Before I became a dad I slept in on weekends, stayed home when I got sick, and complained about being too busy. Life with a newborn instantly changed my whole world. Sleep was suddenly divided into two-hour increments and REM was just a band I vaguely remembered from the 90’s.
When my wife Aimee and I began working on the new Parent’s Guide for Belonging, Ascension’s baptismal preparation program, I thought back to my first experiences of fatherhood to connect with those likely to use the guide.
While I remembered how exhausted I was, how much harder it was to get things done, and the exponentially elevated need for time management; I also remembered that my whole view of the world was lit up with joy. I was hopelessly in love with the helpless little person who kept me up all night and occasionally spit up or peed on me. I was delighted by him, wanted the world for him, spent lots of time just looking at him, and all of this directly related to my relationship with God as Father. Fatherhood lit up my understanding of God’s fatherhood and my whole experience of the Catholic Faith. Granted, I was already a highly engaged person of faith who was open to the experience, but I think it is notable that becoming a father was so thoroughly transformative.
My personal experience, combined with research and reflection detailed below, led me to believe that two things about baptismal preparation are true.
1. New parents are busy and sleep deprived. They don’t have the time or inclination to spend hours and hours in baptismal seminars.
2. New parents are at a stage of particular sensitivity and openness to faith. They are fresh witnesses to the beautiful and messy miracle of new life and this is a great time for them to see the Catholic Faith in a new way through the eyes of motherhood and fatherhood.
Baptismal preparation is a golden opportunity for parishes to roll out red carpets, put best feet forward, evangelize and teach. At the same time, baptismal preparation needs to be sensitive to the particular needs of new parents so as not to be a hoop to jump through.
Roll out the Red Carpets: Establish a Tone of Welcome
New parents are in a stage of their lives where hospitality, which is always appropriate, is, well … especially appropriate.
New parents are at an important intersection. Parenthood opens up big questions about God that may have gone unexplored for some time. Prior to parenthood it is easy to be swallowed up by other pursuits, but looking into the eyes of an infant opens up a sense of wonder like nothing else.
It is no secret that many parents who inquire about baptism are not engaged parishioners to start out with. They are among the eighty percent of self-reported Catholics who are not weekly Mass goers or even among the fifty-five percent who aren’t even coming once a month.
They may be parenting alone or parenting with someone to whom they are not married. Before we get carried away or indignant like a certain older son (see Luke 15:11-32), let’s take a deep breath and realize that God the Father is overjoyed that a call to the parish has been made, and that what happens next is in our hands. Even if what led the new parent or parents to call was pressure from their parents, there is likely a spark of wonder and awe that can be nurtured by and connected to the life of the Church.
An Invitation to Deeper Life
When new parents approach the Church they should find their parish to be a place of kindness and understanding. From the first call or inquiry, through the preparation, to the baptism, and into their young family lives they should find Church is a place where they belong. If not, how will they ever become fully practicing engaged Catholics? If not, what will that mean for their newborn children?
Consider how many fewer parents even make the call to inquire about baptism than did a few decades ago. To put this in perspective, in spite of a healthy birth rate, 78,795 fewer U.S. Catholic parents sought baptism for their children in 2018 than did in 2015, and 381,080 fewer than did in the year 2000. While we could complain about how terribly catechized or unchurched many young parents are, perhaps we should consider it a victory if they make a call to inquire about baptism and then do everything possible to draw them deeper into the life of the Church.
This means that preparation CAN NOT seem like hoops to jump through. It should be meaningful, welcoming, and engaging. Things like scheduling and paperwork should be handled in a tone that reflects the goal and not in a way that makes baptism seem like a carrot at the end of a stick.
An Attitude of Welcome Is More than Accommodation
If you are rolling your eyes right now, you might be thinking about how an attitude of so-called “welcome” could result in more baptisms, but won’t result in more real practice of the Faith. If we make it too easy, new parents will simply show up for the ceremony and disappear again until their son or daughter is ready for First Communion, if they even reemerge for that.
Some might remind us that what seems to be an unwelcoming spirit, is more about protecting the dignity of the sacrament and ensuring that those who receive it will practice the Faith and live in the grace that is given. There is a concern that welcoming is more about accommodating, which does nothing to evangelize. This is a real danger if welcome is conflated with accommodation.
The proper spirit of welcome cannot mean that we simply make things easy. Welcome, a proper hospitality, is about personal investment and follow up. I would argue that, along with the sanctifying grace given in baptism, authentic welcome is the thing most likely to promote continued practice of the Faith. Here are two ways to ensure that welcome becomes more than accommodation:
- Be sure that someone in parish leadership establishes a relationship with new parents during preparation. Relationship is a space for growth in substance. In the space of this relationship be sure that the goal of preparation is not just the baptism, but the life that follows.
- Be sure to have a follow-up plan for after the baptism and make it a priority. Follow up reinforces the message that all of this is about the practice of the Christian Faith and not about a cute ceremony for Instagram.
A Balanced Approach
Thinking about the experiences of baptismal preparation that people have shared with us, there were some tendencies we tried to guard against in developing Belonging.
1. Baptismal preparation that is only about the logistics of the Baptismal Rite: A couple recently shared with us that their baptismal preparation was precisely this. They were open to and hoping for more.
2. Baptismal preparation that takes a long time and therefore scares people away or becomes a major burden.
3. Well-meaning parishes, trying to ensure the dignity of the sacrament and preparation of parents, can set up requirements that scare people away.
4. Baptismal preparation that goes overboard and ends up being some sort of firehose catechesis, loading parents with more information than they can synthesize. A well-meaning, but over zealous approach can come across as pushy and “too much.” This can scare away new parents and simply reinforce that Church is for “Churchy people” and not for them.
5. Baptismal preparation that is all presentation with no chance for reflection. Baptismal seminars are sometimes delivered by someone who loves to talk and who, even if they are very engaging, does just that the whole time.
6. Baptismal preparation that is simply a plug and play video: This can happen with outdated VHS or even with very well made videos. A good video goes a long way and a bad video can save souls from purgatory, but more is needed.
7. Baptismal preparation that requires each parish to reinvent the wheel: Many shared with us that they haven’t found a program that they like and simply do their own thing. In some cases this may work really well, but it makes it really hard to ensure continuity throughout the years and can be a large burden for those new to the parish.
Instead, we sought to develop resources to:
1. Ensure that new parents were comfortable with all of the logistics, but in the much bigger context of Catholic family life that baptism leads to.
2. Ensure a balance of substance and flexible use of time that reflects the life of new parents.
3. Ensure that the big picture of baptism and the core content of the faith are presented in a relatable way that will leave new parents wanting to go deeper.
4. Ensure that new parents are invited and given an opportunity to reflect and respond as they seek to understand the Faith they are handing on.
5. Tie into the amazing library of video resources developed for Belonging so that these videos are the natural complement of the bigger experience.
6. Provide ample resources that could be easily tailored to the needs of each parish.
To Sum up
There are bleary eyed new parents out there getting ready to inquire about baptism. They may or may not be fully practicing Catholics. They may or may not being acting based on pressure from their own parents. They are currently stewards of tiny unique and unrepeatable miracles who most likely have them asking important questions about God and Church. They are headed your way.
Your move …
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Colin MacIver teaches theology and has served as the religion department chair and campus ministry coordinator at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana. He is the author of the guide to Quick Catholic Lessons with Fr. Mike. He and his wife, Aimee, are co-authors and presenters of Theology of the Body for Teens Middle School Edition. They are also co-authors of the Power and Grace Guidebook, and the Chosen Parent’s and Sponsor’s Guides.
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