Baptism has been on my mind lately. We’re drawing into the season where we remember the boys’ baptisms, and this year, I’m planning to actually celebrate those days by doing something special (a cupcake? a tour of the photo album? a special prayer? all of the above?). I’m also thinking about baptism because of the book I’m reading, the excellent Raising Faith-Filled Kids by Tom McGrath. In an early chapter, he challenges parents to think about why they want to baptize their children, and why they want to raise them in a certain faith tradition. “What do you wish for this child?” is the question asked of parents and godparents during the rite of Catholic baptism, and as McGrath points out, that’s a great question for parents to ponder at length. What is it that we think faith will bring to our children’s lives? What has it brought to our own lives?
This isn’t a new topic for me, writing-wise (there’s actually a chapter in my upcoming book that looks at this very subject). But it’s a question that fascinates me. When you choose to raise your children in a certain faith, you are giving them so much: a community, a set of rituals, a way of understanding the world, a way of relating to others. You are giving them a set of specific memories (in my case, memories of Sunday Masses and May crownings and Stations of the cross, memories of church hymns whose lyrics I can sing by heart thirty years later, memories of lighting candles and kneeling in prayer). You are giving them a way to understand things that may, on the face of it, seem to have very little to do with religion (how many times have I read a book over the years and realized that the protagonist is a Christ-figure?). You are, hopefully, giving them tools for finding solace in life’s crises, for finding meaning when all seems meaningless. You hope, too, that you are giving them a sense that life is precious, that the world is fundamentally good, that love is our highest calling.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t live up to the ideals of my faith all the time (does anyone?). And I will admit that there are times when other members of this church (often very high-profile ones) say and do things that make me wince. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to other people why I want this faith for my kids … or even why I want it for myself . But I do.
In a way, perhaps the best way to explain what I want for my children is to invoke the words of the late Jesuit priest Walter J. Burghardt. I first heard of Father Burghardt in the book Why Stay Catholic? (a great read, by the way), where author Mike Leach shared the following quotation from one of Father Burghardt’s sermons. I was so taken with what I read that I managed to get my hands on an old copy of Father Burghardt’s book Tell the Next Generation: Homilies and Near Homilies. Here is the passage, which comes from a sermon Father Burghardt gave in 1973 — incidentally, the year in which I myself was baptized:
“In the course of a half century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I joy in this Church — this living, pulsing, sinning people of God, love it with a crucifying passion. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason . For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body. In an age so inhuman, I touch here tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and earthy laughter. In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ.”