Rethinking Baptismal Preparation

Baptism is often relegated to the back of our thoughts. For most Catholics, it occurred in infancy and is, therefore, not a personal memory. For still too many parishes, baptism remains a quasi-private event sequestered someplace after Mass on the occasional Sunday, rather than an integral part of the regular Sunday Mass. The truth is that the sacrament upon which the rest of the Christian spiritual life is built doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, much less visibility, in the typical Catholic life.

The same might be said of the preparation for baptism. Like an abbreviated form of premarital preparation, preparation for baptism in most places involves a brief overview of the meaning of the sacrament, filling out forms, picking readings, and a run-through/rehearsal of the rite for the “big day” (with guidance on the candle and the “white garment”).

I’d like to suggest we think bigger thoughts about baptismal preparation.

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The Archdiocese of Paris runs a program for parents expecting a child: “Spiritual Preparation for Parenthood.” I have not been able to obtain a content overview of the program, but it caused me to think about its perspective. We need to enlarge our expectations of this stage in life.

The transition in married life from “two” to “two in one flesh” is qualitative.  It has always been recognized that the shift from a mutual gaze to a common gaze on another person changes everything (including, for example, a husband’s feeling of being “second fiddle” to the new arrival).

If this was always true, it is an especially relevant phenomenon today in the United States, where “soulmate” models of marriage are becoming culturally dominant. Research by the National Marriage Project and other pro-marriage groups has documented the ascendance of a view of marriage that focuses on the spouse as the fulfillment—particularly the emotional fulfillment—of a person. Soulmate marriage focuses primarily on the two spouses and does not necessarily have a correlate with parenthood. This should be no surprise given the delayed age of first marriage and of childbearing. As the National Marriage Project has identified, today’s married couples spend increasingly less amounts of time in environments in which children are present.

Soulmate marriage, on the one hand, acknowledges a truth of Catholic theology: marriage and parenthood are separate institutions. But it underplays a second truth: in the normal course of affairs, marriage and parenthood are correlated. Marriage normally leads to parenthood. Soulmate marriage, particularly with its focus on the affective, runs a very strong risk of becoming an égoïsme à deux.

One must also not forget that ours is a society in which planned unparenthood is an increasing social norm. The tendency was already present in mainstream Protestantism, and the dissent against Humanae Vitae’s teaching that sexual intercourse is intrinsically connected both to procreation as well as unity has also lessened this sense of connection among Catholics in the United States. Put simply: once upon a time, the idea that marriage would lead to parenthood was a default assumption. Today, it increasingly is not.

Set against this perspective, parenthood poses a potentially greater crisis to soulmate marriage than it did to marriage in times past. When spouses looked forward to parenthood, there was a built-in focus outwards; the inward focus of soulmate marriage militates against this.

I would suggest, therefore, that baptismal preparation—particularly involving a first child—also needs to incorporate some element of what we might call post-marital preparation. Childbearing has always changed the focus of the spouses. It has particular implications for a marital model that accentuates that spousal focus. This would be an opportunity for the Church to review with the couple what Christian marriage means and entails, especially now that the couple is—or should be—living it and after some of the initial novelty has worn off.

It is also a moment to discuss how the marital vocation will now acquire a new dimension in parenthood. The sacrament of marriage no longer just embraces the couple but is the foundation of their ecclesiola, i.e., their Church in miniature. As the baptismal rite reminds us, parents are the first and, hopefully, best teachers of a child. Specifying the new meaning of their marital vocation together deserves attention.

The appearance of a child, and particularly the appearance of subsequent children in our child-ambivalent and child-adverse culture, also raises the question of moral and immoral means of regulating conception. I have long argued that this question needs to be addressed with more than just lip service in pre-Cana programs. It should also be a component of programs of spiritual preparation for parenthood, especially when the cultural message against children can be challenged by the existential experience and, hopefully, the joy of holding one’s own child.

Baptism also involves the question of religious formation. As noted above, baptism is the foundation of our spiritual lives and deserves serious consideration as such. Hopefully, this child is not just being baptized because “Aunt Violet and my mother” expect it. Baptism is a chance to reflect upon the state and quality of the religious life of the home in which the child will be raised. This discussion should not be evaded because, if it is, most likely the next occasion the Church will have to address this will probably be in seven years at First Communion time.

The kind of “post-marital/pre-baptismal catechesis” and spiritual formation I discuss here is obviously more time intensive than an hour with the priest filling out forms and reading through the baptismal booklet. Perhaps like marital preparation in some places, it could be considered as a ministry involving others in the parish/vicariate/diocese, including experienced couples of the parish.

Obviously, such a vision also is open to other aspects, e.g., the challenges of becoming a parent, care of a child, and preparation for birth as well as baptism. It can also be an opportunity to address the needs of special populations, e.g., single parents whose situations may require additional resources or assistance. After all, this is what a pro-life/pro-family Church should be about.

I have no illusion that the vision of baptismal preparation sketched out here is not demanding. With all its resources, the Church in the United States has been particularly lacking in its accompaniment of Catholic adults on the path of their adult spiritual lives. Rethinking how we engage and sustain our parishioners should be a priority. Baptism is one of those watershed moments that merit our complete attention.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Baptism of St. Francis of Assisi” painted by Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra in 1663. 


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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