At this year’s Easter Vigil at St. Thomas Aquinas, ten adults and children, age seven and older, were baptized, and thus far this year, dozens of infants or young children under the age of seven have been baptized. This illustrates that both adult baptism and infant baptism co-exist as separate Rites of Initiation in the Catholic Church. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In the early Church, only one rite of baptism was practiced. Both children and adults were initiated into the Catholic Church with a rite that included baptism, confirmation and eucharist—all in one ceremony. Eventually, the unity of these three sacraments of initiation disintegrated and confirmation and eucharist were separated from baptism. This was due in part to Rome’s insistence that only a bishop could confirm. It was also due to a growing belief that baptism was the sole means of salvation, which led the Church to baptize infants as soon as possible after birth. By the sixth to the eighth centuries, only babies and young children were baptized, a practice that continued for centuries. The Second Vatican Council restored the ancient catechumenate for adults and children of catechetical age. That is why we celebrate baptism, confirmation and eucharist at the same time, as did the early Church. The Council also revised the rite of baptism for infants and young children.
Many a theologian across the Christian landscape has argued in favor of either adult baptism or the baptism of infants as the preferred practice. But the Roman Catholic Church sees the value of maintaining both. Both help to convey what baptism is all about.
Baptism, indeed all sacramental encounters, is based on divine initiative. It is God who calls us, who invites us into a relationship of unconditional love, and who bestows grace that is free and unmerited. While this divine initiative is present in adults who seek baptism, it is explicit in the baptism of infants and young children. Their baptism is a testament to God’s love, which is always a result of God’s desire to shower humanity with grace that is pure gift.
Baptism celebrates a share in the paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. While this paschal orientation is present in the rite of baptism for infants, it is more obvious in the baptism of adults which takes place at the Easter Vigil, a time when the entire church celebrates the meaning of Christ’s passage from darkness to light, from death to new life.
Both rites of infant and adult baptism require catechesis, the support and guidance of the Christian community and conversion to be more like Christ. Conversion is at the heart of baptism. Whether we are baptized as infants, young children, or adults, the process of conversion never truly ends.