Baptism ministry

We had a meeting this evening of our Baptism Steering Committee, to try and plan how we want to improve what it is we are doing here at the parish. We love baptism itself, of course — no one want to try and improve on God’s sacraments — but the things surrounding the sacrament are within our control: things like the preparation, the follow-up, and even the quality of the celebration itself.

When I first arrived at this parish I was asked to take the lead role with our baptismal team. Being a new priest I decided I wanted to use this opportunity to experiment with ministry concepts. My leadership skills (such as they are) were largely developed in the secular business world, and I wanted to see what elements of that we could translate to pastoral ministry.

My initial theme was summarized in this phrase: “To be of one mind and heart.” So we started with a pot-luck dinner, to give all the members of the team a chance to get to know one another better. To improve communication we set up a mailing list and web site. We also formally included the parish secretaries as part of the team, because they are on the front lines of the “ministry process”, i.e. they are the ones who get the calls when someone wants to “book a baptism”. From this we formed a Steering Committee, whose job it is, quite simply, to act as a collective brain and to “steer” the ministry. We meet 3 times per year, to review how things are going, and to think of how what needs re-examination. (In business we called this “management review”.)

The next theme was “To see things clearly.” We simply documented what it is we are actually doing, in the form of a process description that we called Current Practices (available through the aforementioned web site). This was reviewed in the Steering Committee, until we agreed that it, in fact, was an accurate description of what we do. Of course, in developing it we saw a lot of absurdities in our practices….”Why do we do it that way again?” came up a lot. (In business we called this “management by process”.)

With the process description in place we then formed an “improvement team” composed of former members of the baptismal ministry, along with members of related parish ministries (notably ministry to inactive Catholics, and family ministry) to do a general review of our process. The idea was not to focus on the details, but to go fishing for the big fish. We divided the overall process into 5 phases: 4 which are sequential in time, and one which is continuous throughout. These phases are:

  1. The evangelization phase
    This runs from the moment the Holy Spirit plants in the hearts of the parents the desire to have the child baptized, to the time they call to actually request a baptism. We know that some parents are on the fence about the baptism of their child, because their own evangelization is incomplete. Our role is not to “convince” them to have their child baptized, but to reach out to them and see if there are any hurts that need to be addressed or inner barriers that can be removed. Basically, our job is to pave the way that leads to baptism — they have to walk it themselves. Our focus questions were: “What are the obstacles in the hearts of people regarding baptism? How can we help remove those obstacles?”
  2. The catechesis phase
    This runs from the first contact to the actual celebration itself. It is our chance to deepen the knowledge of the parents regarding the meaning of baptism and the nature of their commitment. Our focus question in this phase was: “How can this time of preparation be used to really awaken the faith of the parents, both in terms of knowledge and enthusiasm?”
  3. The celebration itself
    Well, this one is fairly self-evident. We did a review of the baptismal ritual, just to see what we were doing well (and what needed some work). We also reviewed Vatican II, notably the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, to get a sense of the dream of the Church for the renewal of the liturgy. Our focus question was: “What elements of the way we celebrate baptismal liturgies need to be improved so as to enhance their spiritual power?”
  4. Follow-up from the celebration
    Baptism is not just supposed to be a moment of time, but the start of a new life with God. The parents are the primary agents in leading their children in the path of discipleship and holiness. But many don’t feel ready to do it, and two generations of lousy catechesis (as well as growing up in a post-modern culture) hasn’t helped matters. They have good will, but lack the tools. Our focus questions were: “What support do parents need to truly be the primary agents in the faith development of their children? What support can we offer?”
  5. “Context questions”
    The baptismal ministry does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of the overall life of the parish. But because we do baptisms on Sunday afternoons, and because (for practical reasons) we don’t really have an option for them to be done during Sunday Mass, this means that 99% of our worshipping community doesn’t see what is going on. We had to reflect on how we build the link between the baptism of infants and the rest of the life of the community.

The members of the team then went off and researched and consulted and reported on their findings. Last night the Steering Committee reviewed these results, and developed the start of an improvement plan to take us to September 2005. While the details are still under discussion, by then we hope to have the following in place:

  1. For Phase 1, we will hold a special blessing of expectant mothers 4 times per year, and advertise this throughout the parish. The nice things about blessings is that we can offer them to anyone, Catholic or not. So the invitation can be broadly extended, and it becomes a real evangelization outreach. If we can partner with the OB/GYN doctors in our area we can extend this invitation more broadly, without taking away from other advertising mechanisms (stuff in the community newspapers, letters to households, etc.). Such a blessing then raises a context to discuss the question of baptism with people, and at the very least we will also develop a small “baptism info” sheet or pamphlet that people can walk away with.
  2. For Phase 2, we will revamp our catechetical offering to address more specifically the catechesis that baptism requires. Canon law offers this directive:
    The parents of an infant who is to be baptized and likewise those who are to undertake the office of are to be properly instructed in the meaning of this sacrament and the obligations which are attached to it. (c.f. Canon 851.2)
    “The meaning of baptism” and “the obligations which are attached to it” together form an excellent opening for some good old-fashioned kerygmatic proclamation, as well as a discussion of the life of discipleship in Christ. We made a decision at our meeting to require this catechesis of all parents and godparents before we will even book a date for them for the baptism. The catechesis will be offered twice per month — come to the one you can, and when all 4 have done so you then get the date.
  3. For Phase 3, the celebration, we are going to prepare participation booklets that match more specifically what we do in the parish (e.g. put in the lyrics for the songs we use), and which offer brief explanation of the various elements of the rite. The idea is to emphasize this element of the Vatican II vision:
    Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 14)
    If the booklet will help people to pray together, or even just to explain what we are doing (for the sake of the many guests, who will not have had the advantage of the phase 2 catechesis), it will help a *lot*.
  4. For Phase 4, we realise that this phase continues for the rest of our lives — the grace we receive in baptism never “runs out”. Now our parish currently uses the Faith First program for catechesis, which starts in kindergarten. So our baptismal team really sees its own direct responsibility as extending up until that age (approx. 5 years old). The proposal on the table is to form a “moms & tots” group, to provide a “safe place” for mutual support *and* to discuss practical topics directly related to the religious and spiritual growth of the children and their families.
  5. For Phase 5, which isn’t really a phase but a concern for the ministry in the life of the parish, we will start by having the children’s names read at Sunday mass as part of the general intercessions, so that the whole community can pray for them (and by extension, know that this is going on). The plan is also to ask the parents to supply photos of their children, and to have members of the community have a chance to sign up as “prayer partners” for these children and their families. Those prayer partners could then by invited to attend the baptismal celebration as special representatives of the wider community, thus building a stronger and more explicit link — and all of it through the communion of prayer.

What I love about this vision is how it is all so theologically rooted. It’s all about grace. Our ministry is to help people desire the grace (the pre-baptismal phases), to bring them to receive the grace (which Christ offers through the celebration itself), and to help them live that grace fruitfully (the follow-up). Evangelization, catechesis, liturgy, pastoral care of the family, the ministry of prayer — each of these could be done “on its own”, but in this case we are thematically uniting them and building upon a rock-solid part of our faith: the sacrament of baptism itself. If we can get this in place it will provide for a really kickin’ baptismal ministry — one open to continuous improvement, of course, but one with all the foundational bases covered.