The All Important ‘Yes’

“You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training your child in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring the child up to keep God’s commandments, as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

How many times have we asked that question of two doting parents as they present their child to the Church for baptism? We accept their predictable answer of Yes with the hopefulness that their Yes means Yes. Unfortunately, jadedness has settled in with me because I know that far too often the Yes is not realized. These loving parents have brought their child to the Church to be baptized because that is what Catholics do; their parents brought them to Church to be baptized and the generation before that did the same. They are good people, living wholesome lives, working hard to make ends meet. They mean well but. . . !

The question is more than just an intention question. It does not ask “Do you intend” to raise your child in the practice of the faith, it asks “Are you accepting the responsibility of training your child?”

The parents are not just accepting the responsibility to “share their faith” or “tell their children about the Faith.” The question asks them to train and to practice the Faith in and with their child. W.P. Wittman photo

In the prenuptial form there are three questions regarding the intention of the couple to be faithful, to have a permanent marriage and to have children. There seems to be more certainty during the prenuptial investigation that that Yes is more fully intended. It is not always as convincing with couples presenting their child. When the parents (supposedly parishioners) who are bringing the child for baptism do not know the priest’s name who has been at the parish for many years, it does not bode well that this Yes is going to be fulfilled. If they are not “raising themselves” in the practice of the faith, most likely they will not raise the child in it either.

It is frustrating to celebrate a baptism at a Mass with the parents and their family and friends in the front few pews, always lagging behind the assembly as to whether to sit, stand or kneel. When it comes time for communion and the two Catholic parents do not receive the Eucharist, it certainly is a counter-sign. Maybe I should be grateful that they discerned that they are not in good standing with the Church. Though I would rather err that they receive, as the not receiving sends a loud message to all in the assembly, “this Yes is not happening.”

The question asked at the opening of the baptismal ritual is so rich with meaning while being so basic. It is clear that the Faith needs to be practiced. The parents are not just accepting the responsibility to “share their faith” or “tell their children about the Faith.” The question asks them to train and to practice. You don’t become a musician by reading about music or hearing about music, you become a musician by practice and training. If you are a trainer, you are there with the people being trained, showing them what to do and how to do it.

Now, as most financial investors are quick to tell us, “past performance does not guarantee the same future results,” so maybe these parents’ past poor performances will not mean equally future poor results. Maybe, putting jadedness aside, these new parents have a heightened sense of responsibility. They have now been entrusted with a little person for whom they are totally responsible. This new role may be just the impetus for their own faith to get a kick-start. They become more duty bound to practice their own faith. The question does specifically state “it is your duty. . . .” Duty does have a tinge of honor about it as in doing one’s “duty” for your country. The word connotes the sense of burden as it is an obligation that the parents are now undertaking. Only time will tell if they do their duty on this front as they will most certainly do their duty to feed, shelter and educate their child.

Soon religious education programs will gear up. We have all experienced on a weekday night when parents drop off their children for religious education. The kids enter the classroom, and often it is obvious that some of these children don’t have a clue about their faith.

Parents may see the religious education program as a way to fulfill that promise made so many years ago. Mistakenly, the program is not there to give children faith; the program is there to help them understand their faith. The faith has to be there first. There is no religious education program, no book on a library shelf that can impart faith. Upon their arrival at religious education, many children have little or no faith base. Their experience with church or a faith is just not present. It is hard to teach in these experiences as there is or no context. The children are receiving the information that is taught and can probably repeat it, but for many, unfortunately, their lack of experience with the Faith prohibits a connection with the information they are now receiving.

St. Anselm of Canterbury’s motto “faith seeking understanding” succinctly states the balance between believing and knowing. He does not mean that understanding is more important than faith or even that it should replace faith. Faith for Anselm is a love for God and a drive to act as God wills. That drive to seek more understanding is a drive to seek a deeper knowledge of God and, therefore, to love him even more. At the same time, Anselm does not want to dismiss faith coming through reason. To paraphrase one of his tenets, “If anyone does not know, either because he has not heard or because he does not believe, that there is one nature, supreme among all existing things.... I think he could at least convince himself of most of these things by reason alone, if he is even moderately intelligent.”

Maybe some of the children with little or no faith who enroll in religious education programs or Catholic school at six years of age fall into the latter category for Anselm. Imagine what it was like for the early Church apostles or missionaries in the centuries that followed to travel to foreign lands where there was no faith. Where do you begin? Maybe in those places you do start with the intellect and reason. Take something the people do understand and springboard from that to bring them to a moment of faith. The whole role of catechist takes on a heightened responsibility. The catechist is taking on much of the duty to deepen not just the knowledge of God but deepen the love for God.

The opening of the baptismal ritual poses the question for the parents stated at the beginning of this column. There is also a question for the godparents: “Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?’ Maybe the ritual should add a third question to all those assembled. If the parish faithful are attending this baptism, could we not turn to them and ask for their help in raising this child in the practice of the Faith? We all have a stake in this faith. Should we not say “Yes” as well? As parishioners, fellow Catholics, we have a duty too to profess this faith in words and deeds. We can help train the child in the practice of the Faith. There are a lot of distractions out there that get in the way of a child’s understanding or acquiring faith. The more that parents, godparents and the whole Catholic community can work together, the next generation being presented to the Church for baptism will be trained in the practice of the Faith. They will have that deeper knowledge and love of God.

If even only one generation is lost by not having faith and therefore not practicing the Faith, the ripple effect to the Church could be disastrous. Once it is lost, it is hard to make up for. It is similar to a plane flying with too many empty seats. There are no “do overs” — that revenue is lost and not to be regained. Making up for the lost revenue demands even more vigilance in the years ahead. Each day is a new day to have a deeper love for God. Each day is a new day to deepen understanding of this God who only wants the best for us.

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.