Today most Catholics are in no great hurry to have their children baptized. In the past, the practice was to baptize children as soon as possible after birth. Now, medical technology has decreased danger for newborns, seemingly removing the urgency for immediate baptism. Add to this the widely publicized recommendation by the International Theological Commission to abolish the doctrine of limbo, a place of natural happiness, but deprived of the vision of God for unbaptized infants, and suddenly there seems no compelling reason to rush to the baptismal font.
Yet even without fears of imminent danger, baptism remains an urgent sacrament that should be conferred upon infants as soon as possible after birth. In the words of St. Peter on the first Pentecost, baptism both forgives sins and imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are spiritual gifts par excellence that all Catholics of all ages and sizes require to live their respective vocations in the world. Therefore, baptism remains vital and relevant even in the lives of adults who were baptized decades ago.
Baptism, followed by confirmation and the Eucharist, is the first of the sacraments of initiation into the Catholic Church. As noted in the first column of this series, the sacraments are necessary for salvation; baptism is the foundation of this promised salvation since through it recipients are born spiritually and given a share in the inner life of the Trinity. Sacraments are physical signs of God’s invisible grace of salvation. In baptism, the physical matter of water combines with the formal prayer “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” to confer the grace of the sacrament.
Many wonderful gifts are imparted by baptismal grace, but baptism itself is a gift God freely bestows on those whom He wills. Infant baptism highlights the sheer gratuity of God’s generosity, as infants obviously do not ask for the sacrament themselves. But even when parents have their children baptized, or when converts approach the baptismal waters at the Easter Vigil, they have done so only because God has called them first.
Primarily, baptism removes sin, as repeated in the Nicene Creed each Sunday. For adults, baptism removes all sin, venial and mortal, as well as the punishment due for sin; thus baptism is quite literally a spiritual rebirth. For infants, baptism removes original sin, the condition of deprivation of grace and inclination toward evil. Although baptism reverses the former state by flooding the soul with divine life, the inclination toward sin, called concupiscence, remains; the grace of baptism gives recipients the power to overcome this inclination. While original sin is not as grave as personal sin, it is a serious matter nonetheless; and though it has been downplayed as a result of this age’s loss of a sense of sin, we need only honestly examine our thoughts and actions in a single day to see the presence of original sin in our lives and the need for grace to combat it.
Positively, baptism confers the gift of the Holy Spirit, who brings the three virtues of faith, hope, and love to the lives of recipients. Baptism particularly accentuates the beginning of supernatural faith, the gift of belief in God and the consequent personal relationship with Him. For this reason the rite of baptism, continuing the practice that began as early as the second century, includes a profession of faith in the teachings of the Church, in question and answer format, that underscores the mystery into which the baptized are entering. (This ancient profession developed into the Nicene Creed we say today.) When infants are baptized, the godparents respond on their behalf; and in responding, they promise to help the infant to be educated in the faith. Though baptism imparts real grace independent of the minister, grace cannot work in a vacuum; the baptized require the nurturing support of parents, godparents, and the community to see that their faith and the other virtues grow properly.
In addition to faith, hope, and love, the baptized receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – which direct and sustain the moral life of Christians throughout their earthly pilgrimage.
Thus baptism remains vital even for adults baptized decades ago. The sacrament of baptism imparts a permanent seal, or mark, that cannot be erased by even the most heinous sin; for this reason baptism cannot be repeated. This indelible seal is the source of grace, so Christians can call upon their baptismal grace through prayer, deepen and strengthen it with the grace of the other sacraments, and foster its growth through charity and through learning about the faith. Though we may not realize it, the grace of baptism has guided all our decisions for Christ throughout our lives.
Baptism, like the other sacraments, carries an objective and subjective dimension. The objective dimension is the grace received, which begins working in an invisible and mysterious way immediately; the subjective dimension depends on how we cooperate with this grace. With baptism our spiritual lives are born by God’s free gift; with time baptismal grace, properly developed and nourished, leads us to the salvation God has promised through Jesus Christ.