Monday, February 25, 2008

Three Baptisms

The only baptism I've attended in India is my own. I've never been to an infant baptism here. The second son of one of my close friends was baptized yesterday, at St. Peter's in Bandra, the same church where I was baptized.

As I reached the church, just before 11 am, a river of people was leaving as the 10 am Mass came to a close. Somehow, I'd assumed that the baptism would be in the context of a Mass. Nope. Just the rite of baptism of several children (three kids, some 50 family members and friends gathered in all). "Shoot, if I'd known that there wasn't going to be Mass, I'd have had breakfast!" Apparently, three baptisms together was a "record for a given week in the parish." I was a little surprised, given that this is one of the bigger parishes in Bandra, and urban Catholic parishes in India tend to be huge. I wouldn't be surprised if St. Peter's counted 15000-20000 souls on its registers

The ceremony took place in three parts, the introductory rites ("What name do you give this child?" "What do you ask of God's church for this child?") at the entrance, the prayers of the faithful, the Litany of Saints (mightly abbreviated. A total of four invocations), and the anointing with the Oil of Catechumens in the middle of the nave, and the rite of baptism itself at the font, which is to the right hand side of the chancel.

Little booklets had been distributed so that the people could follow along, and the priest (the pastor of the parish) periodically gave explanations of some of the symbols and parts of the ritual (the baptismal candle, the white garment). A bit to my surprise, the font itself was empty. The water for the baptism was on a tray to the side in a little cruet. After the blessing of the font (presumably the cruet was close enough to be included in this :)), the sacristan poured some water into a brass, shell-shaped scoop, as each baby was placed over the font and baptized.

The Easter candle was on a beautiful carved stone candle-stand. The candle itself seemd a bit incongruously plain: I was expecting a decorated Paschal candle like one sees in the US.

Like pretty much all liturgies I've been to in India, things seemed perfunctory, somewhat rushed, symbolically stripped down. At one point the priest said something about love as the center of the Christian life. Absolutely. But what connection did any of the things that were going on this day have to do with "being loving?" And at another point, when asking the parents and godparents and those gathered for their support in raising the child in the faith, he said, "And this will happen automatically if we live good and loving lives." Perhaps in the ethnic Catholic enclave that is Bandra this transmission of the faith by osmosis might still be true. I suspect that it's not, as the country becomes more prosperous, as Western secular culture makes inroads, as a consumer culture becomes deeply entrenched. In my own circle of friends from college, several express skepticism about the Church and its claims. They don't see how the "externals" of the practice of the faith is relevant to their lives. They never "get anything out of" the Mass. Stuff that I'm used to hearing in the US.

After the ceremony was over, and photographs had been taken, each mother took her newly baptized child to the tabernacle, in the middle of the high altar, and placed the child there, alone, on the altar, for a few moments, while the family stood in silence in prayer. It was a powerful and beautiful gesture, deeply symbolic. I've never seen this in the US.

Despite all my misgivings about the liturgy, once again I am struck by the deep devotion of Indian Catholics. The faith is planted in rich and fertile soil. I hope that the Church in India realizes the challenges that secular modernity is bringing to the faith, and is ready to face them. The best way, it seems to me, to do this, as so many from the Popes downwards keep emphasizing is to cultivate an intentional faith, to grow disciples. And not just cultural or ethnic Catholics.


Zadok the Roman said...

I'm not certain, but I think that some Eastern Catholics place newly baptized babies on the altar.

Gashwin said...

Interesting. It's a beautiful custom and I've never encountered it before.

pritcher said...

I'm still working my way through Henry Drummond's Natural Law in the Spiritual World, and he has some harsh words for those who would try and get their faith just through osmosis (and that's what he says goes on in practice--he's somewhat careful to point out that practice isn't necessarily reflective of doctrine--in the "Romish Church"). For instance, he talks about this in his chapters on "parasitism" and "semi-parasitism," so you can guess how he feels about the topic.

mike said...

The important word there is "just." Osmosis, though, is indeed a good beginning. Christian habits, Christian culture, Christian assumptions are gifts from God and great foundations for growth in virtue later in life. For those who wander, memory can beckon persistently. This I know.

As the theologians say: Grace builds on nature.

Gashwin said...

@mike: you're absolutely right, of course. I'm not underestimating the value of a Catholic culture or matrix; I just think one can overestimate it.

@pritcher: Henry Drummond?

mike said...

And amen to that. My parents' generation in the USA did just that.