The signs and symbols involved in this sacrament are self-explanatory: they are capable of being easily understood. Signs and symbols are never meant to be so mysterious that they are beyond our human understanding. Most important of all is that the sacrament itself is more than a collection of signs and symbols; the sacrament of baptism and indeed all the sacraments accomplish what they signify.
The celebration begins with the welcoming of the child or adult to be baptised, and indeed all who are attending. This should be an eventful and joyful day for the parish, community, family and friends. As we begin, the parents are asked what name, or names, they have given to their child. To be baptised by a name shows that God knows us: in God's eyes we are never anonymous. The parents are then asked what they wish for their child, and their answer is “Baptism”.
In the past, the main focus of this sacrament was the cleansing of the child from the stain of original sin. We are still reminded of this in the celebration, but we also focus on the welcoming of the child into the already existing Christian community.
Pope Benedict XVI said:
Through baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him or her in life or in death. This group of friends, this family of God, into which the child is now admitted, will always accompany him/her, even on days of suffering and in life’s dark nights; it will give him/her consolation, comfort, and light. (8 January 2006)
The parents are then reminded of their responsibility to raise their child in the love of God, neighbour and self. They will help the child to grow in his/her faith by encouraging, supporting and loving while, at the same time, helping them to understand who God is and what it means to be in a loving relationship with this same God. The godparents are also asked if they will support the parents in the raising of the child in the Catholic faith. Indeed, the extended family and the community present also offer their support.
1. The Sign of the Cross
As the ceremony continues, the celebrant traces the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person being baptised, and he invites the parents and godparents to do the same. Most of us make the sign of the cross at different times during any one day; it is a sign of who we are – Christians – and also it reminds us that we belong to God. The sign of the cross also reminds us of Jesus’ saving passion, death, and resurrection and how, through this event, we are freed from the power of sin and became sharers in the very life of Christ himself.
2. Readings from Scripture
The word of God is then proclaimed. As always, the word of God is meant to encourage, uplift and challenge. It is this same word of God that builds up our faith as we journey through life. Prayers of the faithful may also follow here.
3. Anointing with the Oil of Catechumens
This is one of the oils blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. It is an oil to be used for candidates for baptism. In the early Church, and even today, candidates for adult baptism (catechumens) go through a preparation for baptism in which they are instructed in the faith. Remember, baptism liberates from (Original) sin and so the prayer that accompanies this anointing is a call to renounce sin and leave behind the domination of the power of evil.
4. Blessing of the Baptismal Water
The prayer of blessing here asks God that "...through His Son the power of the Holy Spirit may be sent upon the water, so that those who will be baptised may be born of water and the Spirit." Water symbolises cleansing and new life. The baptism that is administered with this blessed water "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" is more than a sign or a symbol: it is new life in Christ.
5. Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith
Those being baptised are asked (in the case of adult baptism) to reject sin and Satan, and to profess their faith in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the case of infants, the parents, godparents and all those present do this on behalf of the child who cannot yet speak for him or herself. While speaking on behalf of the child, the parents and all those present are also asked to renew their own Christian commitment. This is what we mean when we profess our faith, the faith of the whole Church.
6. The Baptism with Water in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
This is the essential rite of the sacrament: water is poured three times on the child’s head and, at the same time, the words "[name], I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit” are spoken. The pouring of water helps us to understand that Original Sin, (our sins) are washed away and we are filled with divine life and light as we are cleansed by the pouring.
7. The Anointing with Chrism
This is another of the oils blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. It is a perfumed oil, a mixture of olive oil and balsam, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit. This same oil is used in baptism, confirmation, priestly and episcopal ordination, and also the consecration of altars. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that strengthens and enables the person being baptised to remain faithful to their commitment to Christ.
8. Reception of the White Garment and the Candle
After the anointing with Chrism, the newly baptised is present with a white garment and a candle. The candle is lit from the Paschal Candle, which represents the risen Christ, and reminds the newly baptised of the light of Christ that he or she has received. It is also a symbol for all those present that they too are to be lights for the world. The white garment shows that the newly baptised have "put on Christ." To be clothed in this white garment also symbolises being clothed in Christ’s protective love.
Baptism is the foundational sacrament and the prerequisite for all other sacraments: none of the other sacraments can be received unless the person has been baptised.
Baptism is the sacrament that unites us with Christ. Remember – it is much more than a sign of conversion or a simple washing away of Original Sin. Baptism is entry into new life in Christ.
From ancient times the Church has practised infant baptism. The reason? According to the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, "...before we decide on God, God has decided on us. Baptism is therefore a grace, an undeserved gift of God, who accepts us unconditionally. Believing parents who want what is best for their child want baptism also, in which the child is freed from the influence of Original Sin and the power of death." (pp 117-118)
From the same catechism: Being baptised means that my person life story is submerged in the stream of God’s love. "Our life," says Pope Benedict XVI, "now belongs to Christ, and no longer to ourselves. At his side and, indeed, drawn up in his love, we are freed from fear. He enfolds us and carries us wherever we may go – he who is life itself!" (pp 118-119)
Remember – we are incorporated into Christ by baptism. It seals us with and indelible spiritual mark (character) of our belonging to Christ. By baptism we become members of the Church, the Body of Christ, part of the Christian community.
- YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church – English Edition), Catholic Truth Society, 2011
- Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults, Irish Episcopal Conference, Veritas, 2014