Life & Soul Life and Soul

My first time celebrating a baptism in the Extraordinary Form

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I have celebrated a baptism in the Extraordinary Form for the first time. I mention this not as the opening salvo in some campaign, rather to emphasise how I came to it without preconceptions. My reactions are based not on some a priori position or nostalgia, since my only experience hitherto has been my own baptism, just before the rites were changed – of which I naturally have scant memory. It is impossible not to recognise a case of lex orandi, lex credendi. The emphasis taught to the average Catholic school pupil, that baptism “makes you a member of God’s family, the Church”, is powerfully expanded by the theological symbolism and texts of the older rite.

In the new rite (which I have used happily for 20 years), the dialogue at the threshold of the church asks the parents what name they have given their child, and to the question, “What do you ask of God’s Church for [the baby]?” the rather obvious answer is “Baptism.” In the Extraordinary Form, the answer to the question, “What do you ask of God’s Church?” is “Faith,” and the next question is “And what does faith offer you?” Answer: “Eternal life.”

It could be argued that the old rite suggests something more dynamic than “baptism” – which might simply apply to the ceremony itself. Given that the Council wanted to return Catholics to the radical call to holiness involved in baptism, I couldn’t but feel that there was a certain irony in that the older form makes it far more explicit that the sacrament effects a rescue from the dominion of the Evil One, the father of sin and death, as well as the leaving behind of wounded, sinful nature for a new life of supernatural faith, by which we become sons in the Son and saved for eternal life.

I can see that the various (minor) exorcisms of the old rite are challenging to modern sensibilities, but only if you don’t believe in the Evil One, and you believe sin is a matter of circumstance and poor personal choices rather than the Fall. A theological equivalent of the Enlightenment’s “noble savage” view of human nature seems increasingly prevalent in the Church, replacing a Catholic one in which the life of nature and the life of grace are actually two distinct realities which are reciprocally influenced.

There is something momentarily uncomfortable about pronouncing exorcisms over a little child, until one begins to process the logic of why it is necessary. I am sure there is something uncomfortable about witnessing your infant having a tracheotomy, but if you know it is a matter of life or death, presumably you do not refuse it for sentimental reasons.

It challenged me to reflect on how deeply I believe what St Paul tells the Colossians so forcibly: “He has taken us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His Beloved Son.” And lest I leave the impression that this is all very cerebral, I should mention how striking is the powerful elemental symbolism of the insufflation, the Epheheta with spittle and salt on the baby’s tongue, with their Scriptural echoes.

I would miss elements of the newer rite such as Scripture readings and a blessing of the water. But the premise that we have swapped an old rite for one which has enhanced our awe and understanding of this beautiful sacrament is not, by any means, evident to me, nor apparently to the young parents of beautiful baby Pauline, now a saint in God’s Church.