The New Testament describes the baptism of several individuals and some households. Other early church documents testify to the development of rites and celebrations surrounding the process of initiation in the early church. These documents mention that after a period of preparation, those to be baptized professed their faith and then were initiated through baptism into the waters of salvation and through anointing with the Holy Spirit. Then they were brought into the church for the celebration of the Eucharist.
The main characteristics of baptism can be understood through the following three images: baptismal bath, baptismal burial and baptismal birth.
First, in baptism we are washed clean from everything that prevents perfect union with God who claims us as an adopted child.
Second, in baptism we are buried with Christ so that we may rise with him on the last day.
Third, through the waters of baptism we are birthed into the church, the Body of Christ.
Early Christian baptisms
Although those who were baptized in the early church were mostly adults, there must also have been a number of children, as the entire household converted to Christianity. When Christianity became the predominant religion in Europe, the number of adult baptisms declined and infant baptism became normative. As a result, confirmation was separated from baptism because the children were baptized “quam primum” (with haste) by the parish priest out of fear for eternal damnation caused by original sin. Confirmation, which could only be administered by the bishop, happened whenever he came to the local church.
Some 13 centuries after infant baptism became the norm, parents still bring their children for baptism so they may be claimed by God as his adoptive child; so they may share eternal life gained for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and so they may begin their sacramental journey as members of the Catholic Church.
In order for this to happen worthily and truthfully, parents should ask themselves, first, if that is indeed what they desire for their child. Second, they should resolve to accompany their child on the journey by teaching them through word and deed.
Different parishes have different programs to assist both parents and godparents in their understanding of the sacrament and their responsibilities vis-à-vis the child. This is not to be understood as some hoops parents are made to jump through, but rather as a great opportunity to learn more about the faith and about the role of Catholic parents and godparents.
Baptism may either be celebrated during Mass or outside of Mass. The custom of celebrating baptism at Mass goes back to the early Christian initiation of adults, when baptism culminated in the celebration of the Eucharist, the third of the sacraments of initiation.
Since we do not have the custom of communing infants after baptism, some will argue that it makes no sense to celebrate baptism during Mass.
Others argue for baptizing during Mass because this emphasizes the community aspect of the sacrament more so than a “private” baptism, a concept that is a contradiction in terms, as baptism essentially implies community.
In either case, the sacrament should be celebrated worthily and truthfully.
Johan Van Parys is director of liturgy and sacred arts at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
Godparents play important teaching role
The custom of identifying a godparent has its origin in the role of the sponsor in the early church.
Sponsors were and still are the people who vouch for adults seeking baptism and they also accompany them during the initiation process. The term “patrinus” or “godfather” (and now also “matrina” or “godmother”) was adopted to refer to sponsors of infants by the time infant baptism became the norm, i.e. by the end of the 8th century.
In essence, a godparent is the person who, along with the parents, will present an infant for baptism, and most importantly, who will help the newly baptized child “to lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfill faithfully the obligations connected with it” (Code of Canon Law, No 872).
Normally, the parents or guardians select the godparent. In their absence, the pastor or baptizing minister may do so. Godparents must be baptized Catholics who have received the sacraments of holy Eucharist and confirmation, and they have to be 17 or older. In addition, they are to live “in harmony with the faith and the role to be undertaken” (Code of Canon Law, 874.3).
Although only one godparent, either male or female is needed for baptism, the church allows for both a godmother and a godfather.
Because the godparent not only is responsible for the religious education and spiritual formation of the baptized person, but also represents the community of faith into which the child is being baptized, a Christian of another denomination, whether Orthodox or Protestant, cannot be a godparent. They may however function as a “Christian witness” to the baptism, along with the Catholic godparent. Likewise, a Catholic can only be a Christian witness for someone who is baptized into another Christian denomination.
In case of an emergency baptism, no godparent is needed.