Sacraments

Are you ready for this...? The Role of Parents in the Rite of Baptism

April 17, 2007

JAMES SABAK, OFM

It is my experience that expectant parents are often the recipients of a barrage of questions of varying importance:  Is it a boy or girl?  What will you name your child?  What do you hope he or she grows up to be?  What kind of life do you hope for him or her?  Who's your pediatrician?  What color will you paint the nursery?  Will you breast or bottle feed?  Yet, among many Catholic families the most unique of all questions, possibly asked with no small sense of urgency, is, "And when you will have him/her baptized?"

An interesting question and one repeated with growing urgency if the expectant parents are too lax in providing an answer.  Truthfully, however, the question's origin rests in an understanding of parents' obligation or duty to baptize their children.

Now, for some this duty conjures up an image from the past of a father (the mother still recuperating from childbirth) bringing a child nearly at the moment of arrival to a priest for baptism.  The object of the rite was perceived as protecting the child from death or from ending up in some literal "limbo" should death occur.  Consequently, neglect of this matter might prompt a more conscientious relative to perform a baptism over the kitchen sink, "just in case...."

And while this scenario might seem foreign to Catholics today, post-Vatican II theology on baptism, in reclaiming a much richer and fuller understanding of the sacrament, chooses to focus on infant baptism as an important decision of parents for their children.  Furthermore, this decision should not be construed as either a compulsory formality or as just one, if not the final one, of a series of birthing rituals observed by families.

Rather, parents who present a children for baptism make a profound and sincere statement of the role that faith plays in their lives.  Importantly, the structure of the rite of baptism serves in clarifying this statement.  Far from speaking of infant death, of limbo, or of making a child "pleasing" in God's sight, the rite impresses upon parents, particularly through a series of questions and admonitions that in baptizing their child, they are making a commitment -- a covenant, in fact.

Through this inquiry, the Church underscores why it baptizes infants.  These questions, publicly raised, affirm baptism as an act of commitment and responsibility on the part of parents, family members, and even the church community to teach and inspire the faith life of the child to be baptized.

At three critical points in the rite, parents and godparents are asked if they truly understand what it is they are undertaking in requesting baptism for their child: at the beginning of the rite, as they present their child to the Church; right before they profess their own belief in the faith into which their child will be baptized; and immediately before the washing with water occurs.

These questions, asked in such a way as to elicit an affirmative answer, are yet not asked as mere ceremonial or "throw away" lines to heighten the suspense prior to the baptism itself.  These questions are, in fact, constitutive of the dynamic around which baptism revolves -- the dynamic of transformation -- and incumbent upon that transformation is a willingness on the part of those who speak for the child about to be baptized, to guide and nurture this transformation throughout the child's life.

At the beginning of the rite, for example, following the giving of a name to the child and the request for baptism, parents are told that they are accepting a great responsibility to train their child by teaching and example in living the Christian faith.  Rather pointedly and simply, the minister of the rite asks, "Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?"  No mincing of words here.  It's a straightforward question of their readiness to see to it that this action does not devolve into a socially induced and empty ritual, but rather, that on their part it is truly an act of faith.  As such, the question should be asked in the pointed manner in which it is phrased, and perhaps even a moment or two of silence would benefit an authentic and committed answer of, "We do," as stated in the rite.

Immediately prior to the profession of faith, parents (and assembled family members, friends, and parishioners) are again reminded of their "constant care to bring [their child] up in the practice of the faith...[letting that faith] grow always stronger in his [her] heart."  They are asked to renew their own profession of faith, but only "if your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility."  Such an admonition again invites parents to reflect on the strength of their own faith in what they are about to undertake for their child.

Finally, at the moment of baptism, parents and godparents are asked one final time, "Is it your will that [N.] should be baptized in the faith of the Church...?"  This final question stresses the importance that baptism must be an act that is without coercion, force, or intimidation if it is truly to represent the covenantal relationship we have with God.

Three times the Church gives pause in the rite of baptism, allowing parents to assess their readiness to assume the great responsibility of bringing faith to their children.  While some might find these questions redundant or tedious, the Church replies with how seriously it takes baptism.  Baptism reveals God's initiative in offering an invitation to friendship, relationship, and abundant life.  Even in adulthood the response of "yes" to this invitation is only fully realized as one lives out his or her commitment within the Church.  And it is principally within the rite of baptism where such an understanding is witnessed on the part of the parents who present their child for baptism.

In the final blessing at the rite's conclusion, the minister blesses the parents with a reminder that they are "the first teachers...in the ways of faith."  He prays that "they also be the best of teachers."  In this way, the Church stresses that the rite of baptism is a beginning and that the sacrament must continue to unfold and develop in the home for its transformative covenant to truly bear fruit.

Rev. James Sabak, OFM is a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

READ OTHER ARTICLES BY JAMES SABAK:

Rite of Sending: You like me!  You really like ME!
Scrutiny Rites: A Conscious Act of Serious Faith
The Easter Vigil and Exodus: The Encounter of a God of Awesome Proportions
The Preparation Rites: Keeping the Holy in Holy Saturday

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