I have heard the story told that Pope John Paul II was once asked, “What was the most important day of your life?”
He didn’t respond with any of his great accomplishments as pope, his many travels or memorable meetings. He didn’t recall his election as successor of Peter or even his ordination as priest or bishop. Rather, he said simply, “It was my baptism.”
What the holy Pope understood is that what happens in baptism is indeed the most important thing in our lives. It is when we become children of God, adopted sons in the Son.
In our continuing series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the next section (CCC 1066-1284) covers the sacramental economy, the sacred liturgy and the sacrament of baptism.
The liturgy is the church’s official prayer. It is our entrance into the heavenly liturgy, made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Far from simply celebrating our unity together, in the sacred liturgy first we worship God. We give him glory and in so doing are sanctified—made holy. The liturgy—the holy Mass, the other sacraments, and the official prayer of the church, the Liturgy of the Hours or divine office—is much more than our private prayer. While it presumes other devotional and private prayers, the sacred liturgy is the source and summit of all Christian life.
The seven Sacraments—baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, matrimony, and holy orders—were instituted by Christ. They are visible signs that give sanctifying grace and are the indispensible means of salvation, of meeting Christ in his church.
In discussing Sacraments it is important to understand two words—validity and liceity. A sacrament is valid if the proper matter and form are used by a valid minister. Liceity refers only to whether the law of the church has been fulfilled. For example, a priest not wearing the proper vestments is illicit but the Mass is still validly celebrated, that is, the Eucharist is still really confected. On the other hand, if the priest used rice instead of bread the Mass would be invalid and Jesus would not become present on the altar.
This is crucial because in a valid celebration of a sacrament something really happens. Much more than a mere symbol and calling to consciousness God’s always present love, in the sacraments of Christ there is real change, real action, and God’s saving activity in the world. For their saving grace, there is no substitute.
In the Eucharist, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, a man is configured to Christ in holy orders, a sinner becomes a friend of God in confession, a Christian becomes a witness to the world in confirmation. A man and woman are made to image Christ and the church in Matrimony and the sick and dying are united to the cross of Christ and made ready to meet him in holy anointing.
As baptism is the only way we know how to enter into God’s life, in danger of death anyone can baptize. Only an unbaptized person can be validly baptized, because baptism—like confirmation and holy orders—imprints an indelible character and thus cannot be received again. Baptism makes use of water, recalling God’s saving Noah from the flood and Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. One is baptized into the Holy Trinity with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In baptism, one receives sanctifying grace, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In one who is baptized and has not lost the gift of grace through grave sin or has had it restored through the sacrament of penance, we find the very indwelling of God.
It is a mystery beyond imagining, the gift of God himself. Not surprisingly then, it seems the pope is right: no wonder baptism is the most important day of your life.
Father Connors was ordained in June and is currently studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he is pursuing a licentiate in moral theology. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Connors and Father Joseph Upton.