Papal approbation being no bad thing, I was delighted to learn that Pope Francis, in a homily a few weeks ago, had suggested that his congregants learn the date of their baptisms and celebrate it—which is precisely what I have been proposing to audiences around the country this past year, when discussing my book, Evangelical Catholicism.
I usually begin by confessing that marking and honoring the date of my baptism hadn’t really occurred to me until a quarter-century or so ago, when I began working with evangelical Protestants on pro-life and religious freedom issues and noted that some of them had an interesting way of introducing themselves at a meeting. Whereas the normal American way of breaking-the-ice is to say, “I’m John Doe and I work at Boeing” or “I’m Jane Smith and I’m an attorney,” these folks would begin rather differently: “I’m John Doe/Jane Smith and I was born again on such-and-such-a- date,” usually in the past 10 or 15 years. Contrarian that I can be on occasion, when things got around the table to me, I’d say, “I’m George Weigel and I was born again on April 29, 1951… at which point I was 12 days old.”
Which got a few interesting conversations going about sacramental regeneration, etc.
Then, when I was working on the biography of John Paul II and was reminded that the first thing he had done on returning to his home parish in Wadowice as pope was to kneel and kiss the baptismal font, memories of those men and women who remembered the day of their rebirth in Christ as a crucial way of identifying themselves came back to me. And I started taking April 29 much more seriously (shocking an usher when, on the 50th anniversary of my baptism, I went to the church where the deed had been done—amidst great caterwauling on my part, I’m reliably informed—and asked him to help me find the baptismal font, which had been moved in a post-conciliar wreckovation, so that I could kiss it).
As I explain to my audiences after I ask how many of them know the date of their baptism (average “yes” response: 3 percent of any group), baptism and the new evangelization, baptism and mission, go together. We are baptized into mission and for mission. Indeed, viewed through the prism of the new evangelization, the day of our baptism is the day of our being commissioned as missionary disciples.
This link between baptism and mission is made explicit in the biblical readings at Mass for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In the A cycle, which we are using this liturgical year, the Old Testament reading is from one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah, establishing the link between the baptism of Jesus and the mission of the Servant of the Lord: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations….”
Then, in the reading from Acts, Peter tells Cornelius about “the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; and God was with him.”
The very next verse—“And we are witnesses to all that he did”—points out our responsibilities as missionary disciples: we, too, are to “do good” and to help heal “all those who [are] oppressed by the devil.” As Pope Francis reminds us, we are to be like medical workers in a battlefield hospital after a terrible battle. We are to offer others the possibility of encountering the mercy of God, and the possibility of learning the truths about right-living that the encounter with the divine mercy affords us.
Baptism is baptism-into-mission. Thus a papally-endorsed suggestion from your scribe: learn the date of your baptism, celebrate it each year—and be re-energized for mission because of that celebration.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.