The Significance of Baptism

by Sean Purcell CSsR

A special situation is that of single mothers. This is normally a sad situation, especially if the mother is very young. In these cases there is undoubtedly a failure on the part of the mother is particular to instruct their daughters about sex and pregnancy. Some of these girls are so naïve and innocent. It is sad that they learn the hard way about sex and pregnancy.

These single mothers deserve our compassion and sympathy, even if there are always positive aspects to a woman giving birth successfully. Our attitude towards them is summed by Pope Francis when he criticized priests who refused to baptize the children of single mothers: “these are today’s hypocrites”; he is reported as saying “the people who are clericalizing the Church, those who are blocking the people of God from salvation” (cf. Francis McDonagh, Tablet, 16 March 2013, p.5). In a further statement, he says: “Last year in Argentina, I reprimanded priests who refused to baptize babies of unmarried mothers. This is a sick mentality” (Pope Francis, quoted in the Editorial of the Sunday Inquirer, August 3, 2014).

Clearly Baptism has a very important role in Christian life. It is the pearl of great price. It is the priceless gift of God made available to us in the Church. It transforms us and enables us to share in the new and glorious life of the Risen Christ. The Church and the parents would deny the child the priceless gift of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. The reality of baptism is what inspires the sublime hymns of St. Paul in Ephesians and Colossians about out sharing in the new life of the Risen Christ.

It is good that our people generally have an appreciation of the genuine meaning of Baptism. They recognize its true role in salvation. It is part of their Christian culture and this is a tribute to the catechesis back in Spanish times. But this catechesis was also somewhat lop-sided. The sound understanding of Baptism was not matched with a similar understanding of the sacrament of Marriage.

As a result, we find couples living together without the benefits of either civil or church marriage. Admittedly, this is not normally a problem for them. However, these same couples are most anxious to have their babies baptized.
In this analogous situation Church authorities in many places are tempted to use people’s high regard for Baptism as a way of forcing them to get married in Church. So there are problems with couples who are unmarried and want to have their child baptized.

In different dioceses various conditions are laid down regarding Baptism so that the couples in this situation will get married in Church. It is, of course, wrong to use force or fear or any kind of compulsion to compel people to implement laws and policies of the Church. These activities would have no value in the eyes of God. If our actions are to please God, they should be done out of commitment, freedom and love.

Church authorities may protest that the conditions laid down for this situation are basically pastoral. But if we reflect on these policies, it is clear that the basic dynamic at work is the fear of the parents that if the child is not baptized, the salvation of the child is endangered.

The belief of the parents is very much in line with the words of Jesus: ”Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:5)” and at the end of Mark’s Gospel, viz. “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mk. 16:6).” And very likely, recent policies of Church authorities are undermining this belief of the parents in the necessity of Baptism for salvation.

It is not easy to understand how the sacrament of Baptism which is so rich in meaning and significance, in purpose and in import, can be used to enforce a Church marriage law. This is really turning things upside down. When St. Paul met disciples at Ephesus who had been baptized in the name of John the Baptist, he explained the significance of Baptism in the name of Jesus. Immediately they were baptized in the name of Jesus and all kinds if miraculous happenings followed; there was a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts. 19: 1-7).

Among the voluminous writings of Fr. Jaime B. Achacoso, J.C.D., is an article about “The right to the Sacraments” and it is mostly about Baptism. He has this reflection on the Pre-Cana and the Pre-Jordan seminars, “While such seminars are indeed desirable, it is clear from the tenor of the Canon (Can 851) that the obligation is laid on the pastor to facilitate such instruction, but in no way does it say that he is to deny administering the sacrament if such previous instruction somehow were not feasible.

A problem for them. However, these same couples are most anxious to have their babies baptized. And with regard to the Pre-Cana seminar, he writes, “Making attendance in the so-called Pre-Cana seminar an indispensable requirement for marriage would be tantamount to adding a new impediment to marriage- that of non-attendance to the seminar- something which nobody saves the Supreme Authority in the Church is competent to do. His conclusion is: The Pre-Cana Seminar should never be an indispensable requirement for marriage. The same can be said of the Pre-Jordan Seminar – i.e. the seminar for parents (desiring to have their child baptized).

Nowadays it can be interesting for us to reflect on St. Francis Xavier. And of course he was a great saint and missionary, totally committed to Christ and to the Church. But how different are our ideas and practices compared to his. In a letter to St. Ignatius, he writes: “The native Christians are without any priests. The only thing they know about Christianity is that they are Christians. There is no one to offer mass for them; no one to teach them the Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Commandments.”

So, since I came here, I have had no rest. I have been going from village to village and every child not yet baptized I have baptized. So I have brought redemption to a great number of children who, as the saying goes, “cannot tell their right hand from the left.”

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