The Sacrament of Baptism: Door of Initiation
It all began with John the Baptist and Jesus. Water was an important element, for it had the power of cleansing. The ancient Jewish people were meticulous in their cleansing habits and water is what they used. In an arid terrain, water was both valuable and a necessity.
John the Baptist went about baptizing all whom he encountered. In many cases, he used river water. John the Baptist also baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. The people came to know from John the Baptist the powerful experience of turning away from sin and being cleansed by the mercy of God that was symbolized by immersion in water.
The early Church realized that a ceremony of initiation into the faith community was needed. For Catholics, the sacrament of Baptism is the first step in a lifelong journey and a commitment to serve God, and of faith and love of neighbor.
Baptism is the Church's way of celebration and of believers' acceptance of God's loving embrace. Baptism is the first of the three sacraments of initiation. It is also the first of seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. It removes the guilt and effects of original sin.
It incorporates the baptized individual into the Church that is the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. It is the door to a new and supernatural life on earth. It is considered the door of the Church.
History of Baptism
Baptism has been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, as demonstrated many times in the Acts of the Apostles. Christians believe that Jesus instituted the sacrament of Baptism. Scholars are not in agreement as to Jesus' intentions and whether he had envisioned an organized and long continuing Church. This is merely a matter of dispute among scholars.
By the 12th century, the word "sacrament" was pared down and referenced to seven rites, including that of Baptism. The span between the 12th and the 14th centuries witnessed infusion (pouring of water) as the common method of administering baptism in Western Europe. Immersion occurred in some places as late as the 16th century.
During the Middle Ages, there was great variation as to the type of facility required for baptism. Some were large enough to immerse two adults at the same time. The 13th-century baptistery at Pisa was an example of a large baptism pool.
An example of a smaller pool was the shallow one in the sixth-century baptistery in the Cathedral of Cologne. For immersion, the pool could be as small as to allow the crown of the head to be immersed.
In the year 416, the Roman Empire made infant baptism compulsory. The Roman Catholic Church, for centuries, taught that if a baby died without being baptized, he or she would go to a place of natural happiness called limbo.
Pope Benedict XVI, in April 2007, reversed this teaching of limbo. He did not agree with St. Augustine, who taught that all non-baptized infants would go straight to hell. Pope Benedict created a doctrine stipulating that all infants who died would go to heaven whether they were baptized or not.
The question raised by other Christian faiths was: is it right to baptize infants even if they are not capable of renouncing Satan? The Catholic Church teaches that Baptism should be administered even to infants, who are not yet guilty of personal sin.
It believes that they may be reborn of water and the Holy Spirit to divine life in Jesus Christ. The wonderful benefits of baptism are the same for infants as for adults.
The Rite of Baptism
Baptism is a joyous celebration. It is held on a Sunday whenever possible. Parents are present with the sponsors. Relatives and friends may also be in attendance. The rite of Baptism includes one or more readings from Scripture, a prayer of the faithful, the litany of the saints and other prayers.
The individual is anointed with oil and then, at the moment of Baptism, water is poured on the head. The administrator of the baptismal rite then says the necessary words.
In case of impending death, a non-baptized individual can be baptized at the scene by a layperson who is a believer in a Christian religion. Baptism administered by a layperson, if done correctly, is as valid as Baptism given by a priest. If the person recovers and is alive, then a church ceremony is conducted in order that other rites associated with Baptism may be given.
Water and words make up the sign of baptism. The water is a sign that sin is destroyed and that the life of grace is given. The words said represent the beginning of a new and lasting relationship with the Holy Trinity.
There is also baptism by desire. The non-baptized person receives the Baptism of Desire by making an Act of Contrition or by expressing sorrow for all serious sins, professing love for God above all things, and desiring to do His will and all that is necessary for salvation.
The newly baptized is also anointed with sacred chrism (oil) to demonstrate a new relationship with Christ. This is the oil of the catechumens that represents strength to battle all evil. The anointing symbolizes the imprinting of a special action that took place moments earlier in the Baptism by water. The newly baptized receives a white garment representing innocence.
Effects of Baptism
In Baptism, we become free of original sin and are made children of God with the opportunity for eternal life. Baptism makes us members of Christ's Mystical Body, which is the Church. When we become members of the Church, we are eligible to receive other sacraments. If adults who are baptized demonstrate genuine sorrow for sins, they are cleansed of all personal sin.
Some frequently asked questions about Baptism are:
Is Baptism necessary for salvation? The answer to this is found in John 3:5: Jesus said: "I solemnly assure you, no can enter into God's kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit." Here in direct terms He affirms the necessity of the Church, for it is through Baptism that we can enter the door to the Church.
Does Baptism guarantee entry to heaven? The answer is no, unless we die as an infant without personal sin. While Baptism removes all sin, we are still human and subject to a fallen nature.
Can you be baptized more than once? The answer to this is no. The effects of Baptism are long lasting. The baptized individual is a Christian forever. The relationship with Christ is permanent and refers to the seal or character of this sacrament. There is no need for re-baptism, even if the individual has been baptized in another Christian faith.
What are baptismal promises? Baptismal promises are promises that the individual makes to renounce the devil and live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church. We renew these promises at Easter Mass. As individuals, we can renew these promises at any time during the year and are encouraged to do so.
Can more than one individual be baptized at the same time? Yes, provided all parents are in accord with it. However, each individual undergoes the Rite of Baptism in turn. Only the baptismal promises can be made simultaneously in groups.
Thomas J. Rillo, oblate