Perhaps the biggest news from the Vatican this week is a piece of news that almost slipped in under the radar, but has a profound theological effect on the meaning of the liturgy for the Rite of Baptism. Up to this point, priests and deacons have been saying “the Christian Community welcomes you with great joy,” but because of a decree which had the support Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shortly before he left the Petrine Ministry, we will soon be hearing “the Church of God welcomes you with great joy.” The decree, signed by Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, changes the wording in the Latin typical edition of the text, which will in turn change the future wording in the vernacular.
The theological reason for this change was made evident in the decree’s apparent explanation for the change.
“The gate of life and of the kingdom, Baptism is the sacrament of faith, by which men are incorporated into the one Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”
“Wherefore it seemed good to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments of Baptism to introduce some changes … so that in (baptism) more light may be shed on the doctrinal teaching of the task and office of Mother Church.”
The words “Christian community” are more than a little ambiguous, and officials at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments thought that it should be made clear just what it is that a person is being baptized into, not the local parish, and not some other ecclesial community, but into the Catholic Church.
Over the years, and especially in relatively recent times in the Western world and particularly in our own country, baptism is sometimes seen as a “rite of passage” rather than a sacrament from Christ and his Church. A couple will have their baby or young child baptized, but do little to rear them in the faith that they promise to in the baptismal rite. When this happens, it is sometimes because parents are poorly catechized. One of the reasons that Nicole and I take the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults so seriously is because we believe it necessary that the adults and young people (some are teenagers) who enter faith formation deserve to have the fullness of the faith imparted to them inasmuch as time will allow. The same ought to be true for the baptismal preparation classes required of parents who want their children baptized in the faith.
In the South, a more ecumenical approach in some matters is not only preferable, it is often necessary because, as I have pointed out in previous posts, there are so many Catholics in our part of the country who weren’t always Catholic, and a lot of those people have immediate or extended family who are not Catholic. Charity in such situations demands that at the celebration of important sacraments such as baptism, confirmation, or holy matrimony where many non-Catholic family and friends of someone might be present that, wherever possible, anything which might be seen as an overt display of triumphalism ought to be avoided.
However, a charitable spirit of ecumenism in the celebration of a sacrament should not be confused with what I like to call ecu-mania, the notion that we should avoid mention of uniquely Catholic ideas, doctrine, dogma, or practice merely in the name of ecumenism, or in order not to offend. The reality is that, as Catholics, we believe that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and that he invested his apostles with the authority to carry on the faith and pass on the teachings that he taught them. The successors to the apostles through the ages, the bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter, have passed on the Catholic and apostolic faith. When someone is baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by a Catholic priest or deacon (or a layperson in the case of an emergency), they are received into the Church which Christ founded, not just into “the Christian community.” Someone who is not baptized a Catholic but who is baptized with the Triune formula with the same intent that the Church has when baptizing is a baptized Christian and a child of God, but they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, that is Catholic teaching.
This is important to mention not because we want to offend or hurt anyone, but because Catholic belief about the very nature of baptism means that, in addition to baptism cleansing someone from sin (cf. 1 Peter 3:21) it also brings them into communion with the Church (cf. Ephesians 4:4-6). Parents of children who are about to be baptized need to be reminded of that reality, just as adults do when they make their public profession of faith before they are baptized.
The change in the wording of the Rite of Baptism is not only liturgically more correct, it was likely done for catechetical reasons as well. It serves as a reminder to parents, to adults being baptized, and even to children who will learn of the nature of the sacrament after many of them are baptized just what it was they were being baptized into, and that baptism is more than just a nice day at the parish or an excuse for a family gathering, but a celebration of a new addition to Christ’s Church.