Daniel E. Thompson Jr. of Corning was ready to join his children in their journey of faith.
Although his late wife, Kathleen, was born and raised Catholic and the couple had been married in a Catholic church in 1989, Daniel himself had never been baptized. After his wife died in September 2006, he decided to join the Catholic Church.
“It was time to fulfill my commitment to the church,” he said.
Last fall Thompson and his 15-year-old son, Scott, entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at All Saints Parish in Corning. During the Easter Vigil this year, father and son will receive the sacraments of initiation they have not already received. In addition to receiving Eucharist and confirmation, Daniel finally will be baptized.
Performing baptisms during the Easter Vigil has deep historical significance, according to David Stosur, associate professor of systematic theology and liturgy at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford. He noted, in fact, that the season of Lent evolved from early Christian traditions surrounding the initiation of adults into the church.
To ensure the safety of Christians during times of persecution, initiation into the church generally had to be a lengthy, rigorous process, he noted, adding that specific rituals varied by location.
“It’s a fairly complex picture,” Stosur said. “Things were different in different parts of the church.”
According to the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, early Christian initiations commonly included anointing, exorcism, professing faith and baptism, a practice scholars trace to the New Testament.
Although ritual washings existed in Judaism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that baptisms performed by John the Baptist were specifically intended for sinners. Christ began his public life by being baptized by John the Baptist, who proclaimed that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And, after Jesus was resurrected, he directed his disciples to preach the Gospel and baptize the nations.
Adult baptism was the common practice in places where the proclamation of the Gospel was still new, the catechism notes. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that infant baptism began as early as the second century, the catechism explains, and the practice possibly dates to the beginning of apostolic preaching when entire households were baptized.
As more adults began to join the early Christian church, the period for initiating new members of the church developed into the catechumenate, a series of preparatory rites that culminated in Christian initiation, according to the catechism. Linking the catechumenate to Easter may have begun in Rome, where the early church began to formally receive its candidates for baptism on Holy Thursday, Stosur said.
“Once Easter became the primary time of celebrating adult initiations into the church, that baptismal preparation led to the development of Lent,” he said.
Historically, catechumens were instructed in faith and expected to perform acts of charity, prayer and fasting, and they were asked to recite the Apostles’ Creed as a profession of faith, according to the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship. For those who had committed such serious sins as murder, adultery or the renunciation of faith, the church also developed an order of penitence patterned after the catechumenate, Stosur noted.
Many bishops instructed catechumens at places that were central to their faith. Catechumens would go to the Mount of Olives, for example, to learn about Scripture passages that took place there, Stosur said. Eventually, these journeys became so popular that most participants were not even catechumens.
“They had a lively sense of walking with Christ,” Stosur said.
Although there are few accounts of early baptisms, he said that a third-century account by Hippolytus describes catechumens being immersed in water three times as well as renouncing Satan and being anointed with oil.
By the fifth century, Stosur said, infant baptisms were becoming more common than adult baptisms. According to the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, infant initiations became more popular as parents worried about the high rate of infant mortality in light of St. Augustine’s teachings on original sin and concern that children who died before baptism would not receive salvation.
Even though there were fewer adults becoming catechumens by the 10th century or 11th century, Stosur said church communities persisted in going through the penitential process. This community penitence is reflected in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, which includes the renewal of baptismal promises. The catechism explains that this renewal of baptismal promises acknowledges that baptism marks only the beginning of faith for children and adults.
“Preparation for baptism leads only to the threshold of new life,” the catechism says. “Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.”
In 1962, the Holy See restored a revised catechumenate, and the Second Vatican Council separated the adult baptismal rites into several steps, which now form the RCIA program.
“Many of the things today from the restored RCIA are from the period of the (historical) catechumenate,” Stosur said.
RCIA groups typically begin meeting in the fall and gather weekly until the Easter Vigil. Alene Goodman, director of faith formation at All Saints Parish in Corning, who has worked with the Thompsons, said said it’s exciting for her to travel along with people on their journey toward spiritual change.
Those new to the Catholic faith bring a freshness, energy and enthusiasm that is expressed as they discuss their faith and the Scriptures, she said. Many come from rich scriptural backgrounds, which can make for lively discussions, she noted.
Goodman said RCIA discussions often make her think about her own baptism.
“It becomes a renewal for us also, and it helps us to rediscover the richness of our baptism,” she said.