I recently conducted a catechetical session for a parish that is planning to build a new baptismal font. To begin, I asked those who came—a rather large group of about ninety adults and teenagers—to recall a memorable experience of baptism they either took part in or witnessed. Everybody had one! They shared warm, enthusiastic memories with each other, and some of the stories were shared with the large group too. This was clearly a group of people who loved their parish and had a high regard for the sacraments and for the church.
Their response to the next exercise, however, was telling. I asked for a show of hands in answer to the following questions: What stood out in their memory? The people? The action? The words? The emotions? The water? Hands went up for each and every item—except the water. The water did not stand out for anybody in that room, among all the good memories they cherished.
Clearly, they needed a new font.
But their response to the exercise got me thinking. Where are our powerful memories of baptismal water—that primary “sign” of the foundational sacrament of the whole Christian life? If our sacramental system is going to survive in this century as a living organism and not just a museum piece, there has to be a core of real-life experience at the center of it. Are we etching the sacraments in the deep places of the soul, in today’s church?
Water has been for me the centerpiece of a whole liturgical experience that qualifies as “awe-inspiring” or “spine-tingling” as Edward Yarnold, SJ, once called it. I can still see the light shimmering on the water of the glorious font at St. Paul the Apostle church in New York as we gathered around it for Easter Vigil baptisms. The completely drenched appearance of the newly-baptized at St. John Cathedral in Milwaukee comes to my mind; I can see them dripping, smiling, triumphant. I remember the astonishing depths of the water in which my husband-to-be was baptized at St. Ignatius Loyola church in New York—he was immersed in the water three times, each time diving in deeper than the last, until finally the pastor and sponsor thought they’d lost him! These are powerful memories. For me, the stories of creation and crossing the Red sea found a touchstone in the waters of these fonts—waters that were breathtakingly beautiful, dangerous, and a place where miracles happen.
You don’t get the same effect standing around a punch bowl. Yet I’m afraid that something the size of a punchbowl, or even smaller, is what most Catholics call the font.
What do you remember of baptism at this year’s Easter Vigil?