Returning To Our Roots
While infant baptism has become the “normal” or usual form of Baptism for Catholics today, the normative or standard is really adult baptism. To better understand the implications of this sacrament today, it is necessary to look at the original Baptismal Catechumenate. In the early church, it was adults who presented themselves for initiation into the Church; children were baptized only when their parents converted to Christianity. The community then invited these men and women to join with them on their own journey of faith. Those who said yes to the invitation were known as catechumens and their acceptance started them on a lengthy process of preparation for Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, the Sacraments of Initiation. The catechumenate lasted for several years and was not something that anyone took lightly. In addition to formal instruction, the newcomers needed to discern whether they could leave their pagan background behind to accept and live with the Christian faith. By participating in the prayer, outreach and discussions with the Christian community, they were able to make an informed choice as to their ability to commit to their mission and ministry. Because this was a time of persecution, becoming a Christian was not something that was done frivolously. There were many professions that Christians were forbidden to practice. Family gatherings frequently centered on celebrating the feasts and holidays of the pagan gods ~ to become a Christian meant walking away from family, friends and livelihood. The original role of the sponsor was to verify the commitment and sincerity of the catechumen to prevent pagan infiltration of the faith community.
The catechumenate was not the responsibility of a single professional holy person but was owned by the entire Church. Everyone would pray for and with the catechumens, sharing their experiences of Jesus, forming them in His values and vision and celebrating each stage of their journey with them. Because the Church is the Body of Christ and includes everyone, each member expected to offer their gifts.
The final Lent of their initiation was a special time for the catechumens. Formal instruction was set aside and the time spent on intense prayer, fasting and self scrutiny to prepare them to be received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Not just for the catechumens, Lent was also an opportunity for the Christian community to renew their own commitment to the challenge and rewards of discipleship. At the Easter Vigil (the only time that these Sacraments were celebrated in powerful word and ritual, the catechumens, supported by the Church, became part of the Paschal Mystery, the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Following Easter, the period of Mystagogy, or reflection on the mysteries, offered the neophytes the time and structure to continue to explore the deeper meaning of their faith.
For a number of reasons, this community centered journey of faith lost its place in the Catholic Church. The Sacraments of Initiation were separated and put out of order and rather than a lifetime conversion process, baptism became more of an automatic, isolated ritual, disconnected from the life of the individual or the community. In 1972, the Revised Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults was published, returning the Church to it former practice of Baptismal catechesis.