Baptism is one of the seven great sacraments of the Catholic Church. Baptism is called the doorway to the sacraments because it is the first of the sacraments to be received (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 1213). As such, it is called a Sacrament of Initiation along with Confirmation and the Eucharist. Baptism is the beginning of our entrance into entire life.
Who was the first to be baptized? John the Baptist is the first to speak of "baptism." Yet, his baptism was not the same as the baptism we have come to know. In the gospels we hear John the Baptist baptizing for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). This was a ritual cleansing. Jesus himself submitted himself to the baptism of John. But if baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus did NOT NEED to be baptized but he willing submitted to (and insisted on - Matthew 3:14-15) being baptized by John. Why? Jesus entered into the waters to be baptized to set an example for us and, as the Catechism says, "Jesus' gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying," (CCC, 1224) showing his willingness to give up his life for us .
For this reason, all four gospel writers considered the baptism of Jesus important enough to include in their gospels. Jesus takes the baptism of John and raises it to a new level. John knew this would happen when he said that he baptizes only with water but the one coming after him is mightier than he and will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16).
The baptism of Jesus includes the forgiveness of original sin and any personal sins committed up to that point. It goes beyond the baptism of John as a "Sacrament of Initiation" making us members of God's family and gives us the same Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus in his baptism (Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:9-10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32-34).
Jesus' baptism also marks a transition point in his own life. Before his baptism, we only know of his birth and the story of the Finding in the Temple at age 12 (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus' baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry. In a sense it marks the beginning of a new way of life for Jesus.
Baptism takes away original sin and personal sins. It initiates us into new life with Christ. We are made in God's image and are always meant to be with God. God loves us from the moment of our conception. Yet, Baptism makes us children of God in new life "born of the spirit" (John 3:1-6). We are made members of the church, a community called to care for one another (and all people). We are forever marked as Christians. In Baptism, we say that we put God's will before worldly things. Baptism cannot be repeated for it leaves a permanent mark on our soul (cf. Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 263).
In accepting baptism, we promise to follow the Commandments, to reject Satan, and to always strive to live as Christ calls us to live. This is no small task. Satan is always tempting us. The United States Catechism for Adults says, "Baptism delivers us from Original Sin but not from its effects – especially the inclination to sin, concupiscence" (310).
That's why God sends us the Holy Spirit in Baptism and seals us with the Holy Spirit at Confirmation. Through the Holy Spirit we receive the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord (CCC, 1831) to help us live according to our baptismal promises and God's will.
Who Can Receive Baptism?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that anyone not already baptized can receive baptism (CCC, 1246). In the early church baptism was received by adults. The stories contained in The Acts of the Apostles tell of the baptism of groups and individuals (cf. Acts 2:14-41, Acts 8:26-40, Acts 10:44-49, etc.) and of whole families being baptized (Acts 16:33) after hearing the apostles speak. The speeches were to teach the people about the Christian Faith, focusing on what Jesus has done for us.
In the stories of the Acts of the Apostles people were often baptized after hearing the gospel message once. As the Catholic Church developed the understanding of what it meant to be a Christian disciple grew. No longer was it deemed sufficient to hear about Jesus once and be baptized. Now, there is always the possible, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for a person to have an instantaneous conversion to Jesus. The church recognizes and believes that (CCC, 1249). Yet, the Church also realizes that conforming ourselves to Christ is a lifelong process that requires us to open ourselves to learning more about Jesus. We should always work to grow in our personal relationship with Jesus.
As early church teaching developed, the period of study developed to be as long as three years. After learning about the Catholic faith, then the person would be baptized. Over time, once Christianity became the common religion of the time, It became common to baptize babies shortly after birth.
Why Baptize Babies?
Today, many Christian denominations practice what is commonly called "Believer Baptism" meaning that the person must make the choice to be baptized for themselves (indicating their acceptance of Jesus Christ). For them, baptism is done in the teenage or adult years. So, they do not baptize babies. (Some of these churches may have a "dedication" ceremony for babies to pray for God's blessing on them and for his watchful to keep them safe.)
For Catholics, the baptism of babies has been going on for since New Testament Times when whole families were baptized (Acts 16:33). When a baby is baptized they are unable to make their baptismal promises for themselves. The parents make the baptismal promises for the child and promise to bring the child up in the practice of our faith. We baptize babies to make them adopted children of God, for the forgiveness of original sin, and so that they receive the Holy Spirit.
Certainly, we always pray to God watch over our little ones but why should we baptize babies instead of waiting for them to make the choice for themselves?
The Catechism says, "Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth" (1250).
The concern for babies is the question of what happens to them if they die without being baptized. This involves an understanding of the Catholic doctrine of "original sin." Original Sin refers back to the sin of Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-24). Humanity has been forever marked by that sin. It is not that God holds us personally responsible for the sin of Adam and Eve. Rather, it identifies something about us as humans that makes us prone to sin. The term used for this is "concupiscence." Baptism removes the stain of original sin. For people old enough to choose baptism for themself it also removes the stains of any personal sins committed up to that point in their life. It does NOT mean we will never sin again. God gives us the gift of free will. The Devil is always placing temptation before us. At times, we fall into sin. That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation and why Jesus died for us on the Cross; to redeem us from our sins.
So, with the understanding of "Original Sin" parents were concerned what would happen to their babies if they died without being baptized. They began to baptize their babies to remove this original sin. (cf. "Original Sin and the Question of Limbo?".
Then, for centuries, infant baptism was the normal practice. If an adult wished to become Catholic, they would meet individually with a priest for instruction for as long as necessary to learn about our Catholic faith and when the priest decided they were ready, they would be baptized or received into the Catholic Church.
The Second Vatican Council
With the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's much was changed in the Church. Unfortunately, many were surprised by the changes as something rushed through without much explanation. What many people do not realize is that there was much scholarly study of the early Church occurring and with it a restoration of many of the early practices. One of these changes was the return of a regular program that we call the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) for adults who wish to become Catholic. Before talking a little more about RCIA, we should make a distinction about ages. While normally, children are baptized as infants, anyone up to age 7 can be baptized under the rite for children and attend the children's religious education classes appropriate for their age. Seven is considered the "Age of Reason" when a person begins to become "self-aware" in a way to make more decisions for themself while understanding what is going on. RCIA is meant for adults. This leaves a gap between the ages of 7 and about 18. I say about because each person is different for when they might be ready for the adult program. Youth between ages of 7 and 18 are taught in a program called RCIC, which simply stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Children. It follows the same rituals as for adults. The learning as at the level appropriate for each individual child. When the child completes the program at the Easter Vigil, then they join the regular religious education classes for their grade level.
Today, infant baptism remains the common practice but the RCIA process is a more developed practice with rituals (rites) along the way to make the stages of development on the journey to baptism. The journey really begins before an interested person ever steps into a church. Something inspires that person to come. It may be the prompting of the Holy Spirit to an open heart. It may be the faith they saw in another person. It may be because of an invitation from a Catholic friend to come to church. Something or someone has ignited a spark in the seeker. That leads them to inquire about becoming Catholic.
Once the initial contact is made by calling the parish office, speaking to the priest, deacon or RCIA Coordinator, they begin a period of inquiry where the person (called an inquirer or seeker) begins to learn the very basics of the Catholic Faith. After a short period of time, the inquirer undergoes what is called the Rite of Acceptance (for unbaptized) or Rite of Welcoming (for those baptized in another Christian denomination). Here they (with sponsors) attest to their interest in becoming Catholic and agree to continue. Then follows the Period of the Catechumenate. A catechumen is an unbaptized person learning more deeply about the Catholic faith. A candidate is a person baptized in another denomination preparing to be received into the Catholic Church. If the person chooses to continue, at the beginning of Lent they will undergo the Rites of Sending and Election when they become members of the Elect; those in final preparation for baptism or reception into the Church at the Easter Vigil. The period from the Rite of Election to the Easter Vigil is known as the Period of Enlightenment with final "studies".
Those to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Communion do so at the Easter Vigil (those being received into the Church, having already been baptized in another denomination, may do so at other times of the year but if they have been studying as a group they may be received at the Easter Vigil). The Easter Vigil is the highest time of the Year. The Easter Vigil recalls the history of God's relationship with his people as told in the Old Testament and celebrates Jesus rising into new life. Therefore, it is appropriate that those who have been preparing themselves in RCIA receive Baptism at the Easter Vigil to enter into new life with Jesus.
Today's Rite of Baptism for Children
Baptisms for children can be done at any time of the year (but are often not done during Lent). The preparation focuses on the parents. It is commonly referred to as "Baptismal Preparation". The exact details vary but it is generally one or two classes to help the parents understand their role in bringing up their children in the practice of the faith. These classes assume that the Catholic parent(s) have a basic understanding of our faith.
The Symbols Used in Baptism
We use several "objects" as part of our baptismal ritual. The most obvious of these is water. Water is a sign of cleansing. We use water to clean ourselves on the outside. In the baptismal celebration there is a blessing of the water where we call up God to send the Holy Spirit upon the water. Then, by God's grace, the water cleanses our soul, setting us free from the bonds of sin.
But before we bless the water much must happen. What follows is a description of how the baptismal celebration occurs outside of the Mass. There are some adaptations made for baptisms within Mass but the guiding principles and the symbols used remain the same.
The rite for children begins by asking the parents what name they have given their child. Of course, we need to know the name of the child but it is more than that. As the child grows and forms their own identity, it is their name that identifies them to us. For people who know them, the name signifies the person.
Then the parents are asked what they ask of the church for their child. The response is "Baptism." They are then reminded of their duties as Christian Parents and asked if this is what they intend. Then the godparents are asked if they are willing to help the parents raise the children in the practice of the faith. Then, the priest/deacon "claims" the child for Christ by making the Sign of the Cross on the forehead and inviting the parents and godparents to do the same. The Sign of the Cross reminds us that Christ died for us and rose to new life. In baptism we die to this world to enter into new life with Christ.
Then there is reading from the Bible, reminding us what Baptism signifies. The priest/deacon may then offer a few words. Then, we offer a litany of prayers for the child and the family followed by a litany of the saints. We call upon the saints as those already with God in the heavenly kingdom to ask for their intercession.
Next is a prayer of "exorcism" but not because we think the child is possessed by evil but that the Lord keep them free from sin. Then the child may be anointed with the Oil of Catechumens (aka "oil of salvation"). Anointing with oil is seen as a sign of strengthening, strengthening in faith and in the power to persevere against evil.
Then comes the blessing of water. There are a couple of options for the blessing of the water. The one I prefer includes reminders of how God has understand water; the story of Noah's Ark when God used water to remove sin from the world (Genesis chapters 6-10), the Parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:1-31) when the Lord lead his people out of Egypt to new life in the promised land, and again when Joshua led them against the Jordan into the promised land (Joshua 3:1-17) (CCC 1219, 1221, 1222).
Next, in the rite of baptism, comes the baptismal promises. In the baptismal promises we reject Satan and his empty promises. We profess faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now, comes the baptism itself! We baptize by immersion or pouring water over the head with the words, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit" precisely how Jesus calls us to baptize (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).
Then, the child is anointed with Sacred Chrism (another oil blessed by the bishop). Again, the anointing with oil is for strengthening. Then the child (already clothed in white or given a white garment) is told that the white is an outward sign of baptism, when we are made clean/pure by the Lord.
Then they are given a baptismal candle light from the Easter candle. Christ is the light of the world and we are in turn to be a light to Christ.
Then, we pray together as Jesus taught us, the Lord's Prayer and a final blessing is offered for the parents, child, and all present.
Life After Baptism
Whether baptized as a child or an adult, Baptism is not an end but a beginning. For children, Baptism is only a beginning with their religious education to follow. For adults in the RCIA process Baptism marks the culmination of the RCIA process but it does not mean one knows everything. No matter how much we learn about our faith, on this Earth we will never know everything. We should always seek to deepen our personal relationship with Jesus through attending Mass, opening ourselves to the graces we receive, learning from the homily but it goes beyond that. We should read the Bible on our own. We can read books about our faith or attend discussions/lectures offered in our parishes.
We must also remind ourselves of our baptismal promises and what it means to be a Christian.
For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism. For this reason the Church celebrates each year at the Easter Vigil the renewal of baptismal promises (CCC, 1254).
The second anointing of Baptism reminds us that in baptism, we are made priest, prophet, and king to follow in the ways of Jesus. It is an ongoing commitment.
To be a priest is to offer sacrifice. We each offer sacrifice in the way we live our lives. A parent sacrifices for the good of the child. When we are blessed with all we need, we share it by giving of what we have (sacrifice) to help others.
To be a prophet is to share God's Word and love, first in our actions, and then in word, telling everyone how much Jesus loved us when he died for us on the Cross.
To be a king is not to rule with power. Jesus said the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28). We are called to us the gifts (talents) that God has given us to serve the needs of others.
For Further Reading
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1997. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/.
Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html.
Rite of Baptism for Children, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2004
USSCB, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006.
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith