Today is the feast day of that great man of whom Christ said that there had been no greater born of woman– St. John the Baptist. More particularly we commemorate his beheading, thus showing the price the follower of Christ pays for speaking his mind.
Not comparing myself to St. John the Baptist in any other way, I am about to speak my mind. I don’t expect it to go over well, but then the modern Church’s punch bowl is already fairly filled with Clark Bars.
I recently attended an infant baptism celebrated according to the modern rite at a representative local parish in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. I belonged to novus ordo parishes for 37 years, so it isn’t like I didn’t know what to expect, being already familiar with the rite and the decades-long debasement of the way it has been celebrated.
Even so, this one was soul-numbingly bad. The only positive thing I can say is that the baptismal formula (what some who don’t really care about the way sacraments are celebrated or whether they are valid call the “magic words”) was correctly pronounced, with the requisite pouring of water over skin that the sacrament requires. Everything else, from ceremony to theology, was the kind of dumbed-down pablum that passes for pastoral care these days.
Baptism was supposed to begin immediately following the last Sunday Mass. This meant in reality that it began about 25 minutes after Mass, as the cacophony inside the Church after the conclusion of Mass made conducting the rite impossible. It was a beautiful, sunny day, at a Church with lots of outside space and a parish hall of good size, yet a third of the congregation remained inside the Church itself and, as far as I could understand, screamed in each others’ faces at the top of their lungs for twenty minutes. Perhaps this is the local tradition of fellowship, I don’t know. People sure seemed to enjoy it. I checked the sanctuary, and yes, the red lamp was lit, so presumably the Blessed Sacrament was present.
After the din died mostly down, the deacon called everyone around the Olympic-sized pool that was to serve as the site of the baptism. He looked like the Platonic Form of permanent deacon– you can picture him in your mind already– late fifties, polyester alb and stole, with clip-on microphone. The attendees were dressed a shade better than the attendees of the Mass, as there were far fewer with shorts and flip flops in the crowd that succeeded to the space.
The deacon began by saying “First of all, I want to welcome everyone…”, which he did for about fifteen minutes. He then explained to the parents how he was going to call them by name and ask them what the name of their child was, and what exactly they wanted from the Church, and finally that they were to say, “Baptism”. So, that is what he did. Then he explained how we were all going to make the Sign of the Cross together, because that’s what we do, we Catholics, we make the Sign of the Cross. So that is what we did. Then he explained how he was going to read the Gospel, and that this Gospel was one of his favorites, and that he loved talking about this Gospel, and how he thought this Gospel was just nails when it came to Baptism, and how he was just about ready to go ahead and do it, and then he in fact, with much fanfare, did it. Just like he said.
Now, the reason I wrote all that is to give you just an idea– just a taste— of how this all went down. I won’t belabor it anymore, but let me assure you that everything that happened, everything that he said, he explained at length, with anecdotes and his own humorous take, in order to make sure that we all really got it. Imagine at least three minutes of explanation for every one minute of “action”, whether the action consisted of the prayers from the book or actions in the rite.
I don’t understand this need to explain everything. I mean, the language of the modern rite of Baptism in this country is English. English: the language we all understand. We use English so we all understand everything that is going on, right? Because no one understands the language of the Church. Because Heaven forfend that there be any mystery in a religious ceremony, rite or sacrament. And whatever small amount of mystery is left in the vernacularized modern rite of Baptism, he took great pains to kill. And I have no doubt that it was all done in good faith, with the best of intentions.
Following the Gospel and his threat to give a homily, the deacon gave a homily. He began by again saying, “First of all, I want to welcome everyone…” He gave a talk about his grandchildren, faith journeys, joining the club, being a people of the word, etc., and other niceties about Baptism. The only thing he didn’t mention was Original Sin, the necessity of Baptism as the ordinary means of salvation, the Fall of Man, salvation history, Christ’s sacrifice to save us or other such things that folks might find uncomfortable these days.
After the homily, he invited everyone to gather more closely around the Olympic-sized swimming pool and listen to him bless the water, paying particular attention to how many times water was referred to in the blessing itself. Then he did it.
After the renewal of baptismal promises was explained and done, he then did actual baptism, which was the only thing he did without any explanation at all. Like I said, that went off without a hitch.
Before he anointed with chrism, the deacon explained that he was going to anoint with oil, and then launched into a mini-homily about oil, what it was, its uses in everyday life, and its use in the rite of Baptism. Not what chrism was, not what the oil of catechumens was– but what oil was. A lubricant– it makes things “go smoother”! We use it, he reminded us, to make flapjacks! (Baptismal flapjacks?)
(An aside: At this point, I performed a physical feat that scientists have hitherto thought impossible. Despite my efforts throughout the show to maintain a calm and respectful disposition, when he said the thing about the flapjacks my eyeballs rolled up so violently that they actually rolled up all the way around inside my head and came back up the bottom way to resume their normal place in my sockets. True story. OK, a tiny exaggeration, but you get the idea.)
The remaining parts of the ceremony happened in line with the above. Intro, explanation, act or prayer. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This Rite of Baptism for infants, not counting the time waiting for it to begin, took nearly ninety minutes.
Forget the stark and denuded nature of the rite itself, when compared to the traditional expression. I’m not even focusing on a comparison of old and new forms. Just focusing on the new rite itself, I can only ask, “Why not just do what it says and have done?” And yet this kind of showmanship is rampant in the typical parish. The priest “performs” at Mass. Just saying the Mass isn’t good enough. The Deacon “performs” there, too, and more so at his own show, Baptism. The lectors and cantors “perform”. The music ministry “performs”. The “actors” in the pews “perform” (raise those hands at the Our Father higher!).
For whom are we performing? For God? Or for ourselves?
How much worse can it get?