Whenever the liturgy is modernised, the result is to minimise the action of the supernatural, ditching any supposedly “magical” elements because they make people feel uncomfortable.
Baptism is where you see this flattening effect most starkly. In the Catholic Church it used to be a more elaborate business. In the old rite, before the baby (or adult candidate) reaches the font – the actual baptism, or what is called the “matter and form of the sacrament” – there are layers of prayers and ritual designed to expel the Devil. It is understood that the words and substances have real potency.
I was part of an old-rite baptism recently, as a godparent. Our family friends, Keith and Ashley, visited from America, bringing their three-month-old son, Rory, to be baptised at the church where they used to worship, the London Oratory.
(Incidentally, the liturgy we followed is the same as the one you see in the grand finale of The Godfather, in which the godfather’s impassive responses to the baptismal interrogation – “Do you renounce Satan?… I do renounce him” – are intercut with explosions from shotgun, machine gun and pistol.)
The drama of baptism begins outside the church, or at its entrance, to indicate that the candidate is not yet a member of the community of believers. The tone of the old rite immediately strikes you as solemn and sacramental. Ours was nearly all in Latin, but it doesn’t have to be.
It takes in unfamiliar rituals such as the ephpheta – the opening of the ears and nostrils of the candidate with spittle, derived from Jesus’s healing of the deaf mute; and the “exsufflation”, when the priest blows three times on the infant in the form of a cross, recalling the “spirit” or, in Hebrew, the ruach of God.
The modern version is more joy-filled, but it’s also vaguer and, in a way, babyish by comparison. It begins like this: “The celebrant greets all present, and especially the parents and godparents, reminding them briefly of the joy with which the parents welcomed this child as a gift from God, the source of life, who now wishes to bestow his own life on this little one.”
In the old rite a series of rituals is enacted even before the candidate enters the church – first questioning, then the Sign of the Cross on the forehead and breast, and the imposition of hands “to break the toils of Satan”. Finally, in Rory’s case, grains of salt were placed in his mouth, to preserve him from the corruption of sin, and as a symbol of wisdom. (The salt didn’t bother him.)
Once Rory was admitted to the Church, he underwent an exorcism followed shortly afterwards by a further “solemn exorcism”. I’ve heard it suggested, by Fr Julian Large, provost of the London Oratory, that this thorough process – originally designed for adult candidates – may provide extra protection against the Devil in later life.
The ceremony concluded with the lighting of the baptismal candle. After the last words of goodwill, there was a panicky moment. The priest, Fr Rupert McHardy, wanted to give our daughter Mary, four, something to do, so he suggested that she might blow out the candle. In trying to do this she set fire to her hair. Her fringe disappeared in a crackle of sparks like a small firework. Luckily, I’m not sure she realised what had happened.
The ceremony forces us to ponder what it all means. These days we grasp the symbolism of rituals but resist any suggestion of supernatural agency – just as we don’t like to talk about the Devil as a reality. But these things – the salt, the Sign of the Cross, the chrism for the final anointing – have a power that is more than symbolic, if we are saying that they help to expel the Devil and preserve one from evil.
After all, fonts used to be locked, partly to prevent the misuse by lay people of the blessed water in illicit magical ceremonies, but also in acknowledgement that the water itself had sacred power.
The beauty of the old rite of baptism is that it expects us to face the existence of evil in the world and the use of supernatural tools to combat it; it does not gloss over these hard questions with vague and childish language.
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (27/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: Andrew M Brown says all baptisms should have a touch of The Godfather, Mary Kenny on the wisdom of Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife and Colin Brazier says we should breed like rabbits. Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!