01-06-2006 - Traces, n.6


A Radical Change
in the History of Evolution

At the Easter Vigil, Benedict XVI used a strong expression to underline the centrality of the sacrament that defines the nature of man grasped by the mystery of Christ, speaking of Baptism as a “mutation.” In doing so, he challenged any kind of nominalistic reduction or sentimental misunderstanding of this event. Baptism marks a person forever, introducing a total change in the experience of the “I.” In the following pages, Traces offers stories that testify to this change

by Paola Ronconi

Everything began with a few of Benedict XVI’s “provocative” affirmations during the last Easter Vigil, which Fr. Carrón drew upon in the Fraternity Exercises.

Agnese and her father
Fr. Berton, a Saverian missionary in Freetown, Sierra Leone, sent us this story. “Father, I have baptized my Daddy,” Agnese came to tell me one day. She told me how it happened. Agnese’s father had a number of wives, as all men do in this area. He had a very extensive family, and wanted all his children, boys and girls, to attend school. I often saw Agnese with her brother, one on one side of the road, one on the other, returning home. The sun beat down on them, and there were no trees to shade their way. But they just laughed their way along, not even thinking about shade. On Sundays, they were always on time for Mass. After them, on his own, in the back of the church, their father appeared. He could not be baptized because he was a polygamist, but he couldn’t abandon the women who had loved him and given him the children he saw in front of him in church. He responded to his redemption through the Baptism of his loved ones. One day, he became very seriously ill. He called Agnese, and this was their conversation: “Agnese, go see if the doctor’s in the village.” “Daddy, he isn’t there. He went to Magburaka.” “Is there the priest?” “I’ve just gotten back from school. The priest isn’t there. He went to visit some Christians and he’ll return very late.” “Well, then, I’m going to die.” And he let himself go, having lost any hope for someone who could help him. “Daddy, you’ve always gone to church every Sunday for Mass. Do you want to be baptized?” The disease was overwhelming her father, and he could only nod his head yes, that he wanted Baptism. Agnese took some water and poured it over his head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. She said this was the way the catechism had taught her, and so she had done. Her eyes looked at me as if to ask if she had done well. What could I say? What could I do but squeeze her to my heart and kiss her hair? She understood. She had done what I had taught her to do, but never thought she would put in practice with her father.

Celebrating 88 children
In Quito, Ecuador, one day, an AVSI worker heard a mother say, “I would love to baptize my son, but I don’t have the money.” She was the mother of one of the over 300 children in a program to create “family nursery schools” and parish schools in the most isolated, poor, and violent villages in the extreme north of Quito. Speaking with other mothers, all of the Catholic tradition, the worker learned that many children, even 6-and 7-year-olds, had not yet been baptized, all for the same reason: money. “Here in Ecuador,” continued the mother, “Baptism is accompanied by a big party with dinner, music, and new clothes! Nobody wants to be a godfather or godmother because it would mean paying part of the party expenses and assisting with other needs for the life of the child.” This can’t be a reason not to baptize your own children, thought the AVSI people. So they began an effort to propose the sacrament and organize preparation meetings. They worked so that the expenses would be minimal for preparing clothes and organizing a party. In April, 88 children aged newborn to 7 years were baptized, accompanied by a special blessing from the Pope.

A fulfilled existence
Paola, in Milan, has been a midwife for over twenty years. She has often found herself in the dramatic situation of seeing babies just from their mother’s womb at only 20-22 weeks of gestation, newborns from spontaneous or provoked abortions, destined not to survive. “I was conscious of the fact that the baby was dying, and in the few instants of life given to it, what could I do, but transmit the most beautiful thing for me–being a child of a good God–and thus baptize it? It seems impossible to be able to think so in the face of human fragility and death. The gesture of Baptism has always meant for me that what saves human fragility is the Mercy of God. What gladdens me is that a little band of angels in heaven already knows and embraces me.” Emanuela is also a midwife, and has had this experience many times. “Once it happened that I was present at a therapeutic abortion. In the most dramatic moment, it seemed that the mother was asking to be forgiven. So I asked her if she wanted her child to be baptized, and she accepted.” How does Baptism change these children? “I believe that it gives a character, a dignity, that they seem to have been denied by the mother’s inability to carry the pregnancy to term. Through Baptism, that mysterious life is fulfilled, and is saved.”

New life
The following three stories are very different from each other, but united by the fact that the sacrament of Baptism changes and saves man, whether he only has a few moments to live, or whether he has his whole life ahead of him. As the Pope told us during the Easter Vigil, the promise contained in this gift of God is the one Jesus made to His disciples at the Last Supper, when, speaking of His Resurrection, He said, “I live and you will live.” The Pope continued, “Life comes to us from being loved by He who is life.” Benedict XVI, on the occasion of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord last January 8th, when he baptized several babies, affirmed with great tenderness that these baptized children were assured “a companionship of friends who will never abandon them…. This companionship of friends, this family of God, in which now the child is inserted, will always accompany him, even in the days of suffering, in the dark nights of life; this companionship will give him consolation, comfort, and light… because it is communion with Christ who has defeated death.”

More than a simple washing
Benedict XVI, during the Easter Vigil, firmly underlined that “Baptism is something quite different from an act of ecclesial socialization, from a slightly old-fashioned and complicated rite for receiving people into the Church. It is also more than a simple washing, more than a kind of purification and embellishment of the soul.” It is painful to see situations in which its eternal value is reduced or even ridiculed. Today, there is even talk of “un-baptizing,” voiding Baptism (something that is theologically impossible) for various reasons (see box). A singular phenomenon of this kind is occurring in Germany, where one can request official exit from the Church–to avoid paying taxes! The State expects Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faithful to pay a tax (between 1.8% and 9% of one’s income tax) to maintain places of worship, but those who officially declare that they do not belong to the religious community do not have to pay the tax. We’ve also heard that in a city in Georgia, before a child can be baptized, the parents and godparents must fill out a form attesting that they are good Christians, that they attend Mass regularly, and that they support the parish (economically and organizationally). How can this be proven? The envelopes for the Sunday offerings!

Gestures of
the Baptism rite

Selections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
(par. 1235-1245)

The sign of the cross, on the threshold of the celebration, marks with the imprint of Christ the one who is going to belong to Him and signifies the grace of the redemption Christ won for us by His cross.

The proclamation of the Word of God enlightens the candidates and the assembly with the revealed truth and elicits the response of faith, which is inseparable from Baptism. Indeed Baptism is “the sacrament of faith” in a particular way, since it is the sacramental entry into the life of faith.

Since Baptism signifies liberation from sin and from its instigator the devil, one or more exorcisms are pronounced over the candidate. The celebrant then anoints him with the oil of catechumens, or lays his hands on him, and he explicitly renounces Satan. Thus prepared, he is able to confess the faith of the Church, to which he will be “entrusted” by Baptism.

The baptismal water is consecrated by a prayer of epiclesis (either at this moment or at the Easter Vigil). The Church asks God that through His Son the power of the Holy Spirit may be sent upon the water, so that those who will be baptized in it may be “born of water and the Spirit.”

The essential rite of the sacrament follows: Baptism, properly speaking. It signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head.

In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister’s words: “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In the Eastern liturgies the catechumen turns toward the East and the priest says, “The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” At the invocation of each person of the Most Holy Trinity, the priest immerses the candidate in the water and raises him up again.

The anointing with sacred chrism, perfumed oil consecrated by the bishop, signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit to the newly baptized, who has become a Christian, that is, one “anointed” by the Holy Spirit, incorporated into Christ who is anointed priest, prophet, and king.

In the liturgy of the Eastern Churches, the post-baptismal anointing is the sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation). In the Roman liturgy, the post-baptismal anointing announces a second anointing with sacred chrism to be conferred later by the bishop, Confirmation, which will, as it were, “confirm” and complete the baptismal anointing.

The white garment symbolizes that the person baptized has “put on Christ,” has risen with Christ. The candle, lit from the Easter candle, signifies that Christ has enlightened the neophyte. In him the baptized are “the light of the world.” The newly baptized is now, in the only Son, a child of God entitled to say the prayer of the children of God: “Our Father.”

First Holy Communion. Having become a child of God clothed with the wedding garment, the neophyte is admitted “to the marriage supper of the Lamb” and receives the food of the new life, the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eastern Churches maintain a lively awareness of the unity of Christian initiation by giving Holy Communion to all the newly baptized and confirmed, even little children, recalling the Lord’s words: “Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them.” The Latin Church, which reserves admission to Holy Communion to those who have attained the age of reason, expresses the orientation of Baptism to the Eucharist by having the newly baptized child brought to the altar for the praying of the “Our Father.”

The solemn blessing concludes the celebration of Baptism. At the Baptism of newborns the blessing of the mother occupies a special place.