Sancta Missa - Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) - Baptism of adults - Introduction



On April 16, 1962, the Holy See authorized and published a new rite for baptism of adults. The official decree along with the text of the rite and some explanation are carried in "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," 54 (1962) 310-338. We now have not only a much improved and simplified form of prayers and ceremonies, but also are permitted to carry out this impressive though lengthy function in successive stages instead of in one continuous action. What it amounts to is a restoration in some degree of the ancient catechumenate.

Along with instructing prospective converts in the Church's doctrine a priest can now impart efficacious sacramentals to them during this period, leading up gradually to the act of baptizing itself. This can be done if desired in as many as seven distinct ceremonies spread out over the weeks or months of preparation for their reception into the Church. There can be no doubt that the rite thus becomes much more meaningful for the parties concerned. Since the officiating priest is supposed to give an explanation of the prayers and ceremonies as he is celebrating them, he may find the following notes of some help.

The catechumenate in early times had no one set form for all parts of Christendom. In the western Church alone Rome, Milan, Gaul, Spain, and Africa had their own provincial rites, differing considerably in structure and detail. Therefore, we attempt here merely a general outline of what took place. Before being received into the catechumenate, which in some places lasted two or three years, the candidates for baptism received some preliminary instruction. Only then were they made catechumens, and impressive liturgical acts marked this stage of progress, such as the signing on the forehead with the brand of Christ, the sign of the cross; exsufflation and exorcism; the laying on of hands which signified the bestowal of God's first gifts on the one who was seeking Him; and lastly the giving of salt, one of the most important sacramentals in use in the early Church.

By these sacramentals the pagan, Jew, or idolator was made a catechumen, an aspirant for baptism and for full-fledged membership in the body of Christ's Church. In a certain sense they regarded themselves as already Christians, and were given a privileged status in the Christian community. The first contact with Christ was established, the contact by faith or the psychological contact, as theologians of the present day would call it. This earned the catechumens the right and privilege to assist at the fore-part of the Mass, being obliged to leave, however, after the sermon and before the offering of gifts. Many a catechumen became so well pleased with his new state that baptism was deferred indefinitely, oftentimes until death was at his heels. In some cases this was not because formidable obstacles stood in the way of learning and assenting to the doctrines of Christianity, but far more because of unwillingness to abide by its moral demands.

Normally, though, the catechumens would advance to baptism, and the time would come to declare such intention by registering themselves as candidates. This happened at the beginning of Lent. The holy fast of forty days was observed by the faithful and the catechumens alike. And that was the most suitable and most time-hallowed period for the candidates for baptism to prepare themselves, so that they would be ready to receive the sacrament on Easter night. "Note that Easter is near at hand. Give in your name for baptism," says St. Augustine in a sermon delivered at the approach of Lent. Under the tutelage of selected or appointed monitors, who later would act as godparents, the candidates learned by rote the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and also how to deport themselves during the rites that were to take place on Easter night. Theodore of Mopsuestia, in his "Commentary on the Lord's Prayer and on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist," says the godparent had to guarantee that the candidate was worthy of being baptized; that either his past life had been irreproachable or that he had sincerely broken off his former sinful ways, and now gave every promise of being able to continue in righteous living once he would be received into the Church. In the case of exceptionally notorious sinners, three godparents or "references" were demanded, whose double duty it was to certify to the present good standing of their godchild and to vouch for his future perseverance in the fear of the Lord.

The six weeks of Lent were designed to test of what spirit the candidates were informed. This time of probation was a serious business, given over to prayer and to the strict fast, the fast that could not be broken until the evening meal. If the candidate was married, complete continence was expected of him throughout these weeks. Daily or almost daily the candidates had to assemble for instruction on the Creed and on the Ten Commandments. Nor did their formation consist in oral instruction only but also in exorcisms and other sacred rites given the generic name of scrutinies. To have some idea of the nature of the prayers and instructions used on the days of the scrutinies, and to see how intimately the entire congregation of faithful shared in the Church's solicitude for her baptismal aspirants, we need only consult the "Gelasian Sacramentary" and the "Ordo Romanus VII." There we can find the Mass formularies once used in ancient times for the days of the scrutinies, but no longer contained in our present missal.

Among the rites preparatory to baptism, of special importance were the "traditio symboli" and the "redditio symboli," which took place at the close of Lent and marked the culmination of the probationary period. The former, "traditio symboli," was the formal and oral delivery of the Creed by the bishop to the candidates. In some places--in Africa, for instance--this happened on the Saturday two weeks prior to Holy Saturday or the day before what is now called Passion Sunday. Surely the catechumens already knew the chief articles of faith, but this formal "handing over" of the Creed to them may have been the first time they heard its actual formula pronounced. Delivered to them orally and not in written form, since it was one of the "secrets" to be kept from the uninitiated, they were to learn it, assimilate it, memorize it, so as to be able to recite it on the night of their baptism. The "redditio symboli," which we may call the "giving back" or the rendering of the Creed, was the solemn recitation of the Creed by the candidates usually on the Sunday before Easter. On the same day in some places the Lord's Prayer was formally and solemnly delivered to them, and a homily preached explaining the petitions of the prayer.

Before we go on to consider the solemnities of the Easter vigil, there is a last thing in the series of preparatory acts worthy of mention, bearing the euphonious Latin name of "capitilavium." The English equivalent is "head-washing." "Capitilavium" was also one of many titles for Palm Sunday in certain parts of Christendom, although we know from St. Augustine that in Africa the day for washing heads and for bathing the body was Maundy Thursday. Why should the heads of those who were to be baptized and anointed be washed? For the very valid reason that throughout the entire season of Lent the candidates had to forego the luxury of bathing. Such deprivation was one more penitential exercise. We should not be surprised, then, to find St. Augustine penning the words about washing and bathing on this day, so that, as he explains, all might come to the font and to the anointing without offense to the olfactory sense. We get the impression, too, that this cleansing process was not left to private initiative, but that it took place under supervision.

At last came the great Paschal Night, the solemnity of solemnities, the mother of all vigils, the night of light, "nox lucida, splendida, miris irradiata fulgoribus," as the paschal hymn of praise, the "Exultet," says. Everywhere the night was made resplendent by burning lights, not only in the churches but on the streets, highways, and hilltops, telling of the divine mysteries being re-enacted in God's house. The night, as St. Gregory of Nyssa describes it, made so luminous by the many lamps enkindled, that its radiance mingled with the rays of the sun at dawn, making of it one long continuous day unspoiled by the accustomed darkness. This was a fitting expression of the joy that filled men's hearts over the resurrection of our Lord. "Be enlightened, for Christ our Light is risen!"

The vigil of Easter was a night-watch in the full sense of the word, the only time of the year, as a rule, when the people spent the entire night in church, from the evening hours until daybreak. In the early Church the ordinary vigil, for instance, the weekly vigil in preparation for the Lord's Day, consisted of a service held at the beginning of the night and another one at the end of the night, at both of which the faithful assisted, but with the hours intervening spent at rest in their own dwellings. But in the case of the Easter vigil the night-watch was prolonged throughout the many hours from evening sundown to morning sunrise. It consisted of prayer and song, reading and instruction, and intervals of silent meditation. If the faithful had not assembled in church during the first hours of the night-watch, they arrived at least by midnight, because this was the hour according to tradition when Christ the Lord arose from the dead. Furthermore, midnight of Easter, as Lactantius bears witness, was the moment when Christians of former ages expected the second coming of Christ in power and glory. In some places, as St. Jerome implies, the people were dismissed shortly after midnight, instead of waiting for the administration of baptism, because the midnight hour had come and gone without bringing in its wake the Last Day and Christ's second coming. Another year would have to be lived before that longing of the early Christians could be satisfied.

In the western Church, in the foreground of the Easter vigil service was the act of baptism, together with its related rites. Among these rites, of special importance and significance was the lighting of the Easter candle and the solemn and beautiful hymn of praise which accompanied it. The latter is a song of praise and thanksgiving for the merciful dealings of God toward mankind. It glorifies the spiritual light brought into the world by Christ. That is the motif sounded throughout the vigil service--Christ is the Light of the world, but now especially He is a light to the catechumens, who in this holy night are to be taken into the kingdom of light by baptism. Expressive of Christ who dispels the darkness, the paschal candle is also a symbol of the baptized, of their victory over the devil, over sin, and over death, of the light and life of grace which permeates the souls of the illuminati, the enlightened, as the baptized are called.

Looking back to antiquity, whether Christian or pagan, we find what great importance was once attached to the "lucernarium," and how a form of it was taken over into the liturgy of Easter eve from earliest times, only to receive considerable embellishment in succeeding centuries. The ancient "lucernarium" was the lighting of lamps at eventide. Sometimes the term was also applied to the act of bringing such a light into the room where the family was gathered together, especially the bringing of a lamp to the table at which the family was seated for the evening meal. To the pagans light was a symbol of their deities; to the Christians light was a symbol of Christ. To the pagan especially, light was a friendly, precious, and sacred thing, an antidote to his extraordinary, even abnormal fear and abhorrence of darkness. Hence the lighting of the evening lamp had the character of a cult and was carried out to the accompaniment of prayer and hymns. It was a cult, moreover, observed not only in the home but also in the pagan temple. That there was a liturgical ceremony of light held in church as part of the vigil service in the fourth century, and that it in some way resembled the very solemn rite that we now have in the new "Ordo Sabbati Sancti," with the exclamatory prayer "Lumen Christi! Deo gratias!" is attested to, in the case of Jerusalem and Spain, by the nun, Etheria. In describing this custom as she saw it on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she remarks with surprise that the light is not brought into the chapel of the resurrection from outdoors, as happened to be the case in her homeland of Spain, but from another chamber in the grotto. We learn, moreover, that in Spain the fire for the ceremonial light was struck from flint in front of the church edifice.

It was around 400 A.D. that the use of the paschal candle was introduced. The candle symbolized Christ who this night triumphed over death, bringing by the light of His grace liberty to the captives held in the darkness of sin. The light of grace shining in the souls of the faithful is to the darkness of this world what the pillar of light was to the Jews in the desert. To the catechumens on their way to the light, Christ is their leader, symbolized by the paschal candle, conducting them in solemn procession to the baptismal font. St. Augustine composed a metrical eulogy on the candle, of which he gives the first part in the "City of God."

Once the lights in the basilica were enkindled, the vigil service proceeded with singing of psalms, readings from Sacred Scripture, prayer, and brief allocutions from the bishop. One after another a reader intoned a lesson from the Old Testament or one of the prophecies properly called. The choice of the lessons generally in use for this occasion agreed singularly with the Bible scenes depicted in the paintings of the catacombs; there were the same subjects, all symbols of the regeneration of the soul in baptism or of its growth in grace through penance and the Eucharist. The history of creation, the history of the Fall, and the promise of redemption passed in view, as selected

passages from Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel were read. After every two or three readings there was a long interruption, the interval being filled out with a short sermon in explanation of the scriptural text, silent meditation on the same, and the singing of psalms and canticles, in particular the canticle of Moses and the canticle of the Three Youths.

Sometime in the course of the vigil--we do not know exactly when--the candidates for baptism were obliged, each one separately, to recite the Creed before the assembled congregation. Since the very purpose of this second "redditio" was to be a personal and public profession of faith, it had to occur before the catechumens retired to the baptistery. It is our guess, therefore, that it took place at this point, following the prophetic readings from the Old Law.

At the hour of cockcrow the wearisome service of watching and praying was almost over, for the time for baptism was at hand. For the last time the bishop addressed the candidates on the subject of the sacrament about to be received. Were they ready to accept this gift of God and with it the obligations and responsibilities of the Christian way of life--now was the time to make their final and irrevocable choice. Before entering the baptistery they gave expression by gesture and by word of their readiness to renounce Satan and his realm and to be converted to Christ. Turning toward the West, the region of darkness and the habitat of demons, they renounced the devil in practically the same formula given in our present-day rite. "Do you renounce Satan, and his angels, and his pomps?" The word pomps was used by Tertullian to signify the public spectacles of the pagans, whether of the temple, the theater, the circus, or their games; but by the time of Augustine it had come to connote all the allurements that the devil dangles before the eyes of men, in order to turn them away from following Christ. Having voiced their renunciation of the evil one and his pomps, they turned to the East, the kingdom of Light, pledging their allegiance to the Sun of Justice. Then they went in procession to the font, chanting the forty-first psalm, "As the hind longs for the running waters." This practice gave St. Augustine occasion to preach a special sermon, in which he exhorted the faithful to direct their desires with full ardor to the fountain of living waters. When the catechumens had retired to the baptistery, the faithful continued the vigil in church. In later times this part of the vigil service developed into a form which eventually became the Office of Matins for Easter, with invitatory, three psalms, followed by the Gospel of the resurrection according to St. Mark, and concluding with a homily by the bishop.

On coming to the baptistery one of the first acts of the candidates was to remove their shoes. As far back as St. John Chrysostom and John the Deacon, the fathers of the Church bear witness to the removal of shoes in the liturgy of baptism, indicating that there is a ceremonial reason for it and that it has a mystical and sacramental significance. Commenting on this part of the ritual, St. Gregory Nazianzen explains that when the Israelites were about to depart from Egypt, this ungodly land, they were instructed by the Lord to wear shoes on their feet in the course of the exodus. Contrariwise, he goes on to say, those who desire to enter a land made sacred by the footprints of the Almighty should remove their shoes, as Moses did on Mount Sinai before coming into the presence of God to receive the Ten Commandments. If we want to walk with God who is life, we, like Moses, must divest ourselves of anything that reminds one of death, specifically the shoe leather derived from a dead animal.

We come now to the curious rite called the "exorcism of the cilicium" which was used in Africa, but mainly in the East. "Cilicium" is sackcloth, a penitential garb made of coarse material; in biblical times and in the early Christian centuries it was invariably made of goats' skin or camels' hair. Here again, as in the removal of shoes, we have an example of ancient and pagan culture exerting its influence on Christian worship, a case where the Church borrows an idea of pagan origin and gives it her own much richer symbolism. In the Greek and Roman world, sackcloth and everything made of animal skin were banned from the temple service, because they were a reminder of death. With this ancient idea in mind, St. Jerome explains that sackcloth, a tunic of skin, an image of death, is worn by the candidate before he approaches the saving waters. But once the time has come to die to the old man and to put on the new, he lays aside the garment of death before descending into the font. Afterward, when he has been reborn, the neophyte replaces it with the white robe of linen, which has nothing of death in its makeup.

Before the candidates would descend into the font to be reborn by water and the Holy Spirit, the water was first blessed. This blessing may have taken place even before the solemn procession to the baptistery, and may have been administered by one of the assisting clergy. There are references in Augustine indicating that the blessing was given by making the sign of the cross and pronouncing a prayer over the water. The very elaborate ceremony and beautiful text--along with the admixture of holy oils--used today in the consecration of the font are of much later origin. A characteristic of all the formulas for this blessing, whether ancient or those still in use, is that God is invoked to send the Holy Spirit upon the water to endow it with power to bestow grace, to make it supernaturally fecund. Just as God, through His sole- begotten Son Jesus Christ, sanctified the waters of the Jordan, so must the water of baptism be consecrated, be made a supernatural water by which the baptized would be changed from carnal into spiritual men.

One by one the catechumens walked down the several steps to the floor of the font, until the water reached up to the waist. In that position, prior to being immersed in the name of the Blessed Trinity, the candidate had to make a final solemn profession of faith in the Blessed Trinity, either himself if an adult, or by the mouth of the godparent in the case of a little child. The interrogations were framed in a few words, and concerned themselves with securing the affirmation of the catechumen's belief in the three Persons of the Trinity. According to the rite used in Milan in the latter part of the fourth century, the candidate was questioned as to his belief in God the Father, and immediately following his affirmation of faith was immersed in the water. Then he was questioned as to his belief in the Son. Again the affirmation, followed by the second immersion; and the same procedure, of course, for the Holy Spirit, followed by the third immersion. St. Ambrose assumes his hearers know that, accompanying the immersions, the Trinitarian form of baptism was recited: for the first immersion, "I baptize you in the name of the Father;" for the second immersion, "and of the Son;" for the third immersion, "and of the Holy Spirit." These were the equivalent if not the exact words. The Gelasian Sacramentary of a later date is witness to the fact that this was also the manner of baptizing in the Roman Church as late as the sixth century, that is, each interrogation in turn followed immediately by the act of immersion in the water, and not, as nowadays, the three interrogations and responses first, and then the essential matter and form of the sacrament.

Having come up from the waters of baptism, dead to sin, risen with Christ, reborn in the womb of Mother Church, the neophytes were clothed in the white linen tunic of innocence and purity, the garment that they would wear throughout the paschal octave. St. Ambrose speaks of an anointing on the head of the newly baptized as soon as the latter came out of the font. Moreover, he clearly distinguishes this act from the act of confirming, which came closely thereafter, but was first preceded by the washing of feet. On the other hand, the custom in Jerusalem? as St. Cyril recounts, was to administer chrism on the brow, on the ears, on the nostrils, and on the breast, directly after baptism, and these anointings constituted the sacrament of confirmation. Anointing with chrism on the brow has long been recognized as a most expressive symbol of the seal of the Spirit imprinted on the soul through the sacrament of confirmation. Anointing with chrism, moreover, especially when done on the crown of the head, as is the case in our present rite of baptism, has long been the sign of a Christian's share in the priesthood and kingship of Jesus Christ.

When the neophytes had passed through the Red Sea of baptism, it remained for them to be nourished with the manna of the Eucharist, the sacrament which would consummate their identification with the divine head and their union with one another in the body of the faithful. The time was at hand for them to hasten to accept the invitation and promise held out during the long period of preparation--to be table guests with Christ and His chosen ones at the paschal feast of the Lamb. The procession now wended its way into the basilica, where the new children of Mother Church were given a privileged place near the altar, perhaps on the highest step of the choir or chancel, in full view of, although separated from, the body of the faithful. The Sacrifice of the Mass and first holy communion brought to an end the long service of the blessed night.


1. For a fuller treatment and documentation see the author's "Selected Easter Sermons of St. Augustine," Herder (1959).

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