By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
I learned recently that the priest who baptized me, Monsignor Joseph Ferraro, died of Covid-19 on December 17. Father Ferraro was a Navy chaplain stationed in Oakland, California when my father was on active duty, and he de-heathenized me when I was a month old. I never met Monsignor Joe as an adult, but we exchanged emails several years ago, and he expressed great delight that he had baptized a future priest. His priestly life was essentially an Advent preparation for the Christmas mystery that (or rather, whom) he now beholds face to face.
The magnitude of this great and initiating sacrament can seem obscure to those who were baptized as infants; I certainly have no recollection of the moment that original sin released its stained grip on my soul! I certainly grasp the logic of those Christians who argue for “believer’s baptism” – namely, that baptism should be limited to those who actively and consciously choose to be baptized. Many advocating for believer’s baptism, however, tend to regard the pouring of water merely as an external proof of one’s conversion and acceptance (some would even say a guarantee) of salvation, not as a sacramental cleansing that introduces the soul into the supernatural life of grace, culminating in life eternal with God.
While the baptism of infants is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 2:38-39 is probably the closest we get to a suggestion of the practice), Christian theologians such as Irenaeus in the 2nd century and Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd accept and even presuppose its validity. The theological motive for infant baptism manifestly acknowledges that the divine adoption that takes place in baptism is a freely bestowed gift of God, and cannot be earned by anyone – an infant certainly has no merits to claim a “right” to this unique relationship with God! The practice, then, hinges on the beautiful understanding of the Church as the body of Christ, an analogy highlighting the fact that Christians are responsible for each other as they collectively build up the Kingdom of God.
The parents and godparents of the infant (literally, an “unspeaking person”) pledge that their own faith in Christ leads them to accept the duty and privilege of being the first examples of faith for the child, and to guide him or her into a mature acceptance and expression of that faith within the life of the Church. From the child’s earliest days, the individual response to God’s call and the communal building up of each other in love are inseparable. Parents thus water the seed of supernatural life in the child, a divine adventure in grace that begins in childhood, allowing us to call the loving God “our father” on earth and to desire union with the Lord after death. At every baptism of an infant (and also at the Easter Vigil), adult members of the Catholic Church are invited to renew the baptismal vows that their parents made for them, ensuring that the graces from the sacramental waters are always flowing to and through them across the course of their entire lives.
The Church regularly commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the heart of the Christmas season, just three weeks after his birth. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ own plunge into the waters should remove all doubts as to the awesome efficacy of baptism. Matthew, Mark and Luke all evoke the account of creation in Genesis 1 to describe the effect of John the Baptist’s work on Jesus – the waters symbolize the forces of chaos and death, the voice of God subdues them by speaking creative order into being, and the spirit descends upon the Son and hovers over him (see, for example, Matthew 3:13-17). The baptism of the sinless Jesus anticipates his conquering of all sin and death on the cross, thus giving us an opportunity to imitate him in his unique sacrifice. Saint Paul is the first Christian theologian to link Jesus’ own baptismal triumph over death with that of the Christians: “Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.