National Public Radio featured a discussion of religion among millennials, young adults born just before the turn of this century. One speaker decided to wait before introducing her own children to any specific religious tradition, allowing them to be exposed to diverse spiritual experiences and then arriving at their own religious conclusions as they approached adulthood. The Catholic practice of infant baptism seemed presumptuous to the speaker, coopting a believer’s opportunity to make an informed and mature choice regarding one’s eternal destiny. Millennials are certainly not alone in this thinking.
Some dedicated American Baptists have long postponed baptism into a believer’s grown-up years in the hope that a mature, adult decision will be spiritually more fruitful than a ceremony conducted long before a believer has even reached the age of reason.
William John Hammann was recently welcomed into this world by his parents Joshua and Shannon and brought to St. Francis Xavier Church in Brooklyn, New York, for baptism. Ritually welcoming the child into the Christian community was my honor as the infant’s second cousin twice removed. Friends and family gathered from Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, Connecticut and Rhode Island, including the baby’s great-grandfather. Young Will was happily sedate during the celebration, especially enraptured by the flame of the baptismal candle. Admittedly, the new born had no notion of what was taking place amid the marble and stained-glass of this splendid parish church. Whether his grandfather retired NBA coach Jim O’Brien presented him with a basketball or his grandmother my cousin Gail offered him a new winter outfit from L.L. Bean to mark this occasion would not have registered at all with baby Will. Confirming the radio remarks of the millennial, William John Hammann was clueless that he was being cleansed of original sin, becoming a son of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a Christian, and a member of the universal Church.
But young Will’s ignorance is precisely the glory of Catholic infant baptism. A small community had gathered in that Brooklyn baptistery not to celebrate William John Hammann’s love of God but rather to celebrate God’s love of William John Hammann. From all eternity God’s Providence determined that William John Hammann would enter into this world and be welcomed by a believing family. When God created Adam and Eve he knew that eventually history would evolve into this happy ritual in Brooklyn. When God announced himself to the early Jewish community he knew that eventually William John would benefit from this ancient revelation. When Jesus Christ became man and established his Church, God knew that Christ’s spiritual legacy was destined for William John Hammann. From eternity and through the centuries, God’s love worked its way into the life of William John. And through the pouring of the Church’s baptismal waters, this love of God was made actual and tangible and perceptible to the Church community gathered one Sunday afternoon on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn. Baptism is first and foremost a celebration of God’s love for the young believer. God must always be primary. Now the Christian community, both Church and family, must bring the young believer’s love for God to fruition.
An older generation knew that children learned their religion at their mother’s knee. Nowadays that saying might be politically corrected by observing that children learn their religion at their mother and father’s knees. And not only mother and father, but a child’s whole environment – family, friends, neighbors, parish, school, even toys and entertainment – must speak of the love of God to the child. When prayers are part of the home, when Mass is part of the week, when Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, are family observances, when Bible stories are told and saints are invoked, when parish life is part of family life, when the poor are assisted and justice is a concern, when evil is repented and temptations are resisted, then the love of God celebrated sacramentally at Baptism and First Communion and Confirmation is nurtured practically in everyday life. Parents, family, friends, parish and the universal Church can give the new baptized a daily experience of the inexpressible love that God has for his chosen soul. Through an active Christian lifestyle, God will transform the clueless infant into an alert believer.