The Church gathers around our daughter. It starts near the altar, where our priests stand before us, facing as we are, chanting with us the Litany of the Saints. We beckon Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, John, Agatha, Maximillian, Cecilia, Anastasia and Zélie and Louis into our company, along with Felicity, Thérèse, Isaac Jogues, Francis Xavier, Gianna Molla, and Mary Magdalene, whose personal names rest upon our own children. These saints and more follow my wife and me and the infant child in her arms, as we walk back towards the entrance of the church, to the baptismal font.
The rest of the community meets us there in the persons of our fellow parishioners who have come to the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass. Scores of children stand along the low borders of our cruciform font. They all know these waters quite well because as toddlers they were all unbreakably drawn to plunging their sleeved-arms into them during playfully inattentive years of liturgical hyperactivity. They are eager to see a new child touch these familiar waters and so they arrange themselves into concentric circles around the font, shortest to tallest, as if they are well-practiced in such matters. Behind the children are the adults, some with even more children hoisted upon their shoulders.
This is the most beautiful our parish ever looks.
Our church building is a rather drab, unimaginative place. Floor to ceiling, the brick walls are a color best described as lukewarm taupe. Artwork is desperately lacking and the cubic openness makes the space feel hollow even when occupied. There are 15 small, rectangular stained-glass windows running length-wise along the upper walls on either side of the “nave” in which I have, on dozens of occasions, mentally installed the figures of the saints of the Roman Canon in place of the boxy-abstract-sheepishly-postmodern designs that presently reside there. If there is an advantage to such an aesthetically un-stimulating liturgical space, it is that there is not much incentive to look away from the work conducted on the altar. That work is always beautiful.
But on a morning such as this, those saints that I wish were in the windows and who are always present in the sacrifice of the altar join us in our pilgrimage to the back of the church. They gather with us tightly around the font, waiting and watching. In this movement the otherwise hollow space of the church is filled with a beauty not its own. And in the center of this convocation is our daughter, Gianna Magdalene.
Maybe it is because she is the fifth of our children to be baptized this way that I feel somewhat free to look around a bit more than I have before. I have always believed the mystery of Baptism to be true, but the way in which our parish conducts this ritual—right in the middle of the liturgy, with a short pilgrimage, no less—allows me to see a real image of what we believe. This particular parish and these particular people are the visible sign of the invisible communion that forms around this font, huddling around this small creature to bring her through Christ’s death, into the life of the Church.
Indeed, it takes the work of the whole Church to love each member into eternal life.
And so I find myself grateful to our parish, under the patronage of St. Joseph, for giving this gift to our daughter. I am grateful to our fellow parishioners for the generosity of 20 extra minutes added on to a “regular” Sunday liturgy for us to do this work together. I am grateful to the little girl who threw her face into her mother’s chest and screamed “I don’t like it! I don’t like it!” when she saw our daughter plunged into the waters the first time (you’re right, child, this isn’t commonplace and there is drama here). I am grateful to a new set of godparents who have agreed to help us raise our children in the practice of the faith. I am grateful to the saints who joined us and who keep our litany going by singing our children’s names in the heavenly choir. In sum, I am grateful to the Church for gathering around our daughter.