October 1, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 24
Part 2: SERIES ON THE SACRAMENTS
Pouring of the holy water
The treasure of infant baptism
A ccording to the Rite of Baptism, once parents have named their child, the priest or deacon questions them: “What do you ask of God’s Church for N.?” The typical reply is “Baptism.” However, other responses may be used, such as “Eternal life.”
In his encyclical letter on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI explains that this reply captures the goal of Baptism: “It is not . . . simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child — eternal life” (Spe salvi, no. 10).
Baptism, therefore, marks the beginning of eternal life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1213, 1263).
Most Catholics are baptized as infants, and so we do not remember this momentous event.
Among non-Catholics, there is sometimes confusion, misunderstanding, and even controversy surrounding the practice of baptizing infants. This article will clarify the meaning and purpose of infant Baptism, so that its inestimable value can be better appreciated.
Based on Christ’s own declaration (Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), the Church teaches that “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1257).
For this reason, parents have the obligation to baptize their children “in the first few weeks” after birth (Code of Canon Law, canon 867 § 1).
The word “baptism” means “immersion.” In this sacrament, a child is immersed into the event of salvation — the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3–4) (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1214, 1227).
The practice of baptizing infants indicates the magnitude of the sacrament: It is so important that parents should give it to their children as soon as possible (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1250).
The Catechism notes that the earliest evidence for infant Baptism dates from the second century; however, “it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole ‘households’ received baptism, infants may also have been baptized” (no. 1252; Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).
Baptism places an infant on the path to eternal life; but it is not the destination. Rather, the manifold grace of the sacrament is meant to flower in the child’s life.
This requires that the child be educated in the Catholic faith, and eventually receive the other Sacraments of Christian Initiation: Confirmation and the Eucharist (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1213, 1231, 1233).
When we receive these sacraments — First Holy Communion around age seven, and Confirmation around age 15 — we recall our own Baptism. Thus, according to the Rite of Confirmation, the bishop asks those to be confirmed to first renew their baptismal promises.
Regarding Holy Communion, we remember our Baptism by blessing ourselves with holy water upon entering the church for Mass. Then, we call it to mind again during the Creed: “I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
Significantly, Baptism has always been tied to the profession of faith, in the New Testament (Mk 16:15–16) and throughout the history of the Church. Indeed, both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed developed within the baptismal rite (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 186, 189).
In the case of infant Baptism, the parents and godparents profess the faith of the Church on behalf of the child. Later, when we can recite the Creed by ourselves, we do so at every Sunday Mass.
Therefore, the Creed is more than just a matter of mechanical recitation. By professing it, we come to discover the grace given to us in Baptism. We also pledge ourselves to live by that faith (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 185).
Thus, St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy applies to us: “Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tm 6:12).