Viewpoint: Baptism by Immersion is an Authentic Post-Vatican II Development

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City underwent a major renovation in the early 1990s. One of the more notable liturgical changes was the installation of an immersion baptismal font.

Since I was Cathedral rector during the renovation, I now give regular tours of the building. The thing that most puzzles visitors, especially Catholics, is the presence of the immersion font. What is the warrant for it? Why is it necessary? Does the Church approve of immersion fonts?

So, I find that I have to rehearse constantly the Church’s rationale for baptism by immersion. Here it is.

The General Introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) states: “As the rite for baptizing, either immersion, which is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, or pouring may lawfully be used” (no. 22).

The documentation of the RCIA itself directs: “Therefore in the celebration of baptism the washing with water should take on its full importance as the sign of the mystical sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through which those who believe in his name die to sin and rise to eternal life. Either immersion or the pouring of water should be chosen for the rite, whichever will ensure the clear understanding that this washing is not a mere purification rite but the sacrament of being joined to Christ” (no. 213)

The rite of baptism provided in the RCIA states as follows: “If baptism is by immersion, of the whole body or of the head only, decency and decorum should be preserved. . . . The celebrant, immersing the candidate’s whole body or head three times, baptizes in the name of the Trinity” (no. 226).

The National Statutes for the Catechumenate approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986 contains the strongest statement on baptism by immersion: “Baptism by immersion is the fuller and more expressive sign of the sacrament and, therefore, is preferred. Although it is not yet a common practice in the United States, provision should be made for its more frequent use in the baptism of adults. At the least, the provision of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for partial immersion, namely immersion of the candidate’s head, should be taken into account” (no. 17).

Clearly the preference for baptism by immersion is in accord with the mind of the Church. (Full immersion is not the same thing as partial immersion. The first involves the lowering of the whole body under the water; partial immersion means having the candidate stand in water up to his or her knees while water is poured over the head.)

Baptism by immersion makes tangible the theological motif of baptism as going down into the waters of death and rising again with Christ; it underscores the Exodus theme of crossing the Red Sea from slavery to freedom; it provides visible expression of baptism as encounter with the tomb of death, and the womb of new life.

One of the aims of the modern liturgical movement before and since the Vatican II has been to make the symbols of Christian life more real and tangible. Of course, all one needs for a valid baptism is a small amount of water poured over the forehead, but how much more expressive is the use of a large font in which a significant body of water is used and where the candidate may encounter the meaning of baptism in a fuller way.

It’s time for all Catholic churches to install immersion fonts!

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

10 comments

  1. I’m curious how the “immerision” font in Salt Lake is used. It looks fairly shallow. Is the person being baptized actually abled to be baptized by immersion or is it still by pouring?

    I’ve seen lots of churches add fonts of a similar design, but when they go to do baptisms, they still do it by pouring, albeit while kneeling in water, but not immersion. I feel like we’re missing the idea with this. The point is not to get “more” of the body wet, although I suppose a fuller washing is a fuller sign. The point, which the documents make clear, is that the head (at least) is submerged under water, signifying death and rising.

    What point is there in making a larger font if it’s still not adequate to baptize by immersion? The pitures I can find of Salt Lake look like actual immersion would be possible. I agree that we should make a larger effort to make this the norm. However, I feel we’re not quite there. Pouring while kneeling in water is still pouring, not immersion.

  2. Immersion of infants is another related question. My children were not dunked, but “swiped” through the water. The only things that got wet was the posterior end! (Maybe someone here will inform me as to whether or not their baptisms are valid! I’m sure we have evidence on video.)

    Nevertheless, fullness of the sign resonates with me. I agree that many attempts at an adequate font for immersion do not go far enough.

  3. I AM SYMPATHETIC WITH KEVIN VOGT. WHEN I WAS NEWLY ORDAINED (1974) I CAME BACK TO OUR COMMUNITY CHURCH AND FOUND THE BAPTISMAL RITE COULD HARDLY BE USED BECAUSE THE FONT WAS REALLY SHAPED LIKE A WOK. I I HAD TO SWIPE BABIES WITH A SPLASH ON THEIR HEADS FOR GOOD MEASURE. THANKFULLY THE PARISH USING OUR CHURCH BUILT THEIR OWN WITH A MORE ADEQUATE AMOUNT OF WATER. I LOOKS LIKE A HORSE TROUGH BUT THERE IS SUFFICIENT WATER FOR ADULTS. THE HORSES ARE I SUPPOSE KEPT AT BAY EVEN WHEN IT IS HOT.
    TRAVELING IN BELGIUM I WAS IN THE MEMLING MUSEUM, WHERE THERE WERE PAINTINGS OF “JAN DER DUNKER”. I SUPPOSED IN FLEMISH SPEAKING AREAS BAPTISM AS A DUNKING IS EASY TO COMMUNICATE.

  4. I have seen immersion fonts with a smaller pouring font attached. I would think it wise for churches to retain their traditional pouring fonts alongside an immersion font or otherwise consider the dual font option. I realize that this is against the principles of ressourcement and the idea of the “unity of the font”. Long time PTB readers know my disdain for the ressourcement project, so it is not surprising that I would insist that the pouring font remain. Besides, many of these pouring fonts are priceless treasures which should not be destroyed for merely ideological reasons. We’ve been through a mass psychosis of iconoclasm in the immediate years after the Council. Please, never again.

    Parents (in the case of an infant or child baptism) or adults must be permitted a pouring baptism as an option. Personally, were I baptized as an adult, I would prefer to be baptized by exorcized water poured on the crown of my head. Why? I would rather stay in my suit and merely bend my head to the font face down. Why should a cleric insist that I wear an alb and little else to wade into a pool?

    People have different senses of modesty and decorum. These sensibilities must be respected, despite what is for many the imperative of archaeologism and semiotics.

    1. Besides, many of these pouring fonts are priceless treasures which should not be destroyed for merely ideological reasons

      Mediæval fonts are normally intended, not for pouring, but immersion of infants within days of birth. That this was the norm as late as the 17th century can be seen from the successive editions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which directed that the child was to be baptized within a fortnight of birth, and dipped ‘discreetly and warily’ in the font, unless the parents certified the child was sickly, in which case pouring sufficed.
      Then the Priest shall take the Child into his hands, and shall say to the Godfathers and Godmothers, Name this Child. And then naming it after them (if they shall certify him that the Child may well endure it) he shall dip it in the Water discreetly and warily, saying,
      N. I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
      But if they certify that the Child is weak, it shall suffice to pour Water upon it, saying the foresaid words,
      N. I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
      The Curates of every pariſh shall often admoniſh the People, that
      they defer not the Baptiſm of their Children longer than the firſt or
      ſecond Sunday next after their Birth, or other Holy-day falling
      between, unleſs a great and reaſonable cauſe, to be approved by the
      Curate.

      1. John, I stand corrected. Still, I have some questions.

        Yes, many late antique, early medieval, and later medieval baptismal fonts are quite large, at least in comparison with early modern to modern fonts. However, one wonders the way adults were baptized in this period. If adults were baptized over the medieval font, pouring or sprinkling would generally have to be the method of baptism for logical reasons. I suppose that a priest would not want an adult to climb into the font both for logistical and physical reasons.

        Also, there is the argument from absence: a large body of literature in early to later modern Russian circles debates particularly whether or not to baptize Roman converts by immersion in the Orthodox manner. Now, it could be the case that most Roman converts were immersed as infants or children, and the Russian debate involves the sacramental validity of Catholic baptism regardless of the initial immersion. However, the Russian synods, along with sacramental validity questions, take particular issue with pouring and sprinkling. This “western” practice is discussed ad nauseam. It appears from the great concern of Russian synods that many “western” Christians were poured or sprinkled, regardless of confession or age. It might be possible that priests in both the pre- and post-reformation periods merely performed a pouring baptism on every catechumen. This makes some sense, especially in colder places. However, the Russians have always immersed, and Russia is relatively cold year-round in some places. Perhaps the reason for the movement towards pouring in western Europe has another genesis.

      2. Jordan,

        S. Anita Stauffer’s monograph, On Baptismal Fonts: Ancient and Modern (Alcuin/GROW Liturgical Study, 29-30, 1994) is a good resource. The practices in the West underwent a historical development, clearly, to using less and less water in the Baroque and Romantic periods. But the cause (long after the changeover to a majority of infant candidates) seems to have been a concern for magical practices adhering to the baptismal water, something which also caused the construction of lids, and locks, to be placed on fonts. One also has to reckon with the rise of sacramental minimalism in the West, once Western theology began to develop legal approaches that were never applied in the East, and toiled to define the minimum needed for validity.

        Medieval practices concerning immersion were certainly diverse, as were the practices of the early church, and most likely included both immersion and pouring, depending on circumstances and the availability of water. These were not “bathing cultures” as were Roman societies of late antiquity. Nevertheless, Clovis, whose baptism for obvious reasons is celebrated, is always pictured up to his waist in water. The oldest extant font north of the Alps is in the cathedral at Speyer and is deep enough to have accommodated full immersion, cold weather notwithstanding. The celebrated Renier de Huy font at St. Bartholomew’s in Liege (1107-1118) is deep enough for immersion, though more shallow than Speyer. The prospect of climbing into a font would not be daunting. Much higher marble surrounds, such as at the font at Padua, were surmounted, probably with the aide of portable steps.

        I applaud Msgr. Mannion’s support of this practice.

      3. Rita, thank you for the citation and the thoughtful response. I will be sure to read the citation. Indeed, the covers for baptismal fonts are often quite ornate, even to the detail of ornamentation of the font itself.

  5. I’ve met adult converts, Protestant and non-Christian, who had originally scoffed at the idea of climbing into a pool, but were finally persuaded in the course of their instruction to be baptized wearing their bathing trunks (with or without the white robe) with the priest or deacon using the full immersion method. Some of these converts have told me they were left with such a vivid experience of dying to their old life and rising to a new life. So indelibly impressed upon their minds in ways no pouring, or sprinkling rite could ever have done for them.

    Having been accustomed to seeing Anglican fonts with great brass uwers next to them, the very model of latitudinarian restraint and decorum, I was always amused at seeing pools with fountains and babbling brooks of water at the rear of many modern Catholic churches, or the magnificent Coptic tanks high off the floor with a flight of steps from which those baptized had to descend and then following their immersion would ascend another flight of steps.

    Since learning of the experience of others who agreed to be christened using total immersion, I’ve come to applaud the return of the baptismal pool and I fervently hope the idea spreads. I’ve noticed in a few churches the holy chrism is kept in a suspended dove high over the font. Some baptisteries keep a perpetual light there, typical of some churches one sees in Rome.

  6. It works!

    When I was in San Marcos, TX, in 1997 we decided to try baptism by immersion. There was a simple explanation and catechesis. We purchased a horse troth, decorated it appropriately, and one of the participants in the RCIA built a sturdy set of steps. We baptized about a dozen people that year. Our rather conservative parishioners stood and applauded when the newly baptized re-entered the sanctuary after changing from their bathing suits and light beige robes to their clothing and white robes.

    By the third year we baptized 25 adults and youth by immersion. The symbol spoke striking well to those baptized,to the assembled congregation, and especially to the surprised and gratified pastor. Our RCIA team did a wonderful job. I received only one complaint and more than a hundred compliments from grateful and spiritually enlivened parishioners.

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