Monday, January 09, 2006

To baptize or not to baptize ...

Homily for the Fesat of the Baptism of the Lord by the preacher of the Papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa (Via Zenit). As always, he is just fantastic. The full-text is short enough to reproduce here. I've highlighted a few points. Various thoughts after that below.

The Baptism of Jesus

(Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11)

Rediscovering Our Baptism

"At that time Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As soon as he came out of the water he saw that the heavens opened and that the Spirit, in the form of a dove, descended on him. And a voice was heard that came from the heavens: 'You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'"

Was it that Jesus also needed to be baptized, as we do? Of course not. With that gesture, he wanted to show that he had become one of us. Above all, he wanted to put an end to the baptism of "water" and inaugurate that "of the Spirit." It was not the water in the Jordan that sanctified Jesus, but Jesus who sanctified the water. Not only the water of the Jordan, but that of all fonts of the world.

The feast of the Baptism of Jesus is the annual occasion to reflect on our own baptism. A question people often ask themselves about baptism is: Why baptize small children? Why not wait until they are older and can decide freely for themselves? It is a serious question, but it can conceal a deceit. In procreating a child and giving him life, do parents first ask for his permission? Convinced that life is an immense gift, they rightly assume that one day the child will be grateful for it. A person is not asked for permission to be given a gift, and baptism is essentially this: the gift of life given to man by the merits of Christ.

Of course, all this assumes that the parents themselves are believers and have the intention to help the child develop the gift of faith. The Church acknowledges their decisive competency in this area and does not want a child to be baptized against their will.

Moreover, no one today says that, by the simple fact that a person is not baptized, he will be condemned and go to hell. Children who die without baptism, as well as people who have lived, through no fault of their own, outside the Church, can be saved (the latter, it is understood, if they live according to the dictates of their conscience).

Let us forget the idea of limbo as the place without joy or sadness in which children who are not baptized will end up. The fate of children who are not baptized is no different from that of the Holy Innocents, which we celebrated just after Christmas. The reason is that God is love and "wants all to be saved," and Christ also died for them!

Quite different, however, is the case of the one who neglects receiving baptism out of laziness or indifference, though aware, perhaps, in the depth of his conscience, of its importance and necessity. In this case, Jesus' word retains all its severity: only "he who believes and is baptized will be saved" (cf. Mark 16:16). There are increasingly more people in our society who for different reasons have not been baptized in childhood. There is the risk that they will grow up and make no decision, one way or another. Parents are no longer concerned about it because they now think that it is not their duty; the children because they have other things to think about; and also because it has not yet entered the common mentality that the person himself must take the initiative to be baptized.

In order to address this situation, the Church gives much importance at present to the so-called Christian initiation of adults. The latter offers the young person or adult who is not baptized the occasion to be formed, to prepare and to decided with full liberty. It is necessary to surmount the idea that baptism is only something for children.

Baptism expresses its full meaning precisely when it is desired and decided upon personally, as a free and conscious adherence to Christ and his Church, although the validity and gift of being baptized as children must not be disregarded for the reasons above explained. Personally, I am grateful to my parents for having had me baptized in the first days of my life. It is not the same to live one's childhood and youth with or without sanctifying grace!

[Translation by ZENIT]
I left a comment over at Open Book, that I'm going to expound on here a bit, responding to a commenter (with the evocative nickname of "Papal Bullsh") who wanted a ceremony to revoke his (or her) own baptism and confirmation.

Papal Bullsh: I don't know why the Church would write a "revokation" ceremony. If it's not important, or viewed as a mistake, why even bother?

I'm definitely of the view of most commenters here, that this language of choice when it comes to religion is another version of secular snobbery at best, and hatred at worst. In most parts of the world, religion is rarely, if ever, seen as a choice. It's part of one's communal and ethnic identity. In India, for instance, it would be nonsensical for a Hindu child (or a Muslim or Parsi one) to be brought up in a religious vacuum (in most cases). In my case, though my parents are quite Westernized and secular, and don't really believe in all this religion thing, I was brought up with a sense of being Hindu, even if at times there was a kind of "well, we do this because we do this so don't ask questions" attitude. Religion, as a whole, is very much an ethnic thing. This, of course, has its pros and its cons.

Of course, once children are adults, there should be the respect and freedom for them to follow their religious conscience (in my case, this led me to the Church. I can imagine in others' cases it would be the opposite. While not saying that's "ok", necessarily, individuals should be free to do it). In my own experience, of course I am saddened by someone who stops practicing their faith, or makes a conscious decision to leave it (or, join another Christian communion, say). It's not my place to judge anyone's heart. And it's definitely better than, say, Islamic societies that would kill an apostate.

However the commentor above (Papal Bullsh) is on to something else that I often wonder about (especially since I didn't grow up Catholic, and since I've heard so many stories of those who have and have rejected that for one reason or another): how does one actually pass on the faith to children, in a way that lets them see and feel its beauty, and not just a set of parental impositions to be rebelled from?

Before Christmas I had a long conversation with a student who'd just had a very profound experience of Christ, related to the Eucharist. It's completely transformed his outlook on life, on the choices he was making, etc. He can now look back on his former life and realize the mistakes that he'd made (it was really a wonderful privilege to hear his story, to witness the work of grace in his life). Yet, he admitted, if someone had pointed this out to him a few months back, he'd have reacted strongly against them, and tuned them out.

Yes the "rules" are important, the framework is important. But how does one actually nurture the kind of mature faith that leads to the "fullness" of baptism, as Fr. Cantalamessa describes it - a free and conscious adherence to Christ and his Church? How does this, so to speak, grow beyond "just following the rules?" Of course, one should remember that, ultimately, that all is grace, and faith is a gift, not something "produced" out of our efforts. But still ...

[This also reminded me of some ineresting comments that Matthew Likonia had in an interview on Godspy, specifically this bit:
Do you have any friends who graduated from small, intensely Catholic schools who later rebelled against the experience?

No, but that may be because of my narrow scope. From the people I know, that hasn't happened. But I think this is all kind of new. We'll see what happens with generations down the line.

I do worry that my son... I keep saying, "He's gonna leave, he's gonna leave the faith at some point for some amount of time. It's just gonna happen." [Laugh] It's probably negative thinking, but I'm just convinced he's going to have to get out there and see what it's like without it before he comes to value it. I see the intensity with which he wants to engage the world, and just be in the world all the way. So I worry and I pray.] (emphasis added)

Isn't it true that sometimes one wishes that everyone had a chance to be the younger son (in the famous parable) and realize the need for the Father, than the snippy, heart-pinched-up, holier-than-thou elder son?

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