What does Baptism do? - 27th July 2014

I would have thought that the answer to that question was pretty obvious and that all Catholics would be able to respond correctly. But a couple of recent incidents make me wonder if that is in fact the case.

In some parishes, adult catechumens (people who have never been baptised) preparing for full initiation at the Easter Vigil are required to celebrate the sacrament of penance as part of the preparation rites on Holy Saturday.

A child in a Catholic school was baptised during a class Mass in the parish church and immediately after joined her classmates to celebrate the sacrament of penance.

Have people forgotten that baptism is at least in part about the washing away of sin? How can catechumens be reconciled through penance with a Church to which they do not as yet belong?

I cannot help wondering what the reason is for such poor liturgical practice. Is it a case of parishes lumping everyone together and getting them to follow the same pattern because it is simpler that way and everyone is treated the same?

Perhaps it is a matter of “just in case”, that is, you can never have too much of a good thing, so there is no harm in doing extra penance. Perhaps many of us do not understand fully or really value our own baptism and the sacrament of baptism in general.

The simple fact is that baptism is the FIRST sacrament - NO other sacrament is celebrated before it. This is spelt out clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis and inclusive language added):

• Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins. (977)
• Penance is necessary for salvation for those who have fallen after baptism. (980)
• Holy baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons and daughters of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission. (1213)
• By baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam's sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God. (1263)

Clearly, no one receives any sacraments before he or she is baptised. Penance is celebrated by those who have fallen away from their baptismal promises and are in need of reconciliation with God and the Church.

In the case of the school student, instead of striving for uniformity it would have been a good teaching opportunity to say, “Chloe’s just been baptised, so she won’t be joining us for penance”.

While it might be more convenient for sacramental teams, presiders, etc to keep everything neat and tidy and uniform, it does an injustice to the sacraments and those who celebrate them.

Remember, the church is NOT a convenience store!


Elizabeth Harrington