Jesus was clear that baptism is our highest priority. Do our actions reflect that?
Catholics in America are so used to seeing the yearly numbers of baptisms drop that we might forget to ask a simple question: What if each of us actually invited people to baptize their babies, or be baptized themselves?
Baptisms of infants have dropped steadily in the 21st century in America, CARA reports, from 996,000 in 2000 to 806,000 in 2010 to just 546,000 last year — a 45% decrease just in the 20-some years since the century began. Baptisms of adults have seen an even worse decline, 54%, from 78,000 in 2000 to 42,000 in 2010 to 36,000 in 2020.
Father Dan Andrews says that’s not just a big problem, it’s the big problem.
The campus minister for the University of Nebraska in Lincoln called baptisms “the key indicator of Church health and credibility,” and added, “My main goal here, and metric, at the Newman Center is the number of baptisms. We’ve got a long way to go but our eye is on the prize.”
Of course, Jesus was the first to make baptisms our highest priority with his parting instructions at the Ascension: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Father Ryan Richardson, associate chaplain at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, has found great success in simply inviting students to be baptized.
“I have been regularly spending time with the athletic teams and asking who would be interested in being baptized,” he said.
This year, 12 entered the Church at the college, including nine athletes who had spoken to Father Ryan. For instance, Father Ryan saw football quarterback Luke Laskowski in the parking lot one day and asked him about his faith life. One thing led to another and soon he was being baptized.
“I cannot thank Father Ryan enough,” said Laskowski — the third Benedictine starting quarterback in a row to enter the Church.
Parishes should invite families to baptize their babies, too.
When I asked friends on Facebook if their parishes promote baptisms, I heard some great examples.
Whenever Father Ed Nadolny from the Hartford, Connecticut, Archdiocese, started at a new parish he would introduce himself to parents and offer to baptize any unbaptized children, one parishioner said. The priests at St. Peter Chanel Parish in Hawaiian Gardens, California, tell parents to stop by the church on the way home from the hospital to baptize their newborns.
Father Paul Turner at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City has the same message: “We encourage parents to have children baptized as soon as possible,” he told me. “We celebrate baptisms as often as possible at a regularly scheduled Mass, so that people witness it, talk about it, and encourage it.”
Promoting baptism can be formal or informal.
Father Gerard Senecal at St. Benedict’s Parish in Atchison used to take great delight in baptisms, and would personally take pictures of the families at each one — endangering himself by climbing on chairs in his old age to get everyone in the picture. Then, he would eagerly show the pictures to visitors. His enthusiasm for baptism was infectious.
Keeping it positive is the best approach.
Bishop Robert Barron has a great way of explaining what baptism does for us. He shares the wonderful old fable about the eagle that is accidentally hatched and raised by chickens. The young eagle walks around and pecks the ground with the chickens until a passing eagle comes and tells him who he really is. Bishop Barron tells the family and friends at baptisms that their job is to remind the newly baptized of her true dignity as a spiritual eagle, meant to soar.
St. Paul put the benefits of baptism succinctly when he said: “We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
St. Jerome compared our need for the waters of baptism to the deer in the Psalm: “As the deer longs for running water, so my soul longs for you, my God.”
I have grown to see my baptism that way. Baptism offers us a new beginning every day; it gives us freedom, happiness, community with God and neighbor, and membership in the family of God. There is no greater gift we can offer to those we know.