The introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults lists a litany of principles that undergird the initiation process that a seeker and an initiating community will follow (for example, see RCIA 4-5). One of the most earthshaking of these is, “The rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of adults….” (5).
The shifts in our baptismal practice
This is yet another paradigm shift caused by the restoration of the catechumenate. Even though infants were baptized starting in the New Testament era, adult initiation was the norm well into the 4th century. Then by the 5th century, for a mix of reasons, the practice of infant baptism became universal. By the end of the 8th century, the rituals of the church assumed the subject of baptism was always an infant. And that remained the case until the Second Vatican Council.
Along with the shift to infant baptism came a shift in the understanding of the meaning of baptism. The early church understood initiation to be a process of conversion of adults. By the time Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics were writing about baptism, the church and society, at least in the West, were pretty much one and the same. So baptism (almost exclusively of infants) was not a conversion from a pagan world to the reign of God. It was process of washing away of original sin and bringing the baby into a state of grace.
RCIA reset the norm for baptism
To reset the norm so that we now teach that initiation is once again a conversion journey suited to the experience of adults does not deny the need for infant baptism. The vast majority of baptisms are and will remain the baptism of infants. However, theologian Aidan Kavanagh pointed out:
A norm has nothing to do with the number of times a thing is done, but it has everything to do with the standard according to which a thing is done. (The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, p. 108)
The reason adult initiation is important and the reason it is the norm for the church is not simply because it is an older practice or that infant baptism is somehow less worthy.
The reason adult initiation is the norm is because the sacrament of baptism-confirmation-eucharist and the faith journey initiation sacrametalizes is the norm for how we exist as a church.
Once we recognize the norm of an adult journey of faith and conversion in our practice of evangelization and initiation, we will better be able to recognize the call to missionary discipleship. We will more often challenge ourselves and our communities to be a people that goes out. We will grow in our ability and willingness to bring mercy to those on the peripheries—as our baptism commits us to do.
The baptism of infants is a pastoral necessity, but it is not the model for Christian life and mission. The preparation and initiation of adults and older children tell both the catechumens and the faithful who we are as church and why we exist.
How has your understanding of the meaning of baptism shifted since you began your RCIA ministry? Share your comments below.
This post is part of a series on the paradigm shifts that flow from the Second Vatican Council and the restoration of the catechumenate. Click here to see other posts in the series.