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Tom McMahon today guides his Polar Express "thought train" to the station stop marked "Baptism". In his usual fearless way he ventures into the territory that causes heart palpitations in some sectors of the Church and questions the established orthodoxies and practices. For the parents of adult children reading this: if you had your time over again what things would you do differently in the religious and spiritual formation of your children?
Living a Christian life is an adult experience…
As much as we enjoy musing over God's presence in our family wedding we now move on with station BAPTISM in mind. I offer two stories that will set the table for education and discussion. In my 26 years of institutional ministry I liturgically baptized around 3000; our two sons were never baptized, formally that is, nor our two grandchildren. For years I kept in mind Yves Congar's warning about infant baptism deteriorating into a nice cute ceremony. Life in Jesus demands commitment. Living a Christian life is an adult experience.
My friend Dorothy is mother of two girls (now 59 and 49) and grandmother of two boys (26 and 28) and two girls (6 and 5). Dorothy, a founding member of our home community of Jesus Our Brother is learned in Vatican Two, knowing well her basic and advanced theology. The party line no longer resonates with this well-read and educated woman. Dorothy shakes her head when the word original sin is mentioned; her God is a lover of the human race and she can't imagine any of God's creation being "sinful". Following the bent of their husbands, Dorothy's married daughters have joined Presbyterian and Methodist communities. When her grandchildren were baptized Dorothy carefully listened for any mention of negativity in new borns, respectfully ready to admonish the clergy if they erred. Our faith community views Augustine with a careful eye; we know him psychologically. Aside from original sin if R.N. Dorothy were to hear "illegitimate child" she would be quick to respond "oh no, never … perhaps illegitimate parents". Dorothy finds God in all creation and surely in the innocence of a child. Dorothy and her husband, Kelly, took my wife to hospital when our first was born, while I was away burying my oldest brother. For Dorothy there are no strangers in the universal family of God.
Italian Enes and Elio, now well into their 80's, 20 years ago awaited the arrival from China of an adopted grandchild, new father trained in Catholic schools and new mother Hong Kong Buddhist; we had discussed an acceptable liturgy. We had a back yard ceremony of pouring welcoming water, well attended by young and old timers. Quietly we washed away our prejudices toward Asians as we welcomed the innocent babe to our fast changing old European world; perhaps one needs be a native Californian to appreciate our insidious, ever-lurking, long-standing Asian prejudices. (my archetypal jealousy begins in the Gold Rush of 1849 when Chinese owned nearly 90% of the land in San Francisco, supplying the needs of those who rushed off to make their fortune; hostile jealous legislation followed making family immigration impossible and forbidding marriage between a Caucasian and an Asian. I was born unknowingly into this criminal mentality and Pearl Harbor did not help. Perhaps a comparison in Australia to the Aborigines might help.) I was born, raised, and educated in a political and religious system of apartheid and rescued by Vatican Two.
Representing the gathered community I was first to show the way; new parents followed with the symbolic waters of welcome, again followed by grandparents and immediate family. Next came the children who eagerly lined up and greeted the baby with water and kisses, after a "stern" warning of responsibility in loving the innocent one by the "minister" (that's me folks). Grandmother Enes then took the tot around to her friends who continued to use the now sacred (special) waters of welcome; deliberately Grandmother Enes stood before an old Italian male (who looked a bit baffled) and without hesitation and with beautiful smile said "surely 'Guesepe' you want to offer your welcome." … and he did. A feast followed and Jesus was present. Keep in mind that all sacraments are "propter hominem", that is "for the good of humankind".
Years later new pope Benedict the 16th would question the validity of baptismal words, looking at ritual and not a Spirit presence. Having lived outside community and having little awareness of people needs the pope in seeing only roman legality misses the boat completely. Perhaps the liturgical words were missing but the Spirit of Jesus — the hospitable man for all peoples — was present. People have often questioned me about our not baptizing our two sons; I have responded that I baptized them many times during their youthful days, unbaptizing them at times with foolish words and actions. I prefer to think that someday Tommy and Steve will take the time to appreciate Jesus and may commit themselves individually to my Christ's way of life; I see Steve and wife, Deya, baptizing their two tots all day long. I look back and recall the words of Francis of Assisi … Preach always and sometimes use words. (By the way Francis was never an ordained priest)
We need updated theologies…
Since my departure from institutional ministry I have watched dear friend clerics fly to distant parts of the United States to witness weddings and perform baptisms; there is a mysterious power presence in the man who still wears a clerical collar and their ranks are thin. Not to offend my friends and having been one myself for years I quietly view them/us as magic men. I have wondered what their sense of community is, especially after a return from a distant baptism and a situation in which they may meet the family and the infant again ten years from now. The people see them as bringing God's blessing.The words commitment and Yves Congar's "cute little sacrament of baptism" haunt me. Fancying myself as the lieutenant in Dancing With the Wolves, relegated to outpost San Jose by supreme Roman command, I often think of my own baptism, 79 years ago, with godparents whom I never knew and its record which served to get me entry into the seminary in 1942. I was "vir baptizatus", the baptized testicaled male, OK for being separated from community by being ordained as special man. Does my ritual baptism give me any status in the Roman church today? Am I still a member? Or because I was naughty and married as a priest did my indelible mark on soul just simply vanish? If the church of today is to survive another criterion for membership is needed. We need updated theologies. Limiting God-human contacts to old roman concepts fail to communicate a modern day message; the glitch in the system is the human element. God is always pushing into human life.
When Henry Ford invented the assembly line he offered to a mechanic the opportunity to put a fender in place for most of that man's life; how dull that must have been in 1910, day-after-day to go through the same motions and do the same job, just to keep a family alive. Is it possible that the priest you call your pastor is burned out, dulled with the repetition of "another" baptism and this for 45 or 55 years, knowing all along that Roman Power says that the priest-cleric who baptizes need be unmarried and childless to do the job properly? … and he never really gets to be a member of the community….. and others converting from Anglicanism can! Would that I could find out how my classmates think of rituals 58 years after our ordination. and their required isolation.
Would Jesus use any of the seven sacraments today?
In 1961 when I stood before John the 23rd I sensed with awe that this Man of God used only human tools to address God-human experiences. Angelo Roncalli had many a dialogue with his Italian brothers and kin and he knew what it was like to be earthy. This pope had once been a sergeant in the Italian army. When reminded that he was an infallible pope John smiled and said "so they say". Sacraments are sacred signs that close the gap between God and humans. The bishops of the Council of Trent dealt with a population that was reeling under the Black Death that had decimated Europe; the clergy of the day told the people that the Plague was God's punishment for their sins. Cardinal Paul Cullen pulled the same nonsense on the Irish during the Great Potato Famine. Trent's Seven Sacraments are spawned in the matrix of fear and sin with a distant God about whom Mel Gibson has made movies and a fortune. Jesus calls his father "Abba" which translates to "daddy". Will the Roman church listen to Jesus? Has Jesus any say in the Roman church? Would Jesus use any of the seven Trentan sacraments today?
I close with questions to my readers: Do you know when and where you were baptized and who were your godparents? Are you a Christian today — follower of the Man from Nazareth because you were baptized as an infant? Was your real baptism the atmosphere of your parents?
Tom on watch at outpost San Jose, who was baptized every day of my life by my widowed mother and who never met my godparents as child or adult. 04/09/2008
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?