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10-baptism

Letting the waters of Baptism flow

FR KANE explains how welcoming new members into the family of the Church is always rewarding — By FR MICHAEL KANE

Welcoming others into the family of the Church is one of the most rewarding parts of priestly life. This usually happens at infant Baptism. For a parish, Baptism is the language of growth, of renewal, of new life, and of sharing. For me, it’s refreshing to meet young parents who absolutely prioritise the Baptism of their children over so many other practical concerns. Of course, the older practice of Baptism within the first few days has largely fallen into abeyance. Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense in many parents that Baptism should be celebrated as early as possible, within the first weeks or so of their child’s life. Their urgency is a sign that the handing-on of Faith is a duty they take seriously.

This, of course, it not always the case. Many parents ‘put off’ Baptism for a whole host of practical reasons, most notably the cost of the obligatory party afterwards. Such delays occasionally mean that children walk themselves to the font! Some parents even prefer to ‘leave it up to them to decide when they’re much older.’ Former Irish President Mary McAleese recently suggested abolishing infant Baptism altogether, citing concerns that kids have no capacity to consent to the practice. I presume Mrs McAleese is not also advocating that every child consent to feeding time, diet, choice of school, bedtime, medication routines, and a whole host of other decisions that parents make on behalf of ‘unconsenting’ children.

Baptism (above) is the concrete expression of a parent’s desire to nurture their child, to give them the very best. Children are not ‘asked’ if they wish to be Baptised in the same way they are not asked if they wish to attend school on a Monday morning. Parents make these essential decisions in their best interests. This is parenting.

Aside from the thorny question of when to present the child for the Sacrament, the Baptism Rite itself can also prove to be interesting. I have always found each celebration to be different, with its own character. Some are large, noisy affairs, others small and intimate. Some congregations are very zealous in the prayer responses, others are nervously silent, betraying their religious credentials with the odd ‘and also with you’ response. Others still are unapologetically disengaged, complete with vacant facial expressions and mobile phones still in hand. Ours is a broad Church indeed, especially when it come to Baptisms.

It is, of course, so easy to lament the disengagement of some of those who bring their children for Baptism. It is a ritual entirely foreign to many parents. And yet, we must remember that they have come to ask for Baptism, an altogether counter-cultural request to make. Perhaps for some, the reasons are not as pure as we would like—much more cultural than religious. “Our family has always done this,” is the true rationale for many Baptisms. In ‘Little Ireland,’ Coatbridge, cultural Catholicism is certainly a growing problem. In my own experience, pressure from fervent parents or grandparents also plays a role in the decision.

Baptism is a real opportunity to catechise and to work towards re-engagement, especially with those who have allowed their Faith to fall asleep. It’s an invitation for parents to rediscover what has been perhaps lost or hidden in their own lives, and to prioritise once again the practice of the Christian Faith. This message often chimes with new parents who come to understand they are now totally responsible for every aspect of another person’s life.

I still believe that even for lapsed Catholics this desire to share their spiritual patrimony is strong, for Catholic identity runs deep. People have an inherent desire to hand on what they themselves have received, and for which there is still—somewhere in the background—a lingering, positive attachment through memory and experience. Many are unaware of the theology of Baptism and its deepest meaning; that it frees children from the stain of Original Sin, that it configures them forevermore to Christ and orientates them towards salvation. What people do, however, inherently understand is that Christianity is a gift to be shared. In my own parish I’ve been inspired by the odd ‘conversion story’ surrounding a Baptism. The lapsed parents who promise to turn things around and return to their Faith, and who actually mean it!

It’s a tonic to the cynicism that can surround this Sacrament. For the many parents who disappoint and who pay lip service to their solemn obligations, there are those few who want to make an honest, often limping, start to returning to the Church. It marks the beginning of something new. Somewhere along the line the essential truth about this Sacrament has chimed with them. This is part of the grace of Baptism. Its sacred waters touch not only the innocent child but the family too.

I always feel compelled to end every Baptism conversation with the subject of noise in the church. Baptism congregations invariably include lots of children. Young couples attend in large numbers, together with their own children. Sometimes this means the church can be a very noisy place with screaming, hyperactive children and ‘shushing’ parents. As a priest it can feel more like managing a circus than celebrating a Sacrament! But that’s no bad thing. The beautiful sound of children should always be welcome in God’s house.

My heart sinks when I hear a young parent tell me of a disapproving look from another parishioner because their baby or toddler was making noise during Mass. It’s worth recalling the words of the Lord himself who said: “Let the little children come to me… do not prevent them.”

We should do more to ensure that the little ones are welcomed and accepted within the family of the Church, at Baptisms and at other times. We need to show more patience and empathy with parents who are doing their best to nurse their children in church. Such noise signals great promise for the Church. The cries of children give life to the future of our parishes and should never be hushed. It is a sign that the waters of Baptism are flowing generously in our parishes.

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