Consciously and Conscientiously
Published on February 5-6, 2011 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
In the old Rite of Baptism (before Vatican II), the celebrant addresses the infant to be baptized throughout the ritual and directs his questions to him: “What is your name?” “N., what do you ask of God’s Church?” (Ordo Baptismi Parvuli 1) “N., do you wish to be baptized?” (Ordo Baptismi Parvuli 18).This seems strange to us now and I suspect that it seemed strange even then when the priest posed these questions to a child who would not have been old enough to respond. But, the Rite also expects that, while the questions were addressed to the child, the responses were to be given by the godparents. The godparents gave the answers that the child could not yet voice, the answers that hopefully he in due time would give for himself. In the old Rite, the godparents stood in the place of the child and spoke on his behalf. In fact, the parents did not have any active roles in this version. They were never addressed or even expected to respond. It would seem, at least from the flow of the ritual, that the parents did not even have to be present.
In the present Rite of Baptism for children (promulgated after Vatican II), the celebrant addresses the parents rather than the child. Only once does the celebrant address the child before the baptism itself, when he says, “N., the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of His cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead and invite your parents (and godparents) to do the same” (Rite of Baptism 41, 79). The priest does not address the child again until he is baptized with the formula: “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Rite of Baptism 60, 97).
We see in this present Rite of Baptism for children an emphasis on the role and duties of the parents in bringing up their child in the practice of the Faith. This emphasis is tied directly to the question that the couple had answered in their celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage: “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?” (Rite of Marriage 24, 44, 59). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2225) explains this succinctly: “Through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children. Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the Faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for their children. They should associate them from their tenderest years with the life of the Church. A wholesome family life can foster interior dispositions that are a genuine preparation for a living faith and remain a support for it throughout one’s life.” Because they are the ones who have accepted that gift and responsibility on their wedding day, the couple are the ones addressed—and to a certain extent, interrogated—by the celebrant in the rite of baptism on their readiness and commitment to this duty as Christian parents.
The first question pertains to the name of their child: “What name have you given your child?” The second question pertains to their desire and intention for their child: “What do you ask of God’s Church for N.?” After responding to these questions, the celebrant addresses the parents with these words: “You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him in the practice of the Faith. It will be your duty to bring him up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?” (Rite of Baptism 39, 77).
This is probably one of the most direct questions asked in the Roman Rite. To put it more bluntly, the question asks, “Do you know what you are getting yourselves into?” There is nothing ambiguous as the Church puts on the lips of Her minister this strong interrogative, but She also offers here an invitation for clarification and catechesis if either parent or both of them would ever respond with a “No.” In the original Latin text of the Rite (cf. Ordo Baptismi Parvulorum 39, 77), the words used by the celebrant are “estisne conscii,” a form of the verb conscio, conscire. It must be noted that conscio is more forceful than the verb scio which is the word that means to know or to understand. Scio is the root of the word science; conscio is the root of the words conscious and conscience. Scio is about knowledge of facts and information; conscio is understanding after serious deliberation and discernment. Thus, when he asks them if they clearly understand what they are undertaking in having their child baptized, the celebrant is not only asking the parents whether they are conscious of their decision and the duty that they are taking up; he is asking them whether they are doing so with a clear conscience.
When the parents respond, “We do,” they are declaring that henceforth they will have to answer to their conscience whether they have been true to their responsibility of training their child in the practice of the Faith. On Judgment Day, they will have to answer to the Lord for this child, because his growth in the Faith depends on their fidelity to what they have consciously and conscientiously agreed to do.