4 June 2017
Solemnity of Pentecost
The priest had a peculiar habit. Whenever there was a baptism planned for during Mass, he’d take the bottle of Holy Oil, a baptismal candle, and a white cloth and put them on a table right outside the church doors. And then, just before Mass, he’d carefully take the items and place them by the baptismal font. Anytime there was going to be a baptism during Mass, he’d do that little ritual.
One little girl asked her parents why he did that, and they told her, “He’s just letting the wind of the Holy Spirit bless them before he brings them inside to use them.” And that was a lovely answer they gave. But then, one Sunday morning, a parishioner asked the priest himself. He said, “Father, why do you do that? Why do put that stuff outside the door?” And the priest replied, “Oh! Well, that’s so when people go by church, they can decide if they want to stay or keep driving.”
On this Solemnity of Pentecost, we celebrate how the Holy Spirit came upon a very small group of Apostles and disciples, and transformed them into a rapidly growing Church. In the Acts of the Apostles (2:42,47) we hear a little bit about the life of the Church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
It’s kind of an idyllic image of the Church, but as we know, there was also a lot of strife and hardship in the Church as she struggled to grow. Even within that early Church there was some disagreement—we only have to look at Peter and Paul to see the occasional disagreements. But, you know, in spite of that, they were a tight-knit group. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Regardless of what happens in the life of the Church, those core values are always there—all inspired by the Holy Spirit. And so, what does that little story about the priest and his peculiar habit reveal, but that some of those core values have . . . weakened, or disappeared. Or maybe they still need to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Whichever it is, we know that some of the core values of the Church—the Holy Spirit-inspired Church, are not as strong as they could be, or should be.
The question about having baptisms during Mass is intriguing because it brings front-and-center the bigger question: What does it mean to be “the Church”? What was the effect of that first Pentecost, and what is its continuing effect?
We could look at the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those are some of the effects of Pentecost; those are part of what it means to be “the Church,” a people who are gifted with: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage; a people who have in their souls: knowledge, reverence, and wonder and awe in God’s presence. That’s part of what it means to be “the Church.”
Of course, we can also look at the fruits of the Holy Spirit manifested at Pentecost and in the life of believers; things like: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness; qualities such as: generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity. The men and women who make up “the Church” exhibit those sort of fruits of the Holy Spirit. That’s an effect of Pentecost.
There are some other effects, too. In our Profession of Faith, our Creed we profess a belief in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Those are four “defining characteristics” of the Church.
The Church is “one.” The Holy Spirit binds all believers into a single body, a body with many parts but, nonetheless, a single body. And not only here on earth, but also in heaven. The Church is the “communion of saints,” the community of all the people of God.
The Church is “holy.” It’s not just another group of people; it’s a group of people who are consecrated to God, living a particular way of life, living a particular set of core values inspired by the Spirit of God. And it’s a pretty big group, too!
The Church is “catholic” (little “c”). We heard how “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The Church is huge! It’s also incredibly diverse—that’s what the word “catholic” means; it means “according to the whole,” or “encompassing the whole of everything.” The Church is in every country of the world; the gospel is spoken in countless languages. There’s room in the Church for everybody, from the best of saints to the worst of sinners, and everybody in between. The Church is “catholic.” It’s one of our defining characteristics, inspired at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit.
And, lastly, the Church is “apostolic,” in two ways. The Church is “sent out,” the Church is “apostolic.” At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit compelled the community of believers to step out from behind their closed door and preach Christ to the world. The Church is missionary, it’s apostolic; it’s “sent out.”
But the Church is also “apostolic” in that it’s built on the foundation of the Apostles. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Jude, Simon, and Matthias—and Paul, as well. Their writings and actions aren’t trivial to us; they’re fundamental. They’re kind of like those who wrote the US Constitution. What they say is foundational; they’re our chief shepherds, aside from Christ himself. It’s why we take seriously the guidance of our bishops and popes, who are successors to the Apostles.
These are all effects of that first Pentecost: a church that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in character. When you think about all these (and more) that the Holy Spirit does in creating and sustaining “the Church,” you can see why the question of having baptisms during Mass is a great question.
Why do we have baptisms during Mass? Because the bishops have said so. They write (in the Rite of Baptism): “On Sunday, baptism may be celebrated even during Mass, so that the entire community may be present and the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist may be clearly seen.” It’s actually pretty simple. And it doesn’t matter if we agree or not. We’re an apostolic Church, and so we give more weight to the bishops’ thoughts on this, rather than to our own.
Why do we have baptisms during Mass? Because “day by day the Lord adds to their number those who are being saved.” The Church is catholic, and welcomes everybody and anybody to follow the ways of the Lord. And, as the Rite of Baptism says, “The Christian community welcomes [these people] with great joy.”
Why do we have baptisms during Mass? Because the Church is one. Baptism is “the door to the Church.” And the Church is holy. We’re not just another group of people; we’re a group of people consecrated to the Lord through baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. Baptism reminds us all exactly to whom we have dedicated our lives. It reminds us why we’re at the altar of God, celebrating the Eucharist in the first place.
There’s a whole bunch of reasons why we celebrate baptism during Mass. And they all go back to that first Pentecost, when that little community of believers was transformed into the Church. The Holy Spirit inspired them to devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. And they became one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
We baptize during Mass, in the context of the Eucharist and with the Church present because, well, it’s just something the Church does. It’s one of our core values: to see and to celebrate the growth of the Church; to welcome into our lives all those many people the Lord has chosen to be his own.