Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Tale of 2 Baptisms: It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Best of Times

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Tale of 2 Baptisms: It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Best of Times

Article excerpt


Two o'clock Sunday afternoon, summer 2009. The church was beautiful but far too large for a small gathering of 80 believers.

Having been to the baptismal mountaintop only last year, the fall on this Sunday was precipitous. I survived intact, but I suspect many were damaged as we plodded through a baptismal rite bursting with divine grace but lacking any trace of the human kind.

Seven babies had been brought to the church. Family members stretched across the length of the designated pew. The godparents sat at the end closest to the center aisle where the priest stood, prayer book in hand. I sat in the pew with my family, which included my nephew, Patrick; his wife, Joann; their newborn son, Aidan; their daughter, Brianna; two godparents; and maybe 10 other relatives.

Father began the baptism by walking over to the godparents in the second row and saying something. I was halfway down the pew and couldn't hear what he said. He wore a microphone, but the cavernous walls and the whir of the fans knocked out that tiny mike in the first round.

When Father came to our pew I made a supreme effort to hear him. I think he said, "The reason you are here today is to witness the baptism. The correct answer to my question will be: 'Baptism.' Do you understand?" The mystified godparents nodded. "Why are you here today?" "Baptism," they responded. Father moved on to the next family and repeated the ritual. I was discouraged. I felt as though we were seven parts on an assembly line.

The day was a scorcher. Father, wearing a cassock, was more uncomfortable than the rest of us. The problem was that he let us know via a sigh or a pained countenance that he was much more uncomfortable than the rest of us. He never smiled at this celebration of God's love.

Father read the prayers of baptism, but I don't think anyone heard him. We knew it was English, but that was it. Disappointing. Depressing, actually. The great sacrament of baptism had been reduced to a blah, blah, blah ritual of sounds with no meaning, with no joy in their delivery. There was no sense of a community worshiping God and thanking God for the gift of children who would become "children of God."

The godparents of the child in the first pew arrived late. The couple walked down the center aisle as Father read his sounds. When they were within 20 feet of him, he stopped, looked up, and glared them into their seats. The sudden silence, where before a drone had filled the void, was terrible to endure. Father's dictatorial stare lasted long enough to make all of us feel uncomfortable.

I screamed in silence: How dare you! Is that the Catholic waft Should you be the model for forgiveness or for felonious buffoonery? You need to be held accountable for the spiritual carnage you are inflicting on this church this afternoon and, God help us, possibly hundreds of previous baptismal afternoons.

The thought of the enormity of this spiritual death toll was staggering. What had happened to this priest? Was he like this at his ordination, when he was supposed to be filled with love for God and praying to the Holy Spirit to help him become a great priest? What can we do to help him?

When Father stopped reading, he motioned for the family in the first pew to follow him to the baptismal font. Father baptized their child, but none of us heard the beautiful words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." None of us heard the name of the christened child. The family returned to the pew.

Father motioned for the next family to come to the font. This time it was our family. I saw the water being poured over Aiden's head, but never heard his name mentioned aloud. Five more families came to the font, and their children were baptized in the same nondescript manner.

This lifeless approach to baptism engendered an immediate response from the faithful: When the families returned to their pews, they no longer maintained a respectful silence. …

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