EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in an occasional series studying current procedures for preparation and administration of the church’s seven sacraments.
For the most part, Sister of St. Joseph Karen Dietz sees a sincere desire among parents to have their infants baptized.
“They really want God’s blessing on this child,” said Sister Dietz, who serves as diocesan coordinator of sacramental catechesis.
Baptism represents what Sister Dietz calls “the foundational sacrament” — not only freeing them from original sin but also bringing infants into the parish community. Because this is such a major step, the Rochester Diocese calls for a thorough preparation process in which parents meet with parish administration and staff, attend workshops, and make firm commitments to raise their children in the Catholic faith while also diligently practicing it themselves.
Whereas many parents conform eagerly to this process, Sister Dietz said it also “takes some parents by surprise” — especially if they haven’t been to church in some time. “What they don’t realize are the rights and responsibilities that go along with this,” she said.
Some present-day approaches, such as the emphasis on community, stem from liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Sister Dietz said she’d like to see the perception erased that baptism is something that “should be done” out of fear of what God or other people might think; due to superstition that something bad will happen to the baby; or so a big party can be held in keeping with cultural tradition.
On the other hand, the requirement of parental commitment remains a constant. Canon 868 in the Revised Code of Canon Law states that lawful baptism hinges, in part, on “a well¬≠founded hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is truly lacking, the baptism is, in accordance with the provisions of particular law, to be deferred and the parents advised of the reason for this.” Additionally, diocesan guidelines state that even though godparents should be a practicing Catholics who participate in the faith life of the child as much as possible, their role is still secondary to that of the parents.
Deferring baptism, however, should not become denying. Sister Dietz emphasized that the deferment period, if any, can be minimized if parishes welcome parents and immediately begin working with them.
“If we use that approach, then delaying baptism will be an option we use less and less,” she said.
To arrange a baptism, parents first meet with a parish official to determine an appropriate time frame. Parents then enter a preparation program, often a workshop led by parish staff and/or volunteers. This segment is designed for first-time parents, as well as those who have not had a child baptized in quite some time.
For families in which no reason is found to delay baptism, the parents must decide an appropriate age for the infant to receive the sacrament. Canon 867 states that “parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptized within the first few weeks” with the only exception being the danger of death, in which case the infant is to be baptized immediately. Meanwhile, diocesan guidelines state that baptism should occur “as soon as possible.”
While no exact age is specified by church law or the diocese, Sister Dietz said the current trend is to baptize infants at a later age. “It’s really when the parents and godparents are ready, when can people get here from out of town,” she said, adding that the tradition of baptism at one month or younger was formed when it was more common for babies to die at birth.
The timing of a baptism becomes a more delicate matter when parents are not regular churchgoers. Whether Canon 868 should be invoked is determined at the parish level, yet Sister Dietz strongly discourages turning parents away. “Don’t say no or yes right away — work with the couple, especially if it’s the first baby,” she suggested.
Often, this effort can become a form of evangelization: “It is that door through which somebody may return to church,” Sister Dietz said, adding that with the sacrament of baptism, “however the parents are cared for is critical to how they’re going to approach the other sacraments.”
“It’s not a time to alienate them. It’s a time to meet them where they’re at,” agreed Alene Goodman, faith-formation coordinator at All Saints Parish in Corning.
“They could have a hunger that they might not recognize,” remarked Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Flass, pastoral associate at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Rochester.
Sister Flass said her parish’s welcoming attitude during baptismal preparation can lead parents to become more active in parish life “if they get this connection with a church that they can feel good about. And that has happened to a fairly great extent.”
Ideally, welcoming should extend throughout the parish. Although separate individual and group baptisms are permitted, the diocese recommends — in keeping with the spirit of community — that baptisms take place during regular Sunday Masses. At Henrietta’ s Church of the Good Shepherd, at least one baptism occurs during Mass three out of every four Sundays, said Margaret Churnetski, co-coordinator of Christian formation.
To further accentuate the community theme, more and more baptismal fonts are located near the center of diocesan churches. In a small but increasing number of parishes — including the renovated Sacred Heart Cathedral — these fonts offer the option of full immersion. Sister Dietz noted that full immersion is the preferred method of the Roman Catholic Church, even though the Rite of Infusion, or pouring, is still the most common.
A community’s care also should extend beyond the day of baptism, Sister Dietz emphasized. “Our society is so mobile. Young couples don’t really have much of an extended family,” she observed, saying that other parish couples can fill this void by sharing their parenting experiences — “practical things like ‘what do I do when baby cries at Mass’ — storytelling, modeling.”
All Saints in Corning has invoked a system through which parishioners offer support both before and after baptism. Beginning this past fall, 18 parents were commissioned to conduct baptismal preparation in homes. Pairings are made according to such factors as age, ethnic background and marital status. These same mentors are asked to maintain contact with parents after baptism.
Goodman explained that this process not only promotes community, but helps keep families active in the faith after their children are baptized. “The biggest gap I recognized was that we see these parents when the baby gets baptized, and then we don’t see a lot of them until first Communion,” she said.
As a reminder of its ongoing support, Church of the Good Shepherd sends out cards to families on the anniversaries of baptisms, Churnetski said.
“We emphasize that it’s important you be a part of this community — to have that sense of being surrounded and supported by a loving family,” she said. “Parents don’t do this alone; it takes a village to raise a child.”