby. And I would watch with awe the single adults, the newly married, the dedicated parents, widows and widowers, matriarchs and patriarchs of this community pressing their faith gently on the young forehead. One could only imagine what a sense of community support the infant’s parents must have felt.

Rites of welcome
Some pastors, out of concern for parents who are inactive Catholics, are reluctant to insist on Baptism in the midst of the community. But one pastoral associate who is part of a pastoral team especially gifted in baptismal preparation makes the case that the Baptism of a son or daughter can be the graced occasion for parents to be reintegrated into parish life.

In her experience, parents who have been estranged from the parish often have the most positive church experience of their lives in the assembly’s welcome of their child. Nothing is more likely to help their reconciliation.

It is gratifying to read parish websites that explain enthusiastically why all their Baptisms are celebrated at Sunday Mass. How else, they seem to insist, would one welcome a new member? The choice seems obvious.

Ten years ago, in his book While You Were Gone: A Handbook for Returning Catholics (Twenty-Third Publications), Father William Bausch noted matter-of-factly, “Baptisms are routinely celebrated at Mass”—a seemingly obvious pastoral implementation of a Vatican II vision. After all, when better to welcome a new family member than when the family is gathered? And what gathering is a more appropriate setting for Baptism than the eucharistic meal—with which the newly baptized will ultimately complete their initiation process?

Mixed messages
Many parishes seem inconsistent in their practice of Baptism. On the one hand, they celebrate the Baptism of adults during the Easter Vigil in the midst of the most lavish liturgy of the year. The initiates take their baptismal plunge in a heady atmosphere of darkness and candles, incense and song, surrounded by a throng of fervent parishioners. And when the assembly streams to the font to wet their own faces with baptismal water, everyone’s sacramental experience is palpably linked.

On the other hand, many of these very parishes continue to celebrate the Baptism of children as a quasi-private affair. As the parish family departs after the Sunday Eucharist, the infant is quietly brought for Baptism by relatives and godparents. In the nearly empty church the new member is initiated in virtual secrecy. The larger faith family is not present to claim and welcome the new member. They are not present to witness the promises of the parents nor to offer the parents the support of their shared belief. Somehow the Easter Vigil pattern of embedding the Baptism within the eucharistic celebration is entirely forgotten, and the community of believers is bypassed.

Such Baptisms are administered as they were in the pre-conciliar world of private Masses, private anointings, and dark confessionals.

Private Masses have been displaced by concelebration. Penance is celebrated by most people in communal services. Anointing of the sick is celebrated in a gathering of believers in church or at the bedside. How can the communal dimension be overlooked for Baptism?

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy expressed the preference for communal celebration of sacraments rather than individual or private observances. In 1973 the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship offered permission and a rationale for celebration of Baptism at Sunday Mass: “On Sunday, Baptism may be celebrated even during Mass, so that the entire community may be present and the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist may be clearly seen.”

If the parish community participates attentively in the sacrament of Baptism at Sunday Mass, they may be changed by the experience. Perhaps, like Jimmy Stewart, they may feel the ground shift beneath their feet as the water reclaims them. Or, like my niece, they may at least experience their own mysterious affinity for the water that binds us as a people, continues to inwardly transform us, and propels us together toward the kingdom of God.

By Jim Dinn, a freelance writer retired in Pennsylvania. This article appeared in the April 2005 (Volume 70, Number 4) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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