Tag Archives: baptism

Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA

22 Jan

old-fashioned-baptism

“Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson….”
~ Dorothy Day

My students were finding their seats, pulling notebooks out of bags, silencing their phones (praise God!). One of them, Michaela, had recently started a regular babysitting gig for a former student of mine and her young family – a young family that happens to include my godson, Dominic.

“How’s my godson doing?” I asked Mic. “Didn’t you sit for him last night?”

“Yes,” she replied. “He’s doing fine – he’s so cute!” I smiled – no argument there.

Next to Michaela sat Kat, another of my med-surg students, who piped up, “How many godchildren do you have anyway?”

I teach at an Evangelical college, so few of my students are practicing Catholics, and I’ll generally jump on opportunities like this one to do some simple catechesis. Besides, my students are accustomed to my answering straightforward questions with anecdotes and long digressions, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “A friend of mine in Chicago, the man I call my godfather, used to tell me that he couldn’t remember all the godchildren he had.” It’s true. Jim, longtime resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a legendary pillar of the do-gooder community there, has served as godfather for countless babies over the decades – including one of my own. “I always thought it was scandalous,” I told Kat and Mic, “because baptism and godparenting duties are so sacred and important. I used to think that I’d never forget my spiritual children should I ever have the privilege of becoming a godfather.” They nodded their understanding, and I continued.

“After I became a Catholic myself, I got my chance,” I said, “and I’ve gotten my chance again and again. Now I can’t remember the exact number any more, although I do pray for my godchildren collectively every day – sometimes by name if God brings them to mind.” I added that I’m certain my godfather does the same, and, by way of catechetical clarification, I added, “Jim’s not really my godfather by the way – I was already baptized when I became a Catholic. Really he was my sponsor when I joined the Church, but I just call him my godfather.”

“Sponsor?” Kat asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean like AA?”

There was a weighty pause as I considered her comparison – one I’d never considered before. “Well, yes,” I finally agreed, “yes, a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous!”

I think Kat’s onto something there.

Consider: Without grace, we’re addicted to sin, aren’t we? We develop dependencies on our self-destructive behaviors, and we come to crave the evils that keep us separated from God. In fact, we routinely refer to “habits” of vice, just as we refer to “habits” of virtue – perfidy and purification as moral extensions, in opposite directions, of our human reliance on rote action.

Baptism is the drunk tank of our withdrawal from sin. It’s an ecclesial intervention to disrupt the downward slope of our unregenerate routines – a sacramental wake-up call, a liturgical splash of cold water in the face. When we receive baptism as adults (or seek full communion with the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), we’re in effect embracing the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program of recovery:We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (read: sin) – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Simultaneously, we’re also ticking off our acquiescence to the next two steps as well – namely, that we believe that a “Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that we’re turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

The overlap between Catholic conversion and Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more illuminating if you take the full communion route, for while non-Christians will require baptism when they join the Church, those who were baptized previously need only make a profession of faith and make a good first confession. With that in mind, get a load of the next four AA steps:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Sound familiar? Whether you stumbled through it as a second-grader, or sweated through it as a grown-up, you’ll remember all those elements in your own first confession.

Then there’s the last two AA steps which constitute the essence of Christian praxis – communion and witness – regardless of when we’re initiated. Step #11 starts off, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” and step #12 follows with a restatement of the Great Commission: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (read: other sin-addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs” – that is, get out there and preach, but be sure to practice what you preach.

I know a little about this stuff because my dad was an alcoholic and he was an AA meeting regular – at least when he was sober. In fact, I seem to recall going to a meeting with him once as a teenager, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I definitely grew up yearning for his sobriety constantly, and I came to associate his teetotalling lulls with his participation in AA programs.

And I remember he always had a sponsor.

“How does sponsorship help the newcomer?” reads an AA pamphlet. “It assures the newcomer that there is at least one person who understands the situation fully and cares – one person to turn to without embarrassment when doubts, questions, or problems linked to alcoholism arise.” For one thing, the AA sponsor is a recovering alcoholic himself – he’s been there; indeed, he is there. The sober sponsor can truly empathize with the fellow addict at the very cusp of recovery. But, even more important, the sponsor will be there long after sobriety is reached, because it’s a “continuing responsibility for helping a newcomer adjust to a way of life….”

Precisely. The same goes for the RCIA sponsor – at least, the same goes for Jim.

“The candidate should be accompanied by a sponsor,” reads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “If someone has had the principal part in guiding or preparing the candidate, he or she should be the sponsor” (#396). And what’s the sponsor supposed to do? The RCIA gives us a clue in paragraph #75.2: Prospective Catholics “become familiar with the Christian way of life and are helped by the example and support of sponsors….”

Jim was there for me when I had doubts, questions, and problems as I considered the outrageous claims of the Church. He was that one person I could rely on to shepherd me through controversy and qualm, and to assure me that my stumbles and scruples were not exceptional – he’d been through it all himself.

He’s continued to be there for me after 30 years. Thanks, Jim. I can only hope and pray I’ll be the same kind of sponsor/godfather for Dominic – your spiritual God-grandson.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Eunuchs, Emmaus, and Holy Water Fonts

11 May

Baptism is enough, it is sufficient to evangelize.
~ Pope Francis

Katharine made her First Holy Communion last Sunday – a momentous event, a holy moment! Naturally, she received some gifts to mark the occasion: A scapular (the plastic bothered her; I’ll get her a cloth one), a child’s Bible, and a beautiful ceramic holy water font. The font clearly caught her fancy, and she asked me that same evening how we could get the “special” water for it.

Fortunately,BoyAtHolyWaterFont-b I already had a small bottle of holy water in the house, so we hung up the font near her bed, filled the reservoir, and then dipped our fingers to bless ourselves. She went to bed very content – happy to have received Jesus in one Sacrament earlier in the day, and then encounter him again in that mini-Sacramental reminder just before sleep.

My guess is that she’s been using that font pretty regularly since then because of what happened a couple nights ago. After donning her PJs, Kath sought me out, holding up one hand very solemnly above the other. Without saying anything, she touched her wet fingers to my forehead, made the sign of the cross, and then headed off to bed. It was a blessed moment, come and gone so quickly, and so profound: My daughter, blessing me, and giving me such an intimate reminder of my baptismal dignity.

That profound encounter came to mind as I listened to the first reading last Thursday about St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You remember: The seemingly chance encounter on the road; an explication of opaque biblical texts; an entreaty to linger followed by the administration of a sacrament; and finally, a miraculous disappearance that paved the way for an apostolic journey.

Then it dawned on me: I’d just heard the same basic story on Sunday! Only then, it was Luke telling about the two disciples who ran into Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

Cradle Catholics will have grown up hearing the Emmaus story as an image of the Mass: The Lord’s explaining the Scriptures parallels the Liturgy of the Word, and then, in Emmaus itself, there’s a meal that concludes with the breaking of bread in which the disciples “recognized the Lord” – an obvious parallel to the Liturgy of Jan_Wildens_Landscape_with_Christ_and_his_Disciples_on_the_Road_to_Emmausthe Eucharist.

The implications of those parallels are made plain in the sudden disappearance of Jesus precisely at the moment he was recognized – the moment, that is, when his bodily presence became almost redundant since he had become truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. In other words, those disciples in Emmaus had nothing on us: We have Jesus here today in our Tabernacles just as much as they did around that Emmaus dinner table!

But, back to Philip and the eunuch – the similarities with the Emmaus story are striking, and many scholars have commented on it. Besides, both stories were recorded by St. Luke – the Emmaus story in his Gospel, and the Ethiopian eunuch story in his Gospel sequel, the Book of Acts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, as I mentioned, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Luke was intending in the Emmaus narrative, but what about the Ethiopian convert? And why the parallels?

Here’s a few thoughts inspired by Kath’s holy water font.

First, Luke uses the eunuch story to teach us about baptism – that we’re all utterly unworthy of the divine life it transmits to us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. It’s totally free – like Kath coming to me and bestowing her blessing that evening. Completely unexpected; a startlingly fresh gift. “Look, there is water,” the man asks Philip. “What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Apparently not anything! Not the brevity of his catechetical formation, not his pagan background, and not even the fact that he was mutilated and made impotent – something that would’ve prevented his being fully admitted to God’s family under Mosaic law. The adoption of this complete outsider into the body of believers marks the newfangled Way of Christ as radically open – extravagant, even. As extra(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationvagant as God himself!

But there’s a responsibility that comes with the gift, and that leads to my second point – the disappearance. When Christ disappears in the Emmaus story we understand that to mean that the Lord had become present in the Eucharist. So, in the Acts narrative? When Philip vanishes? What else can Luke mean than that the apostolic authority has now become manifest in the newly baptized!

What? He can’t be serious! The foreigner had barely covered a rudimentary overview of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise, and now we’re to see him on the same level as an Apostle appointed by Christ himself?

Yes, indeed. Luke records that the eunuch “continued on his way rejoicing.” And we, who also have been baptized, are called to that as well. And every single one of those cute little infants we baptize in our churches on Sunday mornings. They’re all called to be apostles – we’re all called – to spread the Gospel, to preach the Faith. Even the Pope says so:

Do we believe in this? That baptism is enough – sufficient to evangelize? [All of the baptized must] announce Jesus with our life, with our witness and with our words. When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that bears children. But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a baby sitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.

And that leads to my final point: The whole eunuch thing – what’s that all about, right? Very awkward. Like trying to talk to junior high boys about St. Paul’s teaching on circumcision. (NOTE: I’ve tried this – forget it. It’s impossible. If you ask me, just skip to the Parables and forget about circumcision until they get into college.)

Nevertheless, awkward or no, the eunuch must be dealt with. On a superficial level, Luke notes that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch simply because it was the case – it was noteworthy in Luke’s mind, perhaps as a way of identifying the actual individual in question. We have to keep in mind that the Ethiopian eunuch and other biblical characters aren’t just literary devices utilized by authors to make theological points. Although it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record events the same way the New York Times would today, those whom God inspired to compose Holy writ were still jotting down actual occurrearticle-2538097-1A97C26800000578-298_634x645nces involving actual people. It’s God who orchestrated events to reveal truths; the human writers just recorded and reflected on them.

That being the case, the fact that this early catechumen-turned-neophyte in Acts was a eunuch takes on a deeper meaning which Luke draws out. Obviously, a eunuch is infertile by definition, and yet, once baptized, this eunuch immediately sets out to proclaim the Gospel and plant seeds of faith. Tradition even goes so far as to associate this early convert with the foundation of the very ancient church in Ethiopia. The infertile transformed into the fertile that should be me, too!

Ah, but there’s risk involved in being an apostle – a risk of humiliation and shunning, even a risk of death. It’s no accident, I think, that this story of the pagan Ethiopian convert shows up in Acts on the heels of Luke’s mention of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and its aftermath:

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.

Baptism is an infinite boon folded in with a dire warning: Beware! Danger ahead! And yet, new life as well. More life than you can possibly imagine! So much life that the risk of martyrdom will pale in comparison! The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, teaches us as much:

“Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

Thus, when my daughter dips her fingers in the font to cross herself or me? It’s no small thing. It’s a reminder of baptismal grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of apostolic burden: Be a missionary; proclaim the Word; make Jesus present wherever you find yourself, no matter the cost!

Next time I dunk my own fingers in Kathy’s holy water font, I’ll think twice, and pray for strength – for both of us.

_____________________________________________________

Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.

The Failure of St. Dominic

2 Mar

Although Dominic had hoped to journey to barbarous lands to preach and eventually to achieve martyrdom, this was denied him.
~ from The Lives of the Saints, ed. Father Joseph Vann (1954)

My daughter Joan, a high school junior, gave me a lesson in genetics yesterday. She had said something about her ‘jeans’ wearing out, and I, trying to be clever, made a crack about ‘genes’ never wearing out.

Actually, no, Joan informed me, genes do indeed wear out. She proceeded to bring me up to speed with regards to telomeres, chromotids, and DNA duplication. What could I do? I muttered defeat, and silently vowed to be more cautious when injecting puns into conversations with my kids.

But Joan wasn’t done. She then went on to enlighten me with regards to a bit of common wisdom that I myself have oft repeated. “You know when people say, ‘You start dying the day you’re born?'” she asked. “Well, they’re wrong.”

You see, there’s DNA Strandsthis enzyme – telomerase – that forestalls the inevitable decline of chromosome replication. Human telomerase continues to circulate and remain active after birth, so babies’ DNA duplication runs at full steam for several months. Consequently, none of us “start dying” until we’ve gotten a pretty good head start on the business of living. It’s almost like a period of orientation, unencumbered by mortality, to allow babies to simply get used to existing.

While all that might be true for physical human life, it is not the case with the new life we receive in baptism, for baptism is about death first. We disguise it as a cleansing ritual, and it is further camouflaged by white garments, candles and flame, and the wailing of a cute baby who doesn’t like to get wet. But Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that Christians are “buried together with him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6.4a). When the water is poured over an infant’s head, and the baptizer intones the Trinitarian formula, that child is with the Lord in the tomb. And tomb means dead.

Of course, the Lord’s burial was followed by a Resurrection, and the baptized get to participate in that as well – something Paul himself goes on to acknowledge:

As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life (Rom. 6.4b).

And it’s totally understandable that we prefer to focus on baptism’s transmission of new spiritual life rather than the sacramental death that accompanies it. Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the fact that the new life was won through a death, and that’s an unsettling fact we might prefer to downplay – especially when the baptized is still in diapers.

Yet my new godson is named after St. Dominic, and that poses a problem when it comes to downplaying the death side of the baptism equation.

When we think of St. Dominic, we think of white habits, and a religious order dedicated to preaching and education and academic pursuits. Dominicans are the ‘Dogs of God,’ after all, tenacious in their pursuit of truth and defense of the Faith.

But Dominic himself, it turns out, was a bit of a reckless nut in his heyday. I recently read up on my new godson’s namesake, and I was surprised to learn that the saintly founder had been a fiery young priest who deliberately put himself in harm’s way in service to the Lord.

388px-Pedro_Berruguete_-_St_Dominic_and_the_Albigenses_-_WGA02083The young Fr. Dominic de Guzmán had been selected to accompany a bishop on a delicate diplomatic mission from Spain to southern France, and there they encountered the Albigenses – a branch of the dualist Catharite heresy. Following the conclusion of their mission, the two clerics returned to the Albigensian stronghold of Languedoc to engage the heretics in further disputation and to proclaim the fullness of the Faith to the confused multitudes.

This being the Middle Ages, the predominant approach to settling disagreements was through armed conflict, and combating Albigensianism was no exception. Backed by the Pope, Catholic Lords waged war on religious radicals of all stripes, and the Albigensian Crusade, while successful in diminishing the rebellion, wreaked havoc on cities, countryside, and the population.

But Dominic knew that fighting and force wouldn’t achieve true victory, saying that the “enemies of the faith cannot be overcome like that.” Instead, he recommended prayer as a weapon “instead of a sword; be clothed with humility instead of fine raiment.” And he meant this quite literally, choosing to live among the Albigenses, preaching the truths of the Catholic Faith whenever he had a chance, and moving about openly despite the many threats made against him. When asked what he’d do if he were cornered by his enemies, Dominic bravely answered this way:

I would tell them to kill me slowly and painfully, a little at a time, so that I might have a more glorious crown in Heaven.

For the young St. Dominic, martyrdom wasn’t something to shy away from; it was something to be chased after! What better way could he demonstrate his tremendous love for Jesus? What could top dying for Him who had Himself died for the world?

Alas, it was not to be. Dominic eventually organized a group of like-minded followers, and, in 1216, the Pope recognized the saint’s efforts by approving a new Order of Preachers – now known as the Dominicans. Needless to say, the saint had charge of the operation, and, as it grew, he had to spend more and more time traveling about, establishing foundations, and guiding his spiritual sons in their apostolates of teaching, prest-dominic-prayingaching, and prayer.

So, in the end, Dominic became the consummate leader, and he even served briefly as a kind of chief of staff in the Pope’s own court. And thus, the brash young priest, intent on achieving martyrdom, became just another administrator. He failed in his youthful quest. Sad, isn’t it?

Well, yes, sad, if that were the end of the story – if Dominic’s story was simply about a frustrated pious death wish. But that’s not what it’s about.

Instead, it’s the story of one who sought out Jesus with his whole being; a story of conversion and sanctification and conforming to Christ – truly the greatest adventure story there could be, martyrdom or no martyrdom. And here’s a little secret: That’s also the story of all the baptized – including my new godson. “Having become a member of the Church,” the Catechism teaches us, “the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us.” Little baby Dom, as of this morning, has already died to self and risen with Christ, and who knows where that might lead? Martyrdom, perhaps. Something much more mundane, most likely. Who knows? In fact, who knows for any of us?

Only Christ knows, but in the meantime, we have to keep marching forward in faith, trusting the Lord to work out all the details along the way – just like St. Dominic did long ago. The saints are signs that the march can come to a successful conclusion, and we look to them as models for how to carry it out.

Yet, the saints don’t just rest on their laurels – as if sanctity were a ticket to a comfy retirement in the hereafter. No, St. Dominic is now in a position to do something even more useful than arguing with Cathars and preaching the Gospel: He can join me in surrounding little Dom with prayer – indeed, I’m counting on it, based on what the saint himself told his confreres on his deathbed:

Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.

Perhaps the young St. Dominic was indeed disappointed that he was not chosen for a martyr’s crown, but his union to Christ was completed nonetheless. Martyrdom, in other words, was never the true goal, and Dominic always knew that. The goal was – and is – Christ Himself.

St. Dominic, pray for us.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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