I have been having to say this more often lately. I’m not sure if that means our understanding of baptism is shrinking or (I rather hope) that so many more of us are beginning to grasp what baptism in its fullness means and that is generating a dialogue.
In any case, while most TeamRCIA readers understand baptism in its fullness, perhaps it might be good for all of us to remind ourselves of the Second Vatican Council’s “cry to begin a reform and renewal of the most radical sort” (Ralph Keifer, “Christian initiation: The State of the Question,” Worship, 48:7).
What does baptism really do?
The beginning of insight is to admit how little insight we actually have. When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19), he did not imagine anything like the modern (or even the ancient) catechumenate. What he meant by baptism was and is a mystery.
It’s not a mystery in the sense of a detective novel that we will solve if given enough clues. It is mystery in the sense a couple I met several years ago. They were probably in their 80s. And they were acting like teenagers in love. I asked them if perhaps they were newly married. “No,” said the wife. “We’ve been married for 62 years.” The husband added, “We’re still waiting to see if it works out!”
Deep love like that is a mystery. It is a mystery of radical friendship and unconditional acceptance. When we baptize, we are not just washing away sin. We are initiating into a mystery of love.
The water part is huge. Necessary. Sacramental even. But it is not all. It is part of a long continuum of practices that precede and follow.
So what did Jesus mean by baptism? In the New Testament we find multiple forms and practices. In the era just after the New Testament, there are fragmentary examples of baptismal practices that vary dramatically. However, we can begin to detect a pattern. We see a basic initiatory structure that includes the following (see Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism).
- Preaching of the gospel
- Conversion to faith
- Baptism with water (usually, with some exceptions)
- Post-baptismal events (for example, teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread, prayers; see Acts 2:42)
Initiation in a growing church
This simple pattern continued to evolve, and the church developed a plurality of practices. We can trace some elements of our modern catechumenate to the initiatory process of a third century bishop name Hippolytus. In his letter, Apostolic Tradition (c. 215 CE), we find this structure.
- Preaching of the gospel
- Conversion to faith
- The catechumenate (usually a three-year period of instruction in quasi-liturgical setting)
- Election and scrutiny
- Sacramental initiation
- Prayer over the water (by the bishop)
- Anointing with oil of exorcism (by a presbyter)
- Full immersion in water
- Anointing with oil of thanksgiving (by a presbyter)
- Laying on of hands to invoke the Spirit (by the bishop)
- Anointing to “seal” the baptism (by the bishop)
- Kiss of peace
- Easter Eucharist
The core of this pattern continued to be the practice in Rome until the twelfth century. However, by the ninth century in the rest of the Western church, the presence of a bishop at the annual paschal celebration had become a rarity as more and more parishes were established far from the cathedral. That led to the sometimes years-long delay of the post-water bath laying on of hands and sealing by the bishop. Which in turn led to the development of an independent rite of “confirmation” separate from baptism. However, it was not until the twentieth century that some writers began to propose of theology of confirmation distinct from initiation and focused on spiritual maturity.
So the third century pattern of water-seal-eucharist as a single event shifted by the ninth century to water, confirmation, eucharist as three separate events.
And then, in the early twentieth century, the pattern shifted again to baptism, penance, communion, confirmation as four separate events with confirmation completely removed from the initiation sequence.
Why we need the catechumenate
None of these shifts happened by decree of a church council or by an apostolic exhortation from a pope. They evolved for reasons that seemed to meet a pastoral need at the time. However, by the mid-twentieth century, bishops, theologians, and pastors were beginning to feel the strain of the discordant and unwieldy initiation practice that had developed.
For this and other pastoral reasons, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council called for a restoration of the catechumenate with distinct steps as part of the initiation process (see Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 64). In addition, the council mandated, “The rite of confirmation is to be revised and the intimate connection which this sacrament has with the whole of Christian initiation is to be more clearly set forth” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 71).
The result of this reform was to turn the then-current initiation practice on its head. It was not, as some thought at the time, an innovation. It was and is a return to a more traditional understanding of what Jesus meant by baptism. It is not the revision of the rites or the restoration of the catechumenate that deeply aligns this reform with tradition. It is that the church’s initiation practice has restored the focus to the radical mystery of love that Jesus has for all humankind and his desire that all be made one.
“The whole process,” wrote Aidan Kavanagh, “is a closely articulated whole, each part of which relates to all the others, and on one of which can afford to float free either in theory or in practice. The whole is baptism in its fullness, the making of a Christian, the ongoing birth of the Church of Jesus Christ in his life-giving Spirit” (The Shape of Baptism, 115).
So when we speak of baptism, we mean baptism in its fullness — not just the water. We mean everything from the first preaching of the good news to the culmination of post-baptismal catechesis. The whole thing is baptism in its fullness and no single part “can afford to float free either in theory or in practice.”
Does baptism still carry a sense of mystery in your parish? How does preparation for baptism in your parish convey the fullness of what baptism means for the catechumen? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
See also these related articles:
- What does baptism do? A mystagogy on the sacramental act of washing
- What’s happening with baptized RCIA candidates? A survey report
- Jesus’s timing is perfect—one parish’s experience of year-round RCIA
- Can RCIA seekers celebrate their sacraments outside of the Easter Vigil?
- What is the correct RCIA rite to use for baptizing the elect outside the Easter Vigil?
- Community Chat – Scheduling initiation outside of Easter
- An RCIA calendar for celebrating the initiation rites outside the usual times
- What do RCIA teams do with the elect now that baptisms are postponed?
- RCIA mystagogy when there have been no baptisms
- One of the most earthshaking shifts of the RCIA
Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash