Baptizing Infants at Sunday Mass: A Parish Celebration
March 07, 2007
In parishes where infants (that is, children up to age 7) are baptized at Sunday Mass, it is not uncommon for someone to ask, “Why are we having a baptism during Mass? Aren’t babies usually baptized privately on Sunday afternoon?” In parishes where infants have never been baptized during Sunday Eucharist, a similar question is asked: “Why don’t we celebrate baptisms at Mass?”
To answer these questions, let’s consider first the practice of not baptizing children during Sunday Mass. The baptism tends to be understood as a private moment, centered in the family, and disconnected from the Eucharist.
By contrast, when baptisms are celebrated during Sunday Mass, we experience baptism as a public, communal moment, centered in the faith of the Church, intimately connected with (and leading to) the Eucharist. This, in fact, is how the 1969 Rite of Baptism for Children (Introduction, #9) describes baptism. Sounds like our experience with the catechumenate, with initiation of adults, doesn’t it? Indeed, the catechumenate is the model of our experience with infant baptism – in the same way, public, centered in the faith and worship of the Church, intimately connected with and leading to the Eucharist.
The Rite of Baptism for Children calls us to a fuller understanding of ourselves as Church, where the faith that we share is communal by nature: “The people of God, that is the Church, made present in the local community, has an important part to play in the baptism of both children and adults....It is clear that the faith in which the children are baptized is not the private possession of the individual family, but it is the common treasure of the whole Church of Christ” (Introduction, # 4).
When baptism is celebrated at Sunday Mass, it is incorporated into the liturgy: “If baptism takes place during Sunday Mass, the Mass for that Sunday is used, and the celebration takes place as follows: (Rite, #29)”
~ The usual greeting and penitential rite are replaced by the initial rite of receiving the children.
~ In the Liturgy of the Word, the readings from the Lectionary for that Sunday are normally used, or “for special reasons,” one or more readings taken from the baptismal rite.
~ The creed is not said (replaced by the baptismal renunciation of sin and profession of faith).
~ The intercessions are taken from the baptismal rite.
~ The celebration of baptism continues, after the intercessions.
~ The Liturgy of the Eucharist follows, in the usual way.
~ When introducing the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the communion rite, the priest alludes to the day to come, when the infant(s) just baptized will join the rest of the Church in sharing the Eucharist—a clear reference that baptism is completed by sharing in the Eucharist and in the full life of the eucharistic community.
~ For the blessing at the end of Mass, the priest may use one of the formulas in the baptismal rite.
Also important, especially for pastoral leaders, is to:
» Study the Rite.
Read both the general introduction (to the entire Rite of Christian Initiation) and the introduction specific to the Rite of Baptism for Children, which describe how we understand Christian initiation in general and baptism in particular. Liturgy committees and pastoral planners will also glean a good sense of the Rite’s progression and its rhythm.
Then, study the Rite. Study its options and adjustments; one of its important elements is the phrase, “…in these or similar words.” Get to know the history of the Rite, which will guide your understanding of what is primary and what is secondary. In this way, you will come to recognize the Rite of Baptism for Children as a condensed version of the extended catechumenate that guides the initiation of older children and adults.
Some aspects of this condensed version work well for the baptism of infants – e.g., the rite’s progression from doorway to ambo to font and to altar – while other aspects do not translate well, e.g., placing a white garment or surrogate cloth on a baby already fully clothed. With a good sense of the rite and of its history, we recognize some elements – Invoking the blessing of God over the water, professing the faith, anointing with chrism, connecting the baptism with a future sharing in the Eucharist – as primary and others – ephphetha prayer, color of the infant’s outfit, who stands where – as secondary.
» Realize that the Assembly is the Primary Minister of Baptism
Start with, “How do we draw the entire assembly fully into the action of this rite?” We celebrate baptism, first of all, for the sake of our faith as the Church. Baptism does not belong to a particular family; it is not primarily for the child. Rather, it belongs to the Church; it is primarily for the building up of the faith of the Church.
The biggest problem with the celebration of baptism at a Sunday liturgy comes from treating the assembly as observers or, worse, bystanders. This guarantees that people will not like the experience or even resent it. And they’re right to do so: too often, the assembly is submitted to ten or fifteen more minutes of speech, passive listening, miserly actions that they cannot see. This is not what the Rite intends
» Invite the Assembly’s Full Participation
Give the Sunday assembly their full voice, their full part in the celebration. For example, singing is the voice of the assembly, so close attention must be paid to selecting the music, including the acclamations and refrains, which are integral to the rite. Look first at refrains and acclamations the parish already knows and already uses for initiation: acclamations from the Easter Vigil and from the Easter season, refrains from the confirmation liturgy. Not everyone, for instance, can witness the immersion at the font, but as one Body everyone can respond to the action of baptism with a sung “Alleluia!”
Do not consign the Sunday assembly to ten or fifteen minutes of poor sight lines, heavy silence, whispered dialogue. Rather, engage the assembly as full partner in the liturgy’s listen-and-respond pattern.
Rev. Timothy Fitzgerald is a priest of the Diocese of Des Moines, IA. He is the author of Infant Baptism: A Parish Celebration (Font and Table Series) (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992); Confirmation: A Parish Celebration (Font & Table Series)(Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999); and co-editor of: The Many Presences of Christ (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999) and Incongruities: Who We Are and How We Pray (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2000).
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