Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith

Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith:
Notes on the Practice of Initiation in Catholic Austria

In the forty-day period before Easter, Christians are required to remember their Baptism and renew their lives. Thus they are heirs of baptismal candidates and penitents, who in early church times were accompanied by congregations in solidarity on the way to their reception or (having been excommunicated or otherwise separated) to their readmission into the church. After the normalization of the baptism of infants and later the Sacrament of Confession, the experience of ancient candidates and penitents was largely lost in the Western church.

New (Restored) Ways to Baptism
Almost 50 years ago, however, the liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council restored the catechumenate for adult baptismal candidates and school-age children. The renewed liturgical books thereafter offer a number of celebrations that structure, accompany, and support an independent person becoming a Christian. Like the Council Fathers, it seemed to the German-speaking bishops to be a “sign of the times” to at least supplement the dwindling family transmission of the faith with an initiation into the Christian faith appropriate for adults. Moreover, a considerable need for evangelization was recognized in the formerly communist eastern part of Germany. In traditionally Catholic Austria, there seemed to be no need for this (for the time being), but the numbers of (formal and legal) church resignations indicate more and more clearly the end of the popular church. Does this also mean the end of the baptism of infants and young children, which had been a matter of course since the fourth century? Only the Augustinian doctrine of the peccatum originale had made its triumphant advance possible and at the same time inscribed the fear of possibly unbaptized deceased children into the Catholic DNA. Have we followed these new (restored) paths to Baptism in this conciliar age?

A survey of pastors responsible for Baptism conducted throughout Austria in the summer of 2021 inquired whether the preparation of adults (and schoolchildren) for their incorporation has found its way into parish practice. This is not least in order to be prepared for church life in a changed social form. The memory of one’s own Baptism could be an important source for this, because Christian self-confidence is based on it; nowhere else can the transformation of humans into “new creation” be experienced in the flesh with comparable intensity and symbolic density.

It is not without reason that Baptism and the Eucharist are regarded as those sacramental celebrations without which there is no church. And yet many (in my homeland, the vast majority of) baptized people have no memory of their becoming Christian – so how are they to “commemorate” this event without any reference to experience?

Sobering Results
The results of the survey are sobering: in many places, due to lack of interest and opportunity, the question of the use of the renewed liturgical books and catechumenal celebrations does not even arise. In addition, there are deficits in the liturgical education of parish clergy and laity, as well as a need for improvement in the (structural) cooperation of those responsible. Only rarely do those responsible express regret about this; what someone doesn’t know won’t hurt – or even affect – them.

Despite declining numbers of Baptisms, infant Baptism is still a natural practice – whether for the sake of older relatives or “because it’s what we do” – without distinction as to whether parents are believers or agnostic believing or agnostic or whether parents who are less rather than more interested in church life bring their child to be baptized. To refuse or postpone a sacramental celebration with at least a minimal disposition is problematic under church law and frowned upon for pastoral reasons. After an obligatory baptismal interview with the pastor, the date of Baptism is arranged – preferably on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays – according to the wishes of many parents and pastors, and almost always outside of parish services. This is seen as an opportunity to respond to individual parental wishes and to show a family-friendly face of the church. Most church leaders also see a greater pastoral opportunity in the family celebration than in families being forced into a worshipping assembly unfamiliar to them on a random Sunday.

The Easter Vigil is the first choice for Baptism only in connection with the initiation of adolescents or adults; for younger unbaptized children of school age, the preparation time for the First Eucharist (usually at the age of 8) or its celebration is increasingly offered to mirror the baptismal preparation of older candidates.

In the rare case of an impending adolescent or adult Baptism, by far the most common celebration with parish participation is the admission to the catechumenate through the Rite of Election, followed by presentations, anointings, blessings, scrutinies, and the Ephphetha rite. However, local congregations only participate in the Rite of Election with the bishop in the case of asylum seekers or those entitled to asylum. The opportunity for mystagogical deepening of the experience with the newly baptized is almost never taken.

Celebrations that (can) take place within the framework of the usual parish Mass are much more frequent than those that would have to be scheduled separately in the parish calendar in terms of time or place. On the whole, interest is concentrated on the intensive period of preparation at its beginning and diminishes in the course of time. The initiation itself is then the climax and almost always the conclusion of the joint activity of the neophytes and their companions.

The focus of content during the catechumenate is mostly on knowledge of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the most important church dogmas, and the church year. The liturgy, on the other hand, as the primary place of learning the faith, was mentioned only once in the survey responses, “so that the preparation of the (mostly foreign-language) catechumen can take place not only theoretically, but with all the senses.” Unfortunately, this fits in with the fact that in some places the various liturgical books are so little known (or unavailable) even to clergy that even a school child is baptized using the infant baptismal rite without this being noticed.

Lastly, pastors were asked for their assessment of whether and how the participation of baptized believers in the process of forming other Christian might affect their own baptismal awareness. Where this experience is lacking, a possible effect is judged skeptically and is also not missed; where, on the other hand, adult Baptisms can be witnessed, a positive influence that spiritually enriches all involved is evident.

Despite dedicated efforts at the diocesan level, the incorporation of adults is not an issue for Austria’s Catholics: it is considered a minority program, “for others,” meaning primarily migrants and asylum seekers. Even for those responsible (mostly lay people) who enthusiastically accompany people to Baptism, it is hardly considered in these circles to delay the baptism of a child. Do Christian parents see no added value in their children’s personal “yes” to the faith? Precisely because they consciously want to introduce them to Christian church life? Shouldn’t they have a special interest in allowing their children to remember and internalize their own, mature decision for the faith and its celebration?

One Baptism – Two Sacraments?
Admittedly, the incorporation of adolescents and adults into the church achieves no differing results in terms of church law and dogma than the baptism of young children: namely, the officially established membership in the church. This alone, however, does not make the newness of life visible.

Some differences between the two baptismal rites, on the other hand, are so serious as if they were two completely different sacraments: For whom is which path to Baptism open? On what terms does someone become a “new creation” (2 Cor 51:7; Gal 6:15)? Ontologically-essentially or existentially? Is the candidate for Baptism the subject or object of the celebration? Both models of incorporation into the church stand abruptly side by side and are applied in completely different life situations. Their partly common ritual repertoire is based on their own anthropological and theological premises, which are difficult to reconcile. Can personal faith be indispensable in one case and completely irrelevant in another? Can the same rites and symbols be meaningful and at the same time be applied to affected people who cannot grasp them? In particular, those sacramental observances that (should) constitute and give rise to Christian existence and church life?

The paradigmatic reception of a sacrament without constitutive participation of one’s own may have been plausible at one time, but “an ecclesial practice that attends only to validity damages the sacramental organism of the Church, because it reduces it to one of its essential aspects.”[1] The culture of sacramental celebration is still suffering from this today. But if “as an essential constituent, sacramental logic includes the free response, the acceptance of God’s gift, in a word: faith – however incipient that faith may be, especially in the case of Baptism,”[2] why is there no mention of this in the later statements of the International Theological Commission on (infant) Baptism? Rather, “it is emphasized that the faith in which we are baptized is the ecclesial faith” because “on this occasion, the parents act as representatives of the Church, which welcomes these children into her bosom.”[3]

Toward the Annual Celebration of Easter
“Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.”[4]

The most intense baptismal memory remains connected with participation in the baptism of others. Every baptismal celebration therefore requires special care in dealing with the symbolic acts of language and signs and a corresponding not only catechetical but also mystagogical attention to the salvation events celebrated. In fact, the latter does not take place in the German-speaking world. There is some willingness to experience ‘foreign’ baptisms in the Catholic milieu there, but without any interest in consequences for the ‘domestic’ practice. The sensus fidei fidelium remains traditional and clearly states: children of Catholic parents should be baptized immediately. The possible inclusion of even newborn children in the catechumenate is not an attractive (because it’s too strenuous?) alternative. The argument often put forward in favor of early baptism, that unbaptized children do not come into contact with the Christian faith, is in any case not valid. By no means are all baptized children are brought up in the faith of the church or even learn about it. Conversely, Christian parents will exemplify their faith to their children and introduce them to it. Moreover, after their admission to the catechumenate, the Church has a special obligation to them, because they are joined “in a special way to it [cf. the Church …] which already cherishes them as its own” and “already grants them various prerogatives which are proper to Christians.”[5]

Instructive History?
The pronounced dichotomy of baptismal practice is admittedly not unprecedented. Already in late antiquity, the church in Palestine of the fourth and fifth centuries knew the demanding and elaborate cathedral baptismal ritual (which required an orderly ecclesiastical administration) and a strongly simplified baptismal ritual without detailed catechesis, which suited the rural, often nomadic majority population.[6] Situational variants are also found in the early medieval Roman sacramentaries: the full form integrated into the church year as an introduction to church and society under episcopal direction, as well as other shortened forms – for the sick and dying, for example – with a ritual reduced to what was necessary for salvation.[7]  For the baptism of infants, which were performed as a matter of course in parish churches throughout the year, the rites of catechumenate and incorporation had already grown together into a “monster of liturgy”[8] with no connection to life. Who experienced which ceremony depended on life circumstances or social position.

Contemporary baptismal practice fits easily into this historical finding: It, too, can be celebrated rite et recte in more than one way, validly and permissibly, according to the situation. Wouldn’t it therefore also make sense to have a more adequate rituality for the respective setting? In the case of infants and young children, it could be limited to the marking with the sign of the cross and the core action with the water (infusion or immersion), which vouches for the promise of salvation according to Rom 6:5. Symbols strung together additively, whose theological, Christological, pneumatological, anthropological, soteriological, and ecclesiological implications that cannot even be approximated at this stage of life are wasted in the child’s experience. These richer symbols and rituals might follow later at one or more occasions, according to the individual’s journey of faith. Don’t the promises associated with initiation of participation in the threefold office of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, in spiritual anointing and enlightenment, in being clothed with the paschal existence of the Risen One, deserve to be heard and accepted in the flesh? How else should baptism be “remembered”?

Important decisions in life require also otherwise in life more than the agreement of two dates. Taking time for this and granting time to each other shows the greatest possible respect for the freedom of faith and decision of others and recognizes their serious efforts to find their own vocation.

[1] International Theological Commission, The reciprocity between faith and sacraments in the sacramental economy, Nr. 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, Nr. 27.

[5] Codex iuris canonici 1983, can. 206 §1+§ 2.

[6] See the Study by Juliette Day, Baptism in Early Byzantine Palestine 325–451, Cambridge 1999.

[7] Cf. Bruno Kleinheyer, “Die Feier der Taufe seit dem Frühmittelalter,” in: GDK 7,1 Sakramentliche Feiern I: Die Feiern der Eingliederung in die Kirche, Regensburg 1989, S. 96 –135.

[8] August Jilek, Eintauchen, Handauflegen, Brotbrechen: Eine Einführung in die Feiern von Taufe, Firmung und Erstkommunion, Regensburg 1996, S. 107.


  1. This is a very sad report. But the proposed solution of splitting up the elements of baptism and distributing them over a period of years for children would not be a solution but a death blow. The proposal requires more commitment, not less, and the level of commitment is already hanging by a thread. It contradicts the one stable point in this story, which is that parents will still bring forward their children for infant baptism. The fact that the ensemble of rites that constitute infant baptism possesses some integrity in itself that later in life might be appreciated, is unfortunately undervalued in this presentation.

    Rather than splitting up the rites associated with infant baptism (and possibly undermining whatever remains of a slender commitment to the sacrament at all), there is a much stronger case to be made for bringing the catechumenal rites and baptism-in-its-fullness of those adult immigrants and asylum seekers into the midst of the parish community, and educating Catholics better in general concerning a baptismal spirituality.

    The adult rites are what Aidan Kavanagh called “the norm of baptism” — which work to enlarge our appreciation of baptism in infancy. In witness to this, I can supply examples. Countless adults in the US have come to revere their baptism, which occurred in infancy, although they come to this awareness at a later date. The reason they are able to claim their baptismal heritage is that the baptismal ecclesiology of Vatican II has been brought into their awareness. That is the place to get to work on these issues.

    1. Dear Rita,
      forgive me, but the adult rites as “the norm of baptism” have no basis and find no resonance in the practice of my country. Oh yes! How desirable, would that work. In the German-speaking world, which I survey to some extent, this is unfortunately not the case. There is mostly only a socially conventional routine. Their expectation is limited – if at all – to a diffuse protective function of baptism and a largely non-binding church affiliation. Thus, I consider the so-called interpretive rites to be a wasted effort – with no chance of being consciously perceived and understood. What a contempt! Unfortunately, the mentioned appreciation in adulthood can hardly or actually not be determined at all. Everybody is happy when the baptism has cost no effort and is done. Admittedly, the “people’s church” is perishing. This is lamented, but everything continues as before. This is called “pastoral opportunity”. But it is evident that exactly this often becomes an excuse and prevents any new approach.
      My thought experiment would like to prevent at least the further wear and tear of the soft-setting rites of our initiation practice. One does not have to fear that this is practiced ;-). But whether anything would be missed at all? If not, so much the worse. And certainly no reason for “business as usual”.
      I am sorry not to have a more positive outlook at present. But could not new life stir after the death blow?

  2. The thrust of this essay seems to have borrowed from the perspectives of the non-Lutheran Reformed Churches of Northern Europe and their progeny.

    Countering that would be perspectives from the Eastern Churches where all the sacraments of initiation are ministered to infants.

    The evolved Roman/Western practice abides between these, though my sense of North American liturgical-sacramental progressives had leaned closer towards the East than the North.

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