Two faithful Catholic parents who are close family members of mine shared with me their experience as they prepared to baptize their first child. Now, this couple is committed to helping their children become saints, yet they were underwhelmed by the baptism preparation program offered to them. They said it was like they were just being talked at, like they were just “jumping through a hoop.”
This is a couple that loves the Church and Jesus! They really wanted to get as much as they could out of baptism preparation. Imagine the experience of a young couple who are not committed Catholics.
We need to acknowledge that many, if not most, couples who come to have their child baptized are not fully committed to Jesus Christ and his Church. So we do such couples a disservice when we assume that they are “on board” just because they show up for the class. At most, this means that they are open to what we have to say and that they have a certain degree of trust that it will be beneficial. What will we do with this openness and trust?
We need to start by asking, “What are they expecting?” Well, they could be expecting us to provide them with a list of “demands” about what they need to do to have their child baptized. They could be expecting a lecture. They could even be expecting us to share their excitement over their child’s birth and baptism.
We need to face the sad fact that fewer infants are being baptized in the United States every year. A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) showed that between 2008 and 2016 there was a seven percent decrease in the number of Catholic parents who had their infants baptized, from eighty-four percent to seventy-seven percent. The cause of this decrease is uncertain, but nonetheless, an increasing number of Catholic parents simply do not see the value in baptizing their children.
If the first thing we do is present new parents with a list of “demands,” we run the risk of losing their trust. But this is often the default approach. Since we sincerely desire that they take God seriously and approach the sacrament with a proper understanding and disposition, it is only natural that we start with clarifying what they need to do to have their child baptized. In the process, we can fall into the trap of treating them like they don’t really “belong.”
When leading a baptism preparation program, we might feel as if we need to teach parents all the “facts”—everything about the theology of baptism, about their responsibilities as Christian parents, about their need to attend Mass and be living examples of the Faith to their children. While all of this is good and necessary information to impart to parents, it is probably not the best approach to reaching them.
Baptism is a moment of encounter. The sacrament is an opportunity to inform and inspire parents, to offer them a positive encounter with Jesus and his Church.
Imagine a baptism preparation program where the first meeting would be the beginning of an ongoing relationship with these young families. What would happen if we approached it differently:
- What if we created incredible training materials for parishes, so they could recruit the most welcoming and joyful—but not necessarily the most theologically educated—Catholics to host the baptism preparation event?
- What if, instead of meeting in the church basement on uncomfortable folding chairs, we made an intentional effort to make the baptism preparation event as welcoming as possible by meeting in a more inspirational space? What if we “wowed” them with radical hospitality?
- What if we were able to put together a fantastic presentation of the Catholic Faith and then invited parents to share their honest thoughts, struggles, and issues?
- What if we invited them to pray in such a way that they began to take the next steps to commit their lives to Christ?
- What if their baptism preparation repeatedly and consistently pointed them back to the local parish?
Wouldn’t this new approach radically change your ministry? Wouldn’t this “new and improved” way help bring people to a personal relationship with Jesus? I believe it would. What are your thoughts when it comes to encountering the lost sheep who come to our parishes with their little ones?
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