Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Baptism and the responsibilities of parents
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Feb. 7, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
What is the proper church for the celebration of the sacrament of baptism? It first must be said that our Roman Catholic tradition assumes that at least one parent is a practicing Catholic, and that the proper parish for the baptism is the one with which the parents have identified, i.e., the parish where the Catholic parent(s) normally worship on Sundays. The entire parish community has a duty to offer love and support to the children of its members, and the fulfillment of this duty is questionable if the infant and parents are from some other parish, or if they have not really identified with any parish at all.
The church also assumes, both within its tradition and in its laws, that parents will be properly prepared for the celebration of the baptism. After all, during the ritual the parents are asked if they clearly understand the duties they are undertaking. Later on in the baptismal liturgy they are reminded again that they must make it their constant care to bring up their child in the practice of the faith, and that the church now assumes that their faith makes them ready to accept this responsibility.
Clearly, then, parents must be fully acquainted with what it is they profess to understand, and with the responsibilities that they formally accept. The ritual books remind us that “to instruct parents and to inquire about their faith in the course of the rite is not enough.” The church’s canon law reflects the concern that the parents be properly prepared: “The parents of an infant who is to be baptized and likewise those who are to undertake the office of sponsor are to be properly instructed in the meaning of this sacrament and the obligations that are attached to it; personally or through others the pastor is to see to it that the parents are properly formed by pastoral directions and by common prayer, gathering several families together...”
For a number of centuries we had lost sight of infant baptism as a serious commitment on the part of parents, and saw it instead as something we do primarily for the spiritual safety of the child. Baptism was administered as soon as possible after birth, much like a polio vaccination is administered to an infant as soon as possible. Virtually no time was spent helping parents understand their responsibilities, and little or no attention was given to baptism as the sacrament of initiation into the church – the church which is visibly symbolized and made manifest by a concrete community of believers called a parish.
Baptism, unlike a vaccine, does not produce its wonderful effects in the lifetime of an individual independent of one’s personal life of faith. There are very good chances that a child will not grow up in the practice of the faith if parents are unable or unwilling to guide the child in that journey of faith, and it is unlikely that Catholic parents can be adequate spiritual guides if neither of them practice the Catholic faith.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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