The case for baptism by immersion

Question: Where in Church documents is baptism by immersion mentioned? Some members of our parish liturgy committee are pushing it as our church is preparing to undergo a renovation. I have the impression that this is made up by liturgists.

— Name and address withheld

Answer: The General Introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) states: “As the rite for baptizing, either immersion, which is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, or pouring may lawfully be used” (No. 22 ).

The documentation of the RCIA itself directs: “Therefore in the celebration of baptism the washing with water should take on its full importance as the sign of the mystical sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through which those who believe in his name die to sin and rise to eternal life. Either immersion or the pouring of water should be chosen for the rite, whichever will ensure the clear understanding that this washing is not a mere purification rite but the sacrament of being joined to Christ” (No. 213 ).

The rite of baptism provided in the RCIA states as follows: “If baptism is by immersion, of the whole body or of the head only, decency and decorum should be preserved. ... The celebrant, immersing the candidate’s whole body or head three times, baptizes in the name of the Trinity” (No. 226 ).

The National Statutes for the Catechumenate, approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986, contains the strongest statement on baptism by immersion: “Baptism by immersion is the fuller and more expressive sign of the sacrament and, therefore, is preferred. Although it is not yet a common practice in the United States, provision should be made for its more frequent use in the baptism of adults. At the least, the provision of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for partial immersion, namely immersion of the candidate’s head, should be taken into account” (No. 17).

Clearly the preference for baptism by immersion is not something “made up by liturgists” but is the mind of the Church officially. As a pastor who oversaw the renovation of a cathedral church in the 1990s and who led the drive to provide an immersion font, I am a firm believer in baptism by immersion. (By immersion it does not necessarily mean submersion, but having the candidate stand in water up to his or her knees while water is poured over the head.) I can think of no good reason not to install an immersion font in a new or renovated church. All the reasons for an immersion font point in a positive direction.

 Baptism by immersion makes tangible the theological motif of baptism as going down into the waters of death and rising again with Christ; it underscores the Exodus theme of crossing over the Red Sea from slavery to freedom; it provides visual expression of baptism as encounter with the tomb of death and with the womb of new life.

One of the aims of the modern liturgical movement before and since the Second Vatican Council has been to make the symbols of Christian life more real and tangibly evident. Of course, all one needs for a valid baptism is a small amount of water poured over the forehead, but how much more expressive is the use of a large font in which a significant body of water is used and where the candidate may encounter that water in a fuller way.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.