BELIEVING in Jesus Christ and being converted to Him in order to be saved are but two halves of the same diptych. Now, the life that Christ has to give to the world is procured by baptism and baptism is the believer’s first commitment on the way to conversion. That is why baptism is the sacrament most spoken of in Holy Scripture and the one whose nature is better known to us through Revelation even before studying its traditional rites (…).
Jesus had said : “ All power is given to Me in Heaven and in earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit ” (Mt 28 :18-19). For all time and unconditionally the command was given to join word and action together : sacrament and preaching. The faith would be proclaimed in order to win the conversion of hearts and all converts would be given baptism, which alone would introduce them into the community of the saved, “ in Christ ” (…). In believing Her Lord and in joyously obeying His Commands, the Church has never doubted to this day the convincing strength of Her Kerygma nor the transforming power of Her first principal rite – baptism. Whatever insufficiency there might be, it will never come from that side : Jesus said it, and that is enough.
“ A WASHING IN WATER WITH A FORM OF WORDS ” (Ep 5 :26.)
Of all the sacraments, baptism is the one that lends itself best to analysis and interpretation of its rites. Its element is water in the form of a bath or ablution, which is raised by a word from natural usage to that of a supernatural, spiritual and Christian signification. “ I baptise thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. ” What could be clearer ? The body is washed – baptise means to bathe – and the total being is purified by the Spirit, reborn with a new life, justified, christianised and adopted as a Child of God, brother of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit. However, if we are to be open to what baptism was once and what it could be again, we must not enclose ourselves in today’s exact determination of its matter and form, age-old though it is (…).
We do not know exactly how the Apostles and then the Primitive Church administered baptism. However, the main outlines of the baptismal liturgy appear to have been fixed from the very beginning never more to vary. We know fully the baptismal catecheses of the 4th Century – that golden age of Patristics represented by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine with its magnificent rites, which are certainly no more than a development of the already traditional ceremonies from apostolic sources. These rites have been conserved for us through the Leonine, Gelasian, and Gregorian sacramentaries and have passed into our present-day ritual almost in their entirety, for the baptism of adults. Modern authors are right to go into the details of all these rites, for the teaching value of their symbolism is incomparable (…).
A clear and authoritative lesson can be drawn from this great and universal lex orandi regarding the lex credendi of Christ’s Church. The rites of baptism reveal its meaning. It is a change of life, a tearing away from one world and attachment to another, of a death and resurrection, of a return to the East from Paradise Lost.
THE MORTIFYING AND VIVIFYING WATER
The meaning of the mortifying water is that the pagan, the Jew or the Muslim – man in general – comes to baptism like one throwing himself into the water because he can do no more. He wants to quit life in this world and be finished with it. In their baptismal catecheses, the Fathers insisted on this mortifying aspect of the water into which the catechumen would be plunged (…) It is like the waters of the Nile on which Moses was exposed in distress ; it is like the wrathful sea into which Jonas was cast… The plunge into the baptismal waters is like the act of a suicide wanting to be rid of an unbearable life, but from the baptismal font the baptised person is drawn as a drowning person would be rescued from the water. He is like Moses being saved from the Nile, like Jonas who had been swallowed by the mysterious fish and then cast ashore, above all like the Hebrew people who, on emerging from the Red Sea, were liberated from their captivity and safe from their pursuant (…). They are figures of the Mystery and they reveal what it means : a voluntary death to the past and a miraculous resurrection to a life given from on high.
Our impression is that in the times of pagan and decadent Rome this liturgy was perfectly understood. There was disgust for the most odious vices rampant in paganism : abortion, slavery, violence ; there was also repulsion for a decadent world, whose games and circuses breathed a ferocity and bestial impurity. These things showed only too clearly “ the devil his pomps and all his works ” with his power of illusion, his prestige and tyranny for the catechumen not to want to be rid of them by a sacramental death and total change, which was both signified and effected by the sacrament (…).
Going beyond the particular situation of individual persons, the Catholic Liturgy touches the deepest reality of a world subject to Satan. In its rites the stages of a cosmic combat are developed – a combat in which superior forces engage in a battle where souls are the battle field and the stake at issue. On the one side the demon rules as master and on the other side his already victorious Adversary, Christ, under whose Cross the Church militates. Every baptism is a victory, dearly and painfully won – a victory wrenched from the Prince of this World (…).
Such is the very practical, concrete and inescapable view of original sin with which the liturgy inspires us in its historical development. It is a fallen world, a cursed and diabolical world, attractive and fascinating though it may appear to us. And in pagan man there will always exist a connivance at and complicity with this world and its prestige. The need for baptism to be saved, so often affirmed by Jesus and His Apostles, and the miracle of liberation effected by baptism are taught and illustrated in the baptismal liturgy in a much more striking way than they are in our dogmas.
THE MATERNAL CHURCH
The act of “ suicide ” to the world is at the same time a Christian childbirth. Every catechumen only detaches himself from the world of darkness in order to be born to the true light and so enter into God’s Kingdom (…). Baptism is a very concrete figure of the miracle of a new birth : the metamorphosis of passing from one life to another, way beyond the former life in every respect. The rite signifies, by the candidate’s confession of faith in the Triune God and by the word of the priest baptising him, that this change is wrought in and by water as though in the womb of Mother Church and by Her power (…). The tangible significance of the baptismal liturgy is renunciation of the pagan world, rejection of Satan omnipresent in the institutions, pomps and works of this paganism and entry, or rather repatriation, engulfing of the catechumen in the Church as in a fortress, a sanctuary, a foster home. That impression is very strong and is the immediate reality conserved by our liturgy from antiquity namely, that of salvation in the Church as opposed to an evil world.
The Church is the new Paradise where the catechumen recovers his true life (…).
Theology is able to give this sacramentary symbolism an exact and correct dogmatic interpretation (…). All that is but a development of baptismal theology, the basis of which is found in the sacrament itself in its definition and profound original sense. Two worlds and two systems of life oppose and confront each other : the world of Satan, which is the world from below, of sin, corruption and death and the world from on high, into which no one can be born without first dying and to which no one has access without being wrested from sin and Satan with all his pomps and works and without being introduced, or rather given birth, by the Church in the fruitful waters of Her virginal womb, into Christ Jesus Our Lord (…).
“ IN CHRIST ”
As opposed to ancient pelagianism and modern humanism, baptism signifies that man’s salvation is not in man. Beyond the Jewish circumcision, which was only a figure of salvation and did not merit justifying grace of itself but only by virtue of faith in Him who was to come… and beyond the baptism of John, which was a baptism of water for the remission of sins but only a sign of man’s meritorious dispositions… beyond these figures, Christian baptism alone works a change in man because it is an efficacious Sacrament and Memorial of the Saviour’s death and resurrection.
The rite of baptism demonstrates and affirms this but we must have recourse to Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Magisterium in order to understand this perfectly. Saint Paul boldly assimilates the baptismal action of immersion in the mortifying and vivifying waters to the burial of Christ and in fact regards it as the operative mime of the Lord’s redemptive Passion. The baptised person is identified with Christ and with Him dares the descent into death and burial, thereby freeing himself from his passions, expiating for his sins and escaping from his Adversary who had pursued him up to this impassable frontier. Then, identified with Christ to the extent of sharing His essential destiny, the baptised person rises with Him, coming forth from the tomb clothed, like Him, in a new and eternal life, sharing in His wonderful metamorphosis. It is an extraordinary comparison and the real truth ! (…)
To this amazing symbolism, the Fathers of the Church did not hesitate to add another one, that of the Church’s maternal womb, figured for them by the baptismal pool with its vivifying waters (…). Instructed by the Holy Apostles and by the Fathers of the Church, we feel the immense joy of the baptism whereby we are given God for Father and the Church for Mother in Christ. And if childbearing begins with conception and never ends – true mothers will understand this and so will true Christian fathers – then it is certain that the sacrament of baptism is a childbearing, the first rites of which begin with a holy and chaste conception of conjugal union and whose liturgy will only end on the day of our new birth – our dies natalis in Heaven !
BAPTISMAL PASTORAL THEORY
Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium have provided a sure and triumphant accompaniment to the baptismal liturgy for more than fifteen centuries – and yet ! The difficulty of administering baptism in its solemn form to ever larger masses of converts meant that the Church was obliged to simplify and abridge the rites to the point of attenuating their symbolism (…).
Yet, in spite of all the transformations, baptism, even in its reduced liturgy and impoverished symbolism, which appears to be a simple formality, retained its full reality as a birth to a new life of grace and as of crucial importance for eternal salvation in the faith of the Christian people. There has only been a change for the last few decades, under the impulse of Modernism, which was vulgarised and generalised by the so-called conciliar Reform (…). What has happened and where are we ?
THE TIMES OF FALSE APPEARANCES
If there is a break between the sacrament and life it is not because of the sacrament being whittled down (…). I see first of all the invasion of the Church by modern Humanism, undermining the emotional and intellectual substructure of the sacramental life (…). The world is no longer seen as counter-nature, as it was until the end of the Middle Ages, but as an entirely rational state of nature. In that case the world is no longer regarded as dangerous or hostile to one’s salvation ; it simply appears neutral and ceases to be suspect of diabolical infestation. Before long the purely natural man, that is the savage, the man of the world, the libertine no longer appears fundamentally bad or in any way different from the Christian. Reason began to speak a language different from and even contrary to that of the faith ; the liturgical symbols, therefore, fell badly in this atmosphere.
Certainly, the faithful continued to ask for baptism and the clergy continued to give it in accordance with the Church’s custom and all still believed in the profound change wrought by baptism : the remission of original sin and the conferring of grace. But they regarded the change as no more than a modification of the individual’s relationship with his Creator ; it in no way changed his relationship with the world, with other men or with society. Salvation was becoming a purely conventional act dependent on Divine choice, but not corresponding to anything real in secular, temporal life. Whether the world was insuperably bad and man’s nature vitiated, as Luther would have it, or whether the drama of Redemption unfolds in the purely transcendent sphere of God’s justice, according to Calvin or in the illusion of sentiment according to Erasmus, the fact is that baptism no longer changed anything of the concrete situation in which individuals and peoples find themselves. Religion was becoming an escapism from reality, without it being clearly perceived (…).
Nevertheless, the day was bound to come when the clergy would discover with alarm that the motivation in asking for baptism was no longer profound and that the sacraments were being asked for simply for the rite itself, that is, for the sign, and not for what it signified or invisibly effected. Suspecting a worldly formalism, some of the clergy advocated abandoning these vestiges of Christianity and recommended that baptism be refused. To do that would be to extinguish a still smouldering fuse (…).
THE GOOD INTENTIONS OF THE REFORMERS
I do not believe that there has been any hypocrisy on the part of those clergy who have made this false move ; they have not made these stern demands in the hope of regaining their influence over the masses, which were thought to be escaping from them. This strange decision is part of an “ overall pastoral direction ”, with the laudable intention of putting a stop to the decadence of popular religious sentiment by provoking a more personal effort and attentive participation on the part of the faithful (…).
Hence, for thirty years 1 in France, and since the Council all the world over, we have seen the clergy abandon the age-old legalism and ritualism and show great enthusiasm for the renovation of the rites and for multiplying innovations, with the aim of making the sacraments a true encounter with God wherein the Christian commitment finds itself strengthened.
TOTAL FAILURE, PROFOUND DISAPPOINTMENT
Whether these changes were fortunate or not, in good taste or bad taste, orthodox or aberrant, of praiseworthy intention or not, the fact is that they have been to no avail whatever and have proved contrary to all expectations (…).
This failure has disconcerted priests especially the more reformist, who are more profoundly disappointed than they are prepared to admit. Faced with the negative results of their efforts at sacramentalisation, many priests have ended by no longer believing in the Divine force of the sacrament – and I intentionally say have ended by (…). They are now ready to abandon the substance of baptism, which is initiation into the Christian Mystery, in order to replace it with other rites that speak to modern man, regardless of the fact that these other signs only speak to modern man insofar as they are no longer Divine or Christian and insofar as they signify and effect something other than grace. Such purely human rites will be enrolment, for example, into the community, marking the adolescent’s commitment to the struggle for mankind and his liberation from cultural, social, economic and natural alienations. Humanism will then have supplanted religion and the Church will perceive a little late that She had long allowed Herself to be won over by the world to the point of forgetting Herself and dispossessing Herself of the Divine Signs and Mysteries, which She conveyed.
THE MOST CONTESTABLE OF INNOVATIONS
The beginning of the end is marked by the ever increasing criticism of the practice of pedo-baptism, by which they mean infant baptism. There is an entire literature on this subject now (…). But those who advocate returning to baptism by stages should not be afraid of standing up to radical questioning. For example, does the rite of inscription into the catechumenate already confer sanctifying grace ? What if the enrolled adult or inscribed newly born infant dies without baptism does he enter Heaven ? If the answer is yes, then what is the purpose of baptism ? If the answer is no, then what right has anyone to withhold baptism contrary to the parents’ wishes ? These are questions you have to answer, My Lords (…).
It is for the Supreme Magisterium of the Church to settle this fundamental question, after theologians have posed the problem in terms authorised by the Church’s liturgical and dogmatic tradition, but before pastors take it upon themselves to decide on any change (…) !
It is understandable that baptism might be delayed in Muslimised Togo where, the faith of the children not being upheld due to parental unbelief, the children are unable to resist the solicitations of Islam – and even that is not sure ! That, however, does not apply in France, so if Christian, progressivist parents want to delay baptism it is so that their child may decide his religion for himself when he is grown up. In that case there is no desire for baptism, for the end desired is the cult of man, expressed in the individual’s free choice and free thought. This desire to decide for oneself is definitely not equivalent to the baptism of desire. Such a child will remain, therefore, in his original sin and in the festering of his personal sins, soon to be added, before his Majesty is invited to choose freely the religion of his own good pleasure !
THE TRUTH OF BAPTISM
In reality all these so-called pastoral solutions mask a collapse, which they themselves precipitate. The archaism of the liturgical reforms agrees badly with the modernism of the preaching that accompanies it. It is said that the faithful people no longer understand the usefulness or grandeur of baptism. Is it because they imagine that baptism no longer gives what it promises or what it signifies ? It is rather because baptism is badly given and its sign is deflected from its true signification ! The blame lies, therefore, where no one thinks of looking !
O men of the Church, there is no doubt that you baptise with care and perform the rite validly. But once you have administered the sign of baptism, you go and add a countersign contradicting the candid and massive witness of the infallible liturgy ; you add a counter witness with your own deceptive preaching ! The baptismal rite detaches the faithful from the world, but you hasten to bring them back into the world. O men of the Church, do you believe so badly of what you do ? You give the grace of a new birth to a new Kingdom full of purity and light and then you immediately send these newborn lambs back to the Prince of this World ! Children and adults, once baptised and desirous of leading a new life and made capable by God of holiness, are then returned to the world by their fathers in the Faith, even before they have forgotten their commitment or weakened in the combat. You make it an obligation for them to return whence they came, there to neglect, contradict, despise and deny their sacred commitment !
O priests, you must believe first of all in the Power you hold, in the force you can bestow and in the Holy City where you introduce the children of your priesthood, then you will see a numberless people follow in your footsteps and remain faithful to you for life and eternity ! (…)
THE REFORM OF BAPTISM
On the question of the age for baptism the Church of Vatican III will tolerate no debate. It must be the earliest possible. For adults, baptism must follow their conversion as soon as possible ; let them be instructed and led to their New Birth without delay, preferably during Lent, culminating in the Pascal Vigil. That is a sacramentary discipline that has been slowly acquired and definitively consecrated by law.
To return to the baptism of infants. It should be solemn, thus making for a strong reaction against the abuse of private baptism which helps to destroy the meaning of the baptismal sign. Private baptism should be rigorously reserved to urgent cases and if it has to be given then the complementary ceremonies (sic) will have to be foregone. The priest is not to be put in the absurd position of having to exorcise an already baptised person, for the sake of juridicism. Such mixing of contradictory signs has to be banished absolutely.
What we would propose, towards renovating a tradition that has unfortunately been abolished, is the liturgical act of catechumenal enrolment. As soon as possible, at the same time as the baby’s birth is registered, the newly born should be presented to the Parish Priest to fix the date of baptism. The Parish priest would then proceed with the ceremony of ‘ ex ufflation ’, a preparatory exorcism, then he would mark the infant with the sign of the Cross, which the parents would also do, and then the ceremony of the salt, which says so much. It would then be possible for the great feast of the baptism to be delayed a little without fear of the family postponing it indefinitely.
The baptism of children has gained nothing from encumbering the Sunday Mass. That reform was a mistake and should be revoked as soon as possible. The same is true for the recent usage of baptising children collectively. These serial baptisms resemble assembly-line work in factories. I have done it myself and so know what it is ; Christians dislike it and with good reason. Baptism must remain what it has gradually become – a family rite. The approach of the priest is a grace for the family and so is their reinsertion in the Church as an entire family, grouped around the newborn infant. After all, the family is the true “ base community ” of the Church (…) !
The Church should make more of Her welcome to Christian parents. The Church should make a point of underlining the parents’ courage and merit by expressing Her joy at this new arrival of interest to Herself and counting one more child among the souls chosen for Heaven. There is no mention anywhere in the Conciliar Church of the positive contribution made by each new soul to the Church’s vitality in Her combat in the world and for God’s glory. That is a monstrous omission. Just show me one text where this positive contribution is to be found !
One would like to see the rite of immersion brought back into force. Are babies not being constantly bathed in our societies, sold on Anglo-Saxon hygiene ? This bath would be different from every other bath ; it would be unique, never to be repeated. I would like to see immersion for adults too, not to copy this grandiose sign from the Baptists, who successfully restored it, but in order to engrave on the mind of the catechumen that he is being entirely purified of this wicked world and that by this immersion he has been for ever converted from his former Sin to be reborn into a new life and a new society. If that cannot be done, at least let the water flow abundantly over the catechumen’s forehead ! (…)
RENEWALS OF BAPTISM
Those liturgists who favoured baptism in stages, as opposed to liberal ideologues, wished to see the catechumen’s gradual and progressive preparation restored so that, with the Church’s assurance, his conversion and baptism might appear in all its grandeur. But there is another way of achieving this end without delaying baptism until the age of seven or even eighteen ! To reiterate baptism is formally excluded, but certain of its ceremonies could be renewed during the year of catechism.
If we would happily see the rite of enrolment re-established, so would we welcome the various scrutinies, the handling of the Gospels, the Profession of Faith, the renunciation of the Devil and finally the profession of attachment to Jesus Christ, culminating in the ceremonies of Solemn Communion and Confirmation.
Then during the course of life there will be an opportunity every year for the truly faithful to renew their baptismal vows in a liturgical and sacramental form at the Paschal Vigil – that was a magnificent restoration we owe to Pope Pius XII. We would also like to see the Consecration of Virgins and Religious vows in general likened to a renewal of the gift of baptismal grace in a very official way. It is not that these ceremonies reiterate the unique and definitive sacrament of baptism, but they can reawaken the benefit of the sacrament. Thus baptism would constantly recover its meaning throughout life, even in each Asperges with holy water or when making the Sign of the Cross. It goes without saying that these restorations would have to be made in the Christian perspective of flight from the World and of hatred for Satan, Prince of this World, and, of the struggle against the flesh ! Otherwise any liturgical restoration would be no more than a work of archaeology or of folklore.
Fr. Georges de Nantes
Excerpts from CCR n°93, December 1977, pp. 2-11
CCR n° 94, January 1978, pp. 12-13
CCR n° 102, September 1978, p. 12
1) Our Father wrote this text in 1977. Thirty years previous takes us back to 1947. In the last years of his seminary studies our Father witnessed a revolution in the Church in France that the Second Vatican Council would spread throughout the universal Church.