May 07, 2015

Baptism by immersion is an authentic post-Vatican II development

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City underwent a major renovation in the early 1990s. One of the more notable liturgical changes was the installation of an immersion baptismal font.

Since I was Cathedral rector during the renovation, I now give regular tours of the building. The thing that most puzzles visitors, especially Catholics, is the presence of the immersion font. What is the warrant for it? Why is it necessary? Does the Church approve of immersion fonts?

So, I find that I have to rehearse constantly the Church’s rationale for baptism by immersion.  Here it is. 

The General Introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) states: “As the rite for baptizing, either immersion, which is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, or pouring may lawfully be used” (no. 22).

The documentation of the RCIA itself directs: “Therefore in the celebration of baptism the washing with water should take on its full importance as the sign of the mystical sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through which those who believe in his name die to sin and rise to eternal life. Either immersion or the pouring of water should be chosen for the rite, whichever will ensure the clear understanding that this washing is not a mere purification rite but the sacrament of being joined to Christ” (no. 213).

The rite of baptism provided in the RCIA states as follows: “If baptism is by immersion, of the whole body or of the head only, decency and decorum should be preserved. . . . The celebrant, immersing the candidate’s whole body or head three times, baptizes in the name of the Trinity” (no. 226).

The National Statutes for the Catechumenate approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986 contains the strongest statement on baptism by immersion: “Baptism by immersion is the fuller and more expressive sign of the sacrament and, therefore, is preferred. Although it is not yet a common practice in the United States, provision should be made for its more frequent use in the baptism of adults. At the least, the provision of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for partial immersion, namely immersion of the candidate’s head, should be taken into account” (no. 17).

Clearly the preference for baptism by immersion is in accord with the mind of the Church. (Full immersion is not the same thing as partial immersion. The first involves the lowering of the whole body under the water; partial immersion means having the candidate stand in water up to his or her knees while water is poured over the head.)

Baptism by immersion makes tangible the theological motif of baptism as going down into the waters of death and rising again with Christ; it underscores the Exodus theme of crossing the Red Sea from slavery to freedom; it provides visible expression of baptism as encounter with the tomb of death, and the womb of new life.

One of the aims of the modern liturgical movement before and since the Vatican II has been to make the symbols of Christian life more real and tangible. Of course, all one needs for a valid baptism is a small amount of water poured over the forehead, but how much more expressive is the use of a large font in which a significant body of water is used and where the candidate may encounter the meaning of baptism in a fuller way.

It’s time for all Catholic churches to install immersion fonts!

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.