By Corinne Winter
This spring, Catholic dioceses in the United States will begin using an English translation of the Baptismal Rite for Children approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2017 and confirmed by the Apostolic See in 2019.
The differences between the new translation and that which has been in use are quite small. However, their introduction and the time and effort devoted to making the translation from the Latin as accurate and clear as possible attests to the church’s concern for the participation of all its members in the liturgy of the sacrament of baptism.
The Decree on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) was the first document issued out of the Second Vatican Council. It includes a call for all the faithful to “take part [in liturgical rites] fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it.” As Catholics, we believe that the sacraments are divine gifts in that through them, God freely gives grace, a participation in the divine life. We further believe that the liturgy is the work of the church and that therefore, we have a responsibility to open ourselves to God’s gift through prayer and reflection on the meaning of what we are doing. To that end, the church examines the language of the rites and strives to make sure it communicates as accurately as possible the meaning of the sacraments. The advent of a revised translation provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the sacrament of baptism.
The translation of the essential rite of baptism, the immersion in or pouring of water and the formula remains the same: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We are aware that especially in a case of emergency those essential words and action are sufficient for a valid baptism which joins the baptized person to Christ through participation in his death and resurrection, makes her a member of his body, sets her free from the power of sin and gives her a new life that is a participation in the divine life itself.
The newness in the 2017 translation appears in the “explanatory rites” that come after the essential rite in a Catholic liturgical celebration. These rites serve to amplify the meaning of baptism. They include the anointing with chrism, the clothing with a white garment, the passing on of a lighted candle and the ephphata, the prayer over the ears and mouth.
The anointing with chrism stresses that the baptized are chosen and marked by God as members of a priestly people, called to participate in the mission of Christ as priest, prophet and king. Baptism is a saving gift not only for the one baptized and for the church. Baptism is a sacrament of vocation, a call to mission for the whole world. When we witness the baptism of another, we should recall our universal vocation and make a new commitment to it.
The clothing with a white garment is accompanied by a proclamation that the baptized is “a new creation.” We often think of it in terms of purity, the washing away of sin. But the words set it in the larger context of creation itself. In the letter to the Colossians, Christ is described as “the firstborn of a new creation.” As members of Christ, we are joined to that identity, called to live as a sign and instrument of the ultimate goal of creation. Of course, that includes continuous efforts to overcome sin, for sin is opposed to the journey to God. It gives further meaning to our struggles against temptation not only for our sake, but also for the sake of the whole world.
The lighted candle, usually lit from the Easter candle, signifies that through the grace of baptism we receive enlightenment, the ability to know God. St. Athanasius in the 5th century described the effects of sin as loss of the knowledge of God for which we were created. Therefore, revelation of God was one of the key reasons Christ came. To know God is to be saved. A candle provides light not only for the one holding it but also for others drawn to it. We are urged to keep that light shining so that we ourselves may see and that others may see and follow.
Finally, the ephphata is a prayer that the baptized person may both hear and speak God’s word. It emphasizes our call to discipleship, to keep hearing and learning, as well as our call to evangelization, which has been a theme of recent popes.
The sacrament of baptism is a gift for individuals, for the church and for the world. As a new translation is implemented, may we renew our appreciation of that gift, recognize that we are called to participate in the baptismal liturgy through our presence and our prayer, and be strengthened in our commitment to the calling we receive through the sacrament.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)