Baptism: A Credential or a Continuation of the Christian Journey

I am part of several online groups on a popular social media platform.  In a recent online conversation about students (and parents!) challenging final grades (ugh!), one of the members of the group wrote, “…students and their families at times see an education as a purchase and not a process, therefore they are consuming a commodity and not acquiring knowledge.”

There is a similar phenomena happening among churches.  As we prepare individuals for baptism, are we simply communicating information for candidates to digest or are we forming disciples in the image of Christ?

A caveat before I proceed:  I want to offer a word about my social location.  My formation into the Christian faith and ministry was by a Baptist pastor who was formed as a Methodist.  And I am an ordained American Baptist USA clergyperson who received her academic training from a pontifical Catholic institution and who serves on a worship grants advisory board organized under a Reformed tradition whose board members are ecumenical.  Why is this important?  It is important because my word choices are informed by my formation as well as my sensitivity to the many traditions of individuals who will be reading this blog. In my work, service, and study, I have had to become what I call “liturgically bilingual.”  I have had to speak and understand both “Catholic” and “Protestant” worship languages.  In doing so, I have come to understand more deeply that Catholics and Protestants have more in common with respect to Christian formation and discipleship than I previously thought.  So I will be attentive to language in my posts, trying to give both “Catholic” and “Protestant” language where it serves to clarify thought.

With respect to preparing for baptism, there are a few points to note.  First, while a majority of individuals in traditions that baptize infants were themselves baptized as infants, there are still a number of individuals who come to faith as an adult.  Second, and related to the first, there are a number of individuals who, as adults, change traditions and need to be catechized in the new tradition.  Third, there are some people who come to faith as adults, on their own and of their own volition.  So there is an important reason to consider how we prepare individuals for baptism.

 A little over 50 years ago, the Catholic Church recognized a deep need to prepare adults for baptism.  In 1962, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council was convened, and the first constitutional document that was promulgated was Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Deccember 4, 1963).  

Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 62 reads as follows:  “With the passage of time, however, there have crept into the rites of the sacraments and sacramentals certain features which have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today; hence some changes have become necessary to adapt them to the needs of our own times.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 64 reads as follows:  “The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps, is to be restored and to be taken into use at the discretion of the local ordinary.  By this, means the time of the catechumenate, which is intended as a period of suitable instruction, may be sanctified by sacred rites to be celebrated at successive intervals of time.”

A few things to note about the Council in general and these passages specifically.

1 ) The Second Vatican Council was a huge event that drew international AND ecumenical attention.  Catholics were not the only tradition present at the Council nor were Catholics the only ones following the proceedings of the Council.  While Christians from Protestant traditions were not able to fully participate in the proceedings, they were allowed to attend and witness the proceedings as official observers.

2 ) One significant point about paragraph 62 is that it recognizes that accretions to the catechumenal program have obscured its nature and purpose.  In other words, at the time of the Council, there were elements in the liturgy of the Church that made it difficult for individuals to understand the nature and purpose of the rites in which they were participating.

3 ) Another significant and related point about paragraph 62 is that the Council Fathers recognized that changes needed to be made to make the liturgy accessible and relevant to the needs of the time.

4 ) Paragraph 64 makes clear (a) that there is a type of instruction that is “suitable” for its particular purpose and (b) that there is a relationship between the catechumenate and the rites.

The Council’s call for the restoration of the catechumenate is a recognition of adult baptism as the norm for Christian baptism in the early church.  It is a recognition that the Church has a responsibility in preparing individuals to receive baptism.  Finally, it is a recognition that there was an expectation of intention, volition, and participation on the part of the one to be baptized in order to become a part of the community of the faithful.

However, is the Church preparing individuals to be part of the community of the faithful or is the Church preparing individuals for baptism as a ritual to be undergone? That may sound like a trick question, but I think it is relevant to what is happening in churches.  Programs for baptismal preparation go under many names: the catechumenate (usually the language of Catholic, Anglican, and some Reformed traditions), Discipleship, New Members (typically Protestant language).  Broadly speaking, the purpose of these programs is to prepare individuals for baptism.  Whereas these programs have historically been programs of formation of the individual for the Christian life, with baptism being the door to full incorporation and participation (membership in Protestant language) to the community of the faithful, lately some programs are more educationally (translation:  information dissemination) oriented and less formation oriented.  Is baptism a credential we are teaching people to attain or is baptism a step in the journey of deeper participation in the life of Christ? Are we teaching people what they need to know to “pass the Christian test” or are we forming people into a way of life that conforms them “to the image and likeness of Christ?”  To borrow from my online educational conversation, is the church teaching individuals that baptism is a liturgical purchase or an ongoing process?

Depends on how you understand the role of baptism.

If one understands baptism as a rite that gains an individual a place among the body of the faithful and a seat at the Eucharistic table, then there is a way in which one views the catechumenate (a new members curriculum) as a didactic enterprise to help the one to be baptized understand how s/he will be newly situated as a result of her/his baptism.  This requires the communication of facts and information.  However, if one understands baptism as part of the journey into deeper participation in the life of Christ and conformity to the image of Christ, then the catechumenate (a discipleship curriculum) must be more than facts and information.  It must also be about the reorientation and (re)formation of one’s worldview and will.  So while formation curricula has inherently built in an educational component, not all educational curricula have formation as its goal.

Are we communicating information or are we making disciples?  Do candidates for baptism understand baptism as a credential or the continuation of a lifelong journey of being conformed to the image and likeness of Christ?  It is not enough to restore the catechumenate in practice and not in purpose.  If that is all we are doing, we have yet to realize the goal of both the Council and the catechumenate.  All too many schools and formation programs are designed for credentialing (i.e., receiving a certificate of membership).  The catechumenate is historically intended for the business of Christian living.  Let us (re)focus our efforts on preparing people for the life of Christ.

4 comments

  1. Great line: “a purchase, not a process.”
    The commodification of credentials, vs. apprenticeship in the Christian way of life.
    I could not agree more with the principles named here. Formation for Christian living, formation in discipleship, are essential to Christian initiation/Baptism. Refreshing to hear that these concerns cross denominational boundaries — thank you!

  2. It is probably important to consider that the Catholic position is that Initiation consists of three ‘sacraments’ (Catholic language) – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.
    Being no expert in this field, I do not know whether this is intended to mean that Eucharist is a part of an ongoing Initiation, whatever that might mean.

  3. By coincidence, I recently re-read Aidan Kavanagh’s article (from Worship Magazine?) on Initiation, Unfinished Business? His point is that we are making disciples within the community of faith and that the ritual enactments that set the seal on this are Baptism/Confirmation, and the Eucharist which sustains that discipleship lifelong. But the fundamental key is faith, not the ‘works’ of acquiring information.

    My concern in the UK is that RCIA seems to have morphed into a faith instruction and faith sharing process.

    And we are still wrestling with the issue of complete strangers presenting as consumers demanding infant Baptism, which they clearly see as a ‘service’ from their Parish as ‘service provider.’ When asked to attend preparation courses and maybe even involve themselves with Sunday Mass they don’t think we have the right to ask for that, since, as the old adage goes, ‘the customer is always right.’

    AG.

  4. One major underlying problem is the way in which the Church presents certain sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Marriage) as ones that you can only receive once. This perpetuates the notion that it’s a hoop that you jump through on a given occasion, never repeatable.

    I often wish that we would promote more vigorously the idea that the day you receive the sacrament is only the first day on which you receive it — in other words, that it’s not just a one-off, and that it continues to be received and to grow and develop and be lived out every day throughout the remainder of your life. Certainly, marriage annulment can take place on the grounds that what happened on The Day was not necessarily in itself sufficient to constitute a sacrament.

    At the very least, if both mystagogia and preparation were necessary parts of the sacramental process — i.e. that you could not say that you had a actually received a sacrament until you had been properly prepared, undergone the ritual, and been through a substantial mystagogia afterwards — we would be in a much better place in all this. I find myself increasingly trying to persuade people that the whole of one’s life is in a very real sense an ongoing process of collective mystagogia.

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