Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith

Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith:
Notes on the Practice of Initiation in Catholic Austria

In the forty-day period before Easter, Christians are required to remember their Baptism and renew their lives. Thus they are heirs of baptismal candidates and penitents, who in early church times were accompanied by congregations in solidarity on the way to their reception or (having been excommunicated or otherwise separated) to their readmission into the church. After the normalization of the baptism of infants and later the Sacrament of Confession, the experience of ancient candidates and penitents was largely lost in the Western church.

New (Restored) Ways to Baptism
Almost 50 years ago, however, the liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council restored the catechumenate for adult baptismal candidates and school-age children. The renewed liturgical books thereafter offer a number of celebrations that structure, accompany, and support an independent person becoming a Christian. Like the Council Fathers, it seemed to the German-speaking bishops to be a “sign of the times” to at least supplement the dwindling family transmission of the faith with an initiation into the Christian faith appropriate for adults. Moreover, a considerable need for evangelization was recognized in the formerly communist eastern part of Germany. In traditionally Catholic Austria, there seemed to be no need for this (for the time being), but the numbers of (formal and legal) church resignations indicate more and more clearly the end of the popular church. Does this also mean the end of the baptism of infants and young children, which had been a matter of course since the fourth century? Only the Augustinian doctrine of the peccatum originale had made its triumphant advance possible and at the same time inscribed the fear of possibly unbaptized deceased children into the Catholic DNA. Have we followed these new (restored) paths to Baptism in this conciliar age?

A survey of pastors responsible for Baptism conducted throughout Austria in the summer of 2021 inquired whether the preparation of adults (and schoolchildren) for their incorporation has found its way into parish practice. This is not least in order to be prepared for church life in a changed social form. The memory of one’s own Baptism could be an important source for this, because Christian self-confidence is based on it; nowhere else can the transformation of humans into “new creation” be experienced in the flesh with comparable intensity and symbolic density.

It is not without reason that Baptism and the Eucharist are regarded as those sacramental celebrations without which there is no church. And yet many (in my homeland, the vast majority of) baptized people have no memory of their becoming Christian – so how are they to “commemorate” this event without any reference to experience?

Sobering Results
The results of the survey are sobering: in many places, due to lack of interest and opportunity, the question of the use of the renewed liturgical books and catechumenal celebrations does not even arise. In addition, there are deficits in the liturgical education of parish clergy and laity, as well as a need for improvement in the (structural) cooperation of those responsible. Only rarely do those responsible express regret about this; what someone doesn’t know won’t hurt – or even affect – them.

Despite declining numbers of Baptisms, infant Baptism is still a natural practice – whether for the sake of older relatives or “because it’s what we do” – without distinction as to whether parents are believers or agnostic believing or agnostic or whether parents who are less rather than more interested in church life bring their child to be baptized. To refuse or postpone a sacramental celebration with at least a minimal disposition is problematic under church law and frowned upon for pastoral reasons. After an obligatory baptismal interview with the pastor, the date of Baptism is arranged – preferably on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays – according to the wishes of many parents and pastors, and almost always outside of parish services. This is seen as an opportunity to respond to individual parental wishes and to show a family-friendly face of the church. Most church leaders also see a greater pastoral opportunity in the family celebration than in families being forced into a worshipping assembly unfamiliar to them on a random Sunday.

The Easter Vigil is the first choice for Baptism only in connection with the initiation of adolescents or adults; for younger unbaptized children of school age, the preparation time for the First Eucharist (usually at the age of 8) or its celebration is increasingly offered to mirror the baptismal preparation of older candidates.

In the rare case of an impending adolescent or adult Baptism, by far the most common celebration with parish participation is the admission to the catechumenate through the Rite of Election, followed by presentations, anointings, blessings, scrutinies, and the Ephphetha rite. However, local congregations only participate in the Rite of Election with the bishop in the case of asylum seekers or those entitled to asylum. The opportunity for mystagogical deepening of the experience with the newly baptized is almost never taken.

Celebrations that (can) take place within the framework of the usual parish Mass are much more frequent than those that would have to be scheduled separately in the parish calendar in terms of time or place. On the whole, interest is concentrated on the intensive period of preparation at its beginning and diminishes in the course of time. The initiation itself is then the climax and almost always the conclusion of the joint activity of the neophytes and their companions.

The focus of content during the catechumenate is mostly on knowledge of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the most important church dogmas, and the church year. The liturgy, on the other hand, as the primary place of learning the faith, was mentioned only once in the survey responses, “so that the preparation of the (mostly foreign-language) catechumen can take place not only theoretically, but with all the senses.” Unfortunately, this fits in with the fact that in some places the various liturgical books are so little known (or unavailable) even to clergy that even a school child is baptized using the infant baptismal rite without this being noticed.

Lastly, pastors were asked for their assessment of whether and how the participation of baptized believers in the process of forming other Christian might affect their own baptismal awareness. Where this experience is lacking, a possible effect is judged skeptically and is also not missed; where, on the other hand, adult Baptisms can be witnessed, a positive influence that spiritually enriches all involved is evident.

Despite dedicated efforts at the diocesan level, the incorporation of adults is not an issue for Austria’s Catholics: it is considered a minority program, “for others,” meaning primarily migrants and asylum seekers. Even for those responsible (mostly lay people) who enthusiastically accompany people to Baptism, it is hardly considered in these circles to delay the baptism of a child. Do Christian parents see no added value in their children’s personal “yes” to the faith? Precisely because they consciously want to introduce them to Christian church life? Shouldn’t they have a special interest in allowing their children to remember and internalize their own, mature decision for the faith and its celebration?

One Baptism – Two Sacraments?
Admittedly, the incorporation of adolescents and adults into the church achieves no differing results in terms of church law and dogma than the baptism of young children: namely, the officially established membership in the church. This alone, however, does not make the newness of life visible.

Some differences between the two baptismal rites, on the other hand, are so serious as if they were two completely different sacraments: For whom is which path to Baptism open? On what terms does someone become a “new creation” (2 Cor 51:7; Gal 6:15)? Ontologically-essentially or existentially? Is the candidate for Baptism the subject or object of the celebration? Both models of incorporation into the church stand abruptly side by side and are applied in completely different life situations. Their partly common ritual repertoire is based on their own anthropological and theological premises, which are difficult to reconcile. Can personal faith be indispensable in one case and completely irrelevant in another? Can the same rites and symbols be meaningful and at the same time be applied to affected people who cannot grasp them? In particular, those sacramental observances that (should) constitute and give rise to Christian existence and church life?

The paradigmatic reception of a sacrament without constitutive participation of one’s own may have been plausible at one time, but “an ecclesial practice that attends only to validity damages the sacramental organism of the Church, because it reduces it to one of its essential aspects.”[1] The culture of sacramental celebration is still suffering from this today. But if “as an essential constituent, sacramental logic includes the free response, the acceptance of God’s gift, in a word: faith – however incipient that faith may be, especially in the case of Baptism,”[2] why is there no mention of this in the later statements of the International Theological Commission on (infant) Baptism? Rather, “it is emphasized that the faith in which we are baptized is the ecclesial faith” because “on this occasion, the parents act as representatives of the Church, which welcomes these children into her bosom.”[3]

Toward the Annual Celebration of Easter
“Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.”[4]

The most intense baptismal memory remains connected with participation in the baptism of others. Every baptismal celebration therefore requires special care in dealing with the symbolic acts of language and signs and a corresponding not only catechetical but also mystagogical attention to the salvation events celebrated. In fact, the latter does not take place in the German-speaking world. There is some willingness to experience ‘foreign’ baptisms in the Catholic milieu there, but without any interest in consequences for the ‘domestic’ practice. The sensus fidei fidelium remains traditional and clearly states: children of Catholic parents should be baptized immediately. The possible inclusion of even newborn children in the catechumenate is not an attractive (because it’s too strenuous?) alternative. The argument often put forward in favor of early baptism, that unbaptized children do not come into contact with the Christian faith, is in any case not valid. By no means are all baptized children are brought up in the faith of the church or even learn about it. Conversely, Christian parents will exemplify their faith to their children and introduce them to it. Moreover, after their admission to the catechumenate, the Church has a special obligation to them, because they are joined “in a special way to it [cf. the Church …] which already cherishes them as its own” and “already grants them various prerogatives which are proper to Christians.”[5]

Instructive History?
The pronounced dichotomy of baptismal practice is admittedly not unprecedented. Already in late antiquity, the church in Palestine of the fourth and fifth centuries knew the demanding and elaborate cathedral baptismal ritual (which required an orderly ecclesiastical administration) and a strongly simplified baptismal ritual without detailed catechesis, which suited the rural, often nomadic majority population.[6] Situational variants are also found in the early medieval Roman sacramentaries: the full form integrated into the church year as an introduction to church and society under episcopal direction, as well as other shortened forms – for the sick and dying, for example – with a ritual reduced to what was necessary for salvation.[7]  For the baptism of infants, which were performed as a matter of course in parish churches throughout the year, the rites of catechumenate and incorporation had already grown together into a “monster of liturgy”[8] with no connection to life. Who experienced which ceremony depended on life circumstances or social position.

Contemporary baptismal practice fits easily into this historical finding: It, too, can be celebrated rite et recte in more than one way, validly and permissibly, according to the situation. Wouldn’t it therefore also make sense to have a more adequate rituality for the respective setting? In the case of infants and young children, it could be limited to the marking with the sign of the cross and the core action with the water (infusion or immersion), which vouches for the promise of salvation according to Rom 6:5. Symbols strung together additively, whose theological, Christological, pneumatological, anthropological, soteriological, and ecclesiological implications that cannot even be approximated at this stage of life are wasted in the child’s experience. These richer symbols and rituals might follow later at one or more occasions, according to the individual’s journey of faith. Don’t the promises associated with initiation of participation in the threefold office of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, in spiritual anointing and enlightenment, in being clothed with the paschal existence of the Risen One, deserve to be heard and accepted in the flesh? How else should baptism be “remembered”?

Important decisions in life require also otherwise in life more than the agreement of two dates. Taking time for this and granting time to each other shows the greatest possible respect for the freedom of faith and decision of others and recognizes their serious efforts to find their own vocation.

[1] International Theological Commission, The reciprocity between faith and sacraments in the sacramental economy, Nr. 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, Nr. 27.

[5] Codex iuris canonici 1983, can. 206 §1+§ 2.

[6] See the Study by Juliette Day, Baptism in Early Byzantine Palestine 325–451, Cambridge 1999.

[7] Cf. Bruno Kleinheyer, “Die Feier der Taufe seit dem Frühmittelalter,” in: GDK 7,1 Sakramentliche Feiern I: Die Feiern der Eingliederung in die Kirche, Regensburg 1989, S. 96 –135.

[8] August Jilek, Eintauchen, Handauflegen, Brotbrechen: Eine Einführung in die Feiern von Taufe, Firmung und Erstkommunion, Regensburg 1996, S. 107.

Brief Book Review: Rethinking Catholic Devotions

Rethinking Catholic Devotions: Energy, Engagement, Transformation
By Jim Clarke

Who should read this? This would be a good book for discussion in the OICA process or for an introductory parish course on Catholic spirituality.

What’s the main point? The author is convinced that popular Catholic devotions can helpfully make up an important part of the faith life of contemporary believers by using insights from depth psychology, spirituality and theology. He is especially concerned with “reclaiming the original fire of the creator of the particular devotions” (p. ix).

Why does it matter? Since Vatican II many of the devotions on which the spirituality of Catholics depended had been set aside. There has been lately a renewed interest in devotional practices such as Eucharistic adoration and Marian devotions, but often these practices are promoted in parishes without a solid theological foundation. This book helps to answer the need for a better grounding on how devotions can provide a rich source for prayer and inspiration for the Christian life.

Kudos. Drawing on diverse authors such as Elizabeth Johnson, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, and James Martin, the author offers the beginning reader a helpful vision for situating Catholic devotional practice in the Christian life, without falling into superstition and problematic practices that eclipse the redemptive power of the paschal mystery. The text is clear and easy to understand by someone without a background in theological studies.

Quibbles. The presentation gives the impression that devotionalism is uniform across space and time. Apart from some glancing references to a few liturgical or historical studies in the opening chapters, the author takes of “history of ideas” approach to devotions that fails to situate the genesis and evolution of popular religious practices in the cultural context of the worship life of the church.

The author seems unaware of the importance of locating the topic in light of the history of 19th and 20th Century when a revolution took place in Roman Catholic devotionalism. The writings of Emmet Larkin or Ann Taves offer a more complete context that describes how the Roman authorities in Europe and the Americas promoted a devotionalism strongly linked clerical supervision by means of indulgences.

Robert Orsi’s work on popular religion among Italians in New York as well as the many Hispanic authors such as Roberto Goizueta and Orlando Espín who have eloquently presented the particular role that Hispanic popular devotions have played as a mainstay of religious and cultural identity and as a source of liberation are only obliquely referenced in the text. It would have also been very helpful for the author to have cited Pope Francis and his positive re-appraisal of popular religion as a key to the inculturation of the faith.

Clarke, Jim. Rethinking Catholic Devotions. Energy, Engagement, Transformation. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2022. 134 pages. $17.95. ISBN: 9780809155330.

REVIEWER: Mark R. Francis, CSV
Mark Francis is President Emeritus of Catholic Theological Union,
Chicago, Illinois.

Brief Book Review: Death by Baptism

Death by Baptism: Sacramental Liberation in a Culture of Fear
By Frank G. Honeycutt

Who should read this book? Frank Honeycutt, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, wrote this book for pastors (and worship leaders).  The book is aimed at Protestant audiences in general and at times to Lutheran audiences in particular. The text is quite accessible. Readers who wish to understand some of the challenges and potential of preaching about and practicing baptism in Protestant churches may find this book useful and interesting.

Main point: The author’s central argument is that American culture is permeated by insecurity and fear, especially fear of death. Repeatedly, the author returns to the claim that in baptism a Christian has already died the death that really matters: “We have already died in these ancient waters, now beyond the reach of any perceived threat to life” (p. 28).

Why does it matter? Why is this book significant? Grounded in the author’s decades of pastoral experience, this book confronts head-on truncated understandings of baptism as “fire insurance” against eternity in hell or as supernatural guarantee against misfortune. The author advises preachers to address the fears of people today by examining in their sermons the fears of Jesus’ early disciples, situating those fears in the “love and promises of Christ” (p. 3). The author also argues against celebrating baptism without preceding catechesis and formation, outlining for adults a four-stage process that mirrors the restored Rite of Christian Initiation in the Roman Catholic Church. While carefully preserving the characteristic Lutheran emphasis on grace over works, the author quotes Dallas Willard’s quip that “grace . . . is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning’ (p. 103).

What intrigued me: The author discusses the baptismal practice of a congregation where, after a baptism, the assembly processes to the adjacent church cemetery. There, water left over from the baptism is poured onto the burial plot which the baptizand will one day occupy. I am not sure how widely feasible this practice may be but it is certainly full of rich symbolism.

Pushing back: I offer three points here. I wonder if the author’s emphasis on baptism ends up obscuring Eucharist.  In the book’s closing chapter, for example, the author quotes James K.A. Smith on how the cadences of worship “are the rhythms where we learn to be free . . . The point of the sacraments is that they are embodied conduits of grace that nourish new habits.”  The author follows up with “Baptism is a one-time dunking with daily implications for ongoing conversion” (p. 146). True enough. Yet the weekly rhythm of worship features Eucharist far more often than it features baptism. The idea the baptism is ordered to Eucharist makes no appearance in the text here or elsewhere.

The author does not connect discussion of fear of death with the shift in early Christian centuries from Christ as Good Shepherd to Christ as Pantokrator and fearsome Judge. This shift played a part in the emergence of magical thinking about sacraments, including baptism.

The author’s treatment of baptismal promises / renunciations (e.g., on p. 104) does not draw on recent figures such as David Batchelder or Debra Dean Murphy, each of whom has addressed the question of taking baptismal promises / renunciations seriously. Along these lines, the author also does not draw on important ancient homilies on baptism / initiation by St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom.

Implications. That death in baptism puts biological death in a transformed light is a key element of this book. Would that more of us clung to this belief with greater frequency and tenacity.

Honeycutt, Frank G. Death by Baptism: Sacramental Liberation in a Culture of Fear. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. 192 pages. $19.99. ISBN: 9781506470047.

REVIEWER: Timothy Brunk

Brief Book Review: Turn to the Lord

Turn to the Lord: Forming Disciples for Lifelong Conversion
By Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Who’s it for? Faith formation leaders (especially Confirmation and RCIA): DREs, catechists, and accompanying individuals (parents, sponsors, spouses).

Who should read this? There are two versions of the book. The short version, best for accompanying individuals, presents material for twenty-five formation sessions. The long version, best for catechists, also includes formation session plans, including teaching notes and journal prompts.

What’s the main point? First – sacramental preparation ought to be concerned with faith formation rather than the accumulation of catechetical knowledge.  Second, the entire Christian life is one of ongoing conversion.

Why is this book important? DeLorenzo asks us to take sacramental preparation out of the classroom and into more intimate and personal faith formation groups.  He proposes a method of formation that corresponds with the kind of life of faith that all Christians should be living.

What intrigued me the most? Most significant is the emphasis on ongoing conversion and his foregrounding of the conversion of Saul/Paul. This seems the most necessary dimension of faith formation, especially in the face of the lingering perception (model?) that confirmation is like graduation.

Where would I push back? DeLorenzo is quick to overtly identify how Christians should strive to be like Paul (after his conversion, of course!), Mary, and should even try to learn to listen and see as God does. But while I could logically infer it, I did not see clear reference to trying to be more like Jesus.

Quibbles. DeLorenzo’s focus on conversion is terrific – in doing so, he highlights one of the most central themes for initiation (he treats this with regard to infant baptism, but it is even more clear within adult initiation!). Focusing first on the conversion of Saul offers him a terrific scriptural source for examination, particularly because of the extent of conversion – from persecutor to apostle. More might have been done from the outset, however, to draw out how conversion is necessary even for more ordinary individuals, who breathe less obviously “murderous threats” than Saul.

Kudos. It seemed to me that DeLorenzo’s format is well-suited to use within the liturgical year. The only season that is formally treated is Advent in sessions 11 and 12 (which could reasonably line up around November/December if one is using this method within a typical school-year calendar). When formation sessions begin anew after a Christmas break, he provides sessions relating to a Christian anthropology in weeks 14-15 (connecting nicely to the Christmas emphasis on incarnation), sin and conversion in the Lenten weeks 16-20. The format concludes with discipleship and the sacraments, which amplify some of the most important aspects of the Easter season. And all the way throughout, the scriptural examples that DeLorenzo relies upon are those that are particularly relevant throughout the liturgical year.

DeLorenzo, Leonard J. Turn to the Lord: Forming Disciples for Lifelong Conversion.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2021. xv + 296 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 9780814665640. Shorter version: Turn to the Lord: An Invitation to Lifelong Conversion. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2021. xiii + 154 pages. $14.95. ISBN: 9780814667378.

REVIEWER: David A. Pitt
David Pitt is Associate Professor of Theology at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.

Chrism Mass Conundrum, or, Order of Oils

Without going into the complex history of the Chrism Mass or Mass of the Oils, and leaving aside the two options of when to bless the oils (Oil of the Sick during the Eucharistic Prayer, Oil of Catechumens and Oil of Chrism after Communion, or all three together after the Liturgy of the Word), I am sure others with diocesan responsibilities have noticed some oddities in the way things unfold in this rite.

In the preconciliar rite, the oils were received and blessed in the following order:
1. The Oil of the Sick, announced and blessed during the Canon of the Mass
2. The Oil of Chrism, and
3. The Oil of Catechumens
both blessed after Communion

In the 1970 postconciliar rite, continued in the 2016 re-translation, we find this:

The oils are processed in the following order (leaving aside the balsam, which precedes the oils if the bishop wants to do his own mixing during the rite):

1. The Oil of Catechumens
2. The Oil of the Sick
3. The Oil of Chrism

The oils are then announced and received, but in a different order:

1. The Oil of Chrism
2. The Oil of the Sick
3. The Oil of Catechumens

The oils are blessed in a different order again:

1. The Oil of the Sick
2. The Oil of Catechumens
3. The Oil of Chrism

Finally, at the end of the service the oils are processed out again, but no order of procession is given. Some commentators have suggested that the order be the same as the order in which they entered, namely:

1. The Oil of Catechumens
2. The Oil of the Sick
3. The Oil of Chrism

These variations seem inexplicable, and the rite provides no rationale for them. The “tradition” handed down said that the reason the Oil of the Sick was blessed ahead of the others was because it might be needed at any moment, and was therefore more urgent than the other two.

In case anyone is wondering, the aborted 1998 Sacramentary has a further variation:

Procession: as above —
1. The Oil of Catechumens
2. The Oil of the Sick
3. The Oil of Chrism
Announcement and Reception: same as the procession
1. The Oil of Catechumens
2. The Oil of the Sick
3. The Oil of Chrism
Blessing: as above —
1. The Oil of the Sick
2. The Oil of Catechumens
3. The Oil of Chrism

Surely the logical thing to do — and in fact many dioceses do precisely this — would be to process and announce the oils in the same order in which they will be blessed:
1. The Oil of the Sick
2. The Oil of Catechumens
3. The Oil of Chrism.

The alternative is to be constantly referring to your list to check the order at every stage, since they are all different.

Furthermore, a number of hymn and chant texts are available to accompany the procession of the oils. Unlike O Redemptor, which concentrates only on the Oil of Chrism, they treat the different oils and their attributes in the same order in which they will be blessed.

Perhaps someone reading these lines will have an insight as to why all this, at least on the surface, is an example of what seems a needless complication. “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; […] they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.” (SC 34)