Most people don’t think about Baptism very deeply. This is manifested clearly at parish Baptism preparation sessions. When asked why they have brought the child for Baptism parents are caught unawares; this is already very telling. They become suddenly uncomfortable. Mum looks at dad, dad looks at his feet.
- Well, my parents had me baptised and I went to a catholic school and I really enjoyed it and I want my child to have the same opportunity.
- My grandmother is coming from Europe to visit us in August and she wants to be at the Baptism.
- Every child should have some religion.
- Well, doesn’t the child go to Hell if it’s not baptised?
It would be so interesting if one day I asked a group of parents why they brought their child for Baptism and they said:
- Well, we find such joy in the Faith that we want the same for our child.
- We are all born in Original Sin and we want God to restore our child to his friendship.
- We want our child to be born again and made into a new person in Christ.
- We want our child’s heart to be open to God’s grace. We want God’s Holy Spirit to live in our child.
I can tell you honestly, folks, if that were ever to happen you would see one astonished priest, probably weeping tears of joy.
Most young parents don’t think about Baptism very deeply because they don’t live their Catholic life very deeply. This is not an attack – this is a diagnosis!
A priest friend of mine in a large parish recently told me of a preparation session with fifteen couples: nine of them were either not married, or not married in the Church. This was for a variety of reasons. Three of the nine were Catholic but had simply decided not to get married; six couples were married in the Church and of these six, two were attending Sunday Mass faithfully.
This collapse in the connection between the Sacrament of Baptism and a lived Catholic life is almost universal in Australian society. It’s a horrible phenomenon! And we go on, year after year, baptising the children of parents who have already told us they have no intention at all of practising the Faith. It seems Baptism is now a kind of no-community-attached sacrament, and, therefore, parents have come to see it as a no-responsibility-attached sacrament. This is not as it should be.
The Church herself has something to say about all this, and don’t forget, the sacraments belong to the Church and they belong in the Church, like a fish belongs in water. This is why the Church will not normally allow Baptisms to be performed outside the church building.
The 1980 'Instruction on Infant Baptism' recognised the need for a renewal of our pastoral practices in regard to this sacrament and spoke of two principles.
- Firstly, considered in itself the gift of Baptism to infants must not be delayed.
- Secondly, the parents or a close relative must give assurances that the gift of Baptism can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfil the true meaning of the sacrament.
But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused.
Priests should be slow to delay or refuse a Baptism but they should not be unthinking in their pastoral practice. Too many of our parents are not really serious in their assurances that the gifts and blessings of Baptism can grow in their children. I often ask them: Are you ready to become the parents of a Catholic child? The fact is that most don't understand what this means and are in need of a thorough catechesis.
By baptising the child of any parent who asks, without making a serious discernment about the assurances given, we are denying those parents an important opportunity of making a renewed commitment to their own faith.
‘But aren’t you denying an innocent child?’ No. The child is not your or my responsibility. The child is the responsibility of the parents. If neither the parents nor a family member is willing to accept the duties of bringing the child up in the practice of the Faith then they are denying their child.
When couples are challenged about all this in the right way its remarkable how often they are ready to acknowledge they are not yet for real. They will accept further instruction and even invite the priest to their house to explain things more deeply and answer some questions.
Some couples become angry because they don’t want a Church that has ‘terms or conditions’, and they simply walk away. That is their choice. It may be that they will give the matter further thought and, one day, come back. All too often, unfortunately, they will shop around for a priest somewhere who offers less resistance.
We mustn’t underestimate parents; they are not stupid. Given the right explanations and sufficient time to digest the ‘unpleasant news’ they will often nod their heads and agree that the true meaning of the sacrament is not fulfilled if they bring their child into a Catholic Faith which they themselves refuse to practise. There are few joys compared to the joy of seeing such a couple come back to the practise of the Faith.