What is Baptism?
What is Baptism?

What is Baptism?

Joanna Bogle FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2014

For those involved in parish catechesis, a clear explanation of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation can be difficult to come by. In this essay, popular Catholic journalist Joanna Bogle explains the meaning of baptism.

Baptisms, like weddings and First Communions, are becoming grander and grander at the level of invitations, partying, guests invited, and general merrymaking. But they are also being sidelined, with an increasing notion, especially among the let’s-be-fashionable middle classes, of announcing that “you can’t impose religion on a child”. So paganism is imposed instead, with a “naming ceremony” with poetry and the planting of a tree, and announcements about wishes and star signs.

What is baptism? The general mood in the Church has moved away (Deo gratias!) from the idea that baptism is essentially a welcome into “the community”, and instead it is now more correctly understood as the essential start of a life’s journey with God. A younger generation of priests, in this as in much else, is looking to the Church’s authentic teaching rather than to ideas and slogans.

“It is essentially he, and not we, who acts in the sacrament. It is his gift to us, and our response must be one of love, of charity”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213).The word is linked to our word “bath” and refers to immersion, plunging into water. Baptism is the most important event in any Christian’s life, a gift from God, a moment of great grace. It links back to Christ’s own words in the Scriptures (Jn 3:5). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states:1 “Christ announced the necessity of a spiritual regeneration ‘of water and the spirit’ in his conversation with Nicodemus, and it has been commonly held that he instituted the Sacrament either at an unspecified date before His passion or after his resurrection, when he gave the disciples the command to baptise in the Threefold Name.”

St Josephine Bakhita, a former Sudanese slave who was rescued by an Italian family and taken to Italy, used to kiss the font where she was baptised, saying: “Here I became a daughter of God.”2 Blessed John Paul, on a visit home to Poland after becoming Pope, knelt and prayed by the font in the church at Wadowice, where he was baptised.

The water of baptism, used at the very beginning of our Christian lives, takes us back to the very beginning of all things, when, as the prayer at the Easter Vigil reminds us, “your spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness”.3

The Church teaches that baptism is not an action by which we announce our commitment to Christ, but rather a sacrament in which he enfolds us in grace and binds us to him: it is essentially he, and not we, who acts in the sacrament.4 It is his gift to us, and our response to it must be one of love, of charity. Baptism is profoundly linked to the bond which God first established with his Chosen People in the Old Covenant. We see this in the Easter Vigil liturgy: “You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharoah, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea, to be an image of the people set free in Baptism.”5

Baptism is administered by pouring water over a person – or plunging him or her into water – saying at the same time: “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism binds together all Christians, and is something held in common even by those divided following the Great Schism or by the Reformation, with a range of very different views being held among the latter group. In recent years an understanding of the unity in baptism that is a reality between all Christians has been emphasised by the Church. Paul VI in his first sermon as Pope spoke to those “who without belonging to the Catholic Church are united to us by the powerful bond of faith and love of Jesus Christ and marked with the unique seal of baptism – one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, seeking to “hasten the blessed day which will see, after so many centuries of deadly separation, the realisation of Christ’s prayer on the eve of his death – ut unum sint, that they may be one…”6

The Christian Theological Tradition of Baptism

The Church’s understanding that baptism was prefigured by the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:15-15:1) was emphasised by St Ambrose (De Sacramentis 14, 11) who noted that the Jewish people had sacraments. The Church has always understood that the “form” of the sacrament was established by Christ when he was baptised in the Jordan, and that the Trinity was present at Christ’s baptism, because the Father spoke, the Son descended into the water, and Holy Spirit appeared (Mt 3:16-17).

The rite used by St Ambrose in Milan included the renunciation of Satan, an anointing, the profession of the Creed and the Trinity, triple immersion in water, and Holy Communion. To this day still, Satan is renounced, the Creed and the Trinity affirmed, and candidates anointed. In the West, admission to Communion comes later, at the age of reason, and is indicated by bringing the child to the altar for the Our Father.7 The triple immersion is replaced by a pouring of water, although baptism can still be done by immersion (and is, for example, at the church of St Charles Borromeo in Ogle Street, London).

The water used for baptism has been blessed beforehand. Baptism is linked to the death and resurrection of Christ. At the Easter Vigil, the priest blesses the water in the baptismal font, lowering the lighted Pascal candle into it three times while saying: “May the power of the Holy Spirit, O Lord we pray, come down through your Son into the fullness of this font…” He then holds the candle in the water while continuing “…so that all who have been buried with Christ by baptism and death may rise again to life with him.”

The Church has always taught the importance of water in the Old Covenant – at Creation, at the flood, at the crossing of the Red Sea – and has also always seen a symbolising of baptism in the water that poured from Christ’s side on Calvary: “O God whose son, baptised by John in the waters of the Jordan, was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and, as he hung upon the Cross, gave forth water from his side along with blood…”8

“It is essentially he, and not we, who acts in the sacrament. It is his gift to us, and our response must be one of love, of charity”

Baptism is recalled not only every Easter, when the faithful renew their baptismal promises, but also at a sung Mass with the Asperges, where the people are sprinkled with water, in a rite which replaces the usual penitential rite. The Vide Aqua, which is often sung during the Asperges – and is sung at the Easter Vigil – speaks of the vision of the Temple from which poured water: “I saw water flowing from the Temple, from its right hand side, and all to whom this water came were saved…”

Baptism has always been seen as central and necessary. Hence the tradition of “baptism of desire” for those who genuinely seek Christ and who for any reason die before being able to be baptised with water, and “baptism of blood” for those who die witnessing to the faith.9 The Church does not set limits on God’s love and mercy: he will not inflict an eternity of loss and misery on those who, through no fault of their own, have not received the water of baptism. At Mass the Church places before God “all for whom we offer this sacrifice … those who take part in this offering, those gathered here before you, your entire people, and all who seek you with a sincere heart.”10

Baptism in the Life of the Church

Baptism has always also been an essential part of the Great Commission, given by Christ to his disciples: “Go forth, teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:20).

Baptism is the start of the Christian life, and its administration to new converts, and to children born into Christian families, is a central part of the life and mission of the Church.

It is not necessary that everyone who receives baptism understands the fullness of Christian teaching: it is simply the start of a bond with God, and is a gift from him. In the case of adult converts it of course usually involves instruction in the faith, but exhaustive examination of knowledge is not the essence of the sacrament. Fr Leo Maasburg, a close friend and spiritual adviser of Blessed Mother Teresa, recalls:

In several cases I had to ask myself under what circumstances I could administer baptism to an unbaptised adult who was about to die. I remembered Mother Teresa explaining to me that … at the moment of death, it is enough for the dying person to grasp the core of the Church’s teaching, namely the love of God. One only needed to ask the dying person if he “would like to go to the God who sent the Sisters to him”. A wonderful question, to which probably no one privileged to experience God’s love through those loving hands could answer no.11

Christianity is an incarnational religion: things matter – water, oil, bread and wine. George Weigel comments in an essay on Evelyn Waugh’s book on St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, and her quest for the true Cross:

Helena believed, and Waugh agreed, that without that lump of wood, without the historical reality it represented, Christianity was just another Mediterranean mystery religion, a variant on the Mithras cult or some gnostic confection…Helena’s search is not magical talisman: it is the unavoidable physical fact that demonstrates the reality of what Christians propose, and about which others must decide.12

Baptism can be administered by anyone – it does not have to be done by a priest, and because it is so important it has often been administered by a lay person in an emergency13 – but in the ordinary way it is administered by a priest or deacon and includes not only the pouring of water and the words of baptism but also anointing with oil.

The oil for baptism is blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass in Holy Week, where all the clergy of a diocese gather together, and this re-emphasises the fact that each baptised Christian is in unity with the whole church. Baptism opens up the way of Christian life: it is completed by the sacrament of confirmation, and then throughout the Christian’s life he can receive God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation, and be fed by the Eucharist: “Priests are stewards of the means of salvation, of the sacraments … not to dispense them according to their own will, but as humble servants for the good of the People of God” (Benedict XVI).14

This unity with the Church is all connected with our union with Christ. Our sins have been washed away in baptism, and we have in a mysterious sense shared in his death and hence in his resurrection. To be a sharer in this means also to be a sharer in the life of the Church. “The great candle lit from the Easter fire is kindled again at both baptisms and funerals. In the first case, this reminds us that baptism makes us part of Christ, members of his body the Church, and sharers in his death and resurrection. In the second, it shows that the earthly stage of the journey begun at baptism has been completed in company with the Lord who has gone before us through death.”15

“The rekindling of the paschal candle reminds us that baptism makes us part of Christ, members of his body the Church, sharers in his death and resurrection”

The reality of the washing away of sins in baptism has been taught since the earliest days, but the teaching about forgiveness has developed: “The power of baptism to remit sins was so great that rigorists held that sins committed after baptism were possibly unforgiveable, and this motivated some people – Constantine but also future saints such as Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Augustine and Chrysostum – to delay receiving it.”16

Baptism in the Christian Spiritual Tradition

The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasises that “for all the baptised, faith must grow after baptism”.17 Faith is nourished by the sacraments, by living in the Church and in love and service of God and neighbour, and by prayer. The baptised have duties in the Church and also rights: “To receive the sacraments, to be nourished by the Word of God, and to be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church.”18

Baptism is necessary before admission to Holy Communion. Baptism is the first of the sacraments of initiation, and is closely linked to confirmation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “in the first centuries confirmation generally comprised one single celebration with baptism, forming with it a ‘double sacrament’ according to the expression of St Cyprian” (CCC 1290). This is echoed by non-Catholic writers: Massey H Shepherd in A Handbook of Christian Theology comments: “It is now commonly admitted … that in the early Church no clear distinction was drawn between baptism and confirmation, since both rites were part of a single complex of initiatory ceremonies that included also the celebration of the Eucharist…”19

The Catechism teaches that “like Baptism, which it completes, confirmation is given only once, for it too imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark, the ‘character’ which is the sign that Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness”.20 Baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist are seen as forming a unity (CCC 1306).

The Christian life begun at baptism involves a continuing encounter with Christ:

The followers of Christ, called by God … have been made sons of God in the baptism of faith and partakers in the divine nature, and so are truly sanctified. They must therefore hold on to and perfect in their lives that sanctification which they have received from God. … All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.21

Blessed John Paul wrote a poem, pondering the thoughts of the Samaritan woman at the well:

From this depth – I came only to draw water
In a jug – so long ago, this brightness
Still clings to my eyes – the perception I found,
And so much empty space, my own,
Reflected in the well …22

The mercy and the love of Christ, given freely by him as he walked this earth, are still given freely, again and again, to people all over the world who encounter him.

Baptism involves being part of the community of faith: “The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at baptism.”23

The Protestant tradition sees baptism as something which follows a personal affirmation of faith, a ritual bathing conferring nothing of itself but showing that the person has made a decision for Christ and is renouncing sin. An extreme version of this produced the Anabaptists – literally meaning people who baptised again – who believed that infant baptism had no value whatever. The Catholic understanding is that the baptism itself confers grace. In recent decades much discussion has taken place about baptism between Christians of the various denominations. The Anglican position was made clearer by the work of the Tractarian movement in the 19th century, which emphasised a Catholic understanding of the sacrament as an actual washing away of sin, a regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit and an incorporation into the Church.

Thus in 1829 John Henry Newman – still at that stage an Anglican – affirmed that Christians become entitled to the gift of the Holy Spirit “by belonging to the body of his Church; and we belong to his Church by being baptised into it”.24 And more than a century later, Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1960s – whose meeting with Paul VI in the 1960s was a central moment in the ecumenical movement of that era – took a generally Catholic approach to baptism, if expressed in a somewhat vague, “Anglican” way: “The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his baptism; he continually learns that he has died and risen with Christ, and that his life is a part of the life of the one family.”25

In the Tradition of Prayer

The three stages of the deeper spiritual life have traditionally been described as beginning with a stage of purging, and then continuing through a time of illumination, to a time of unity with God. These three stages cannot be separated: each merges into the next, and overlaps with it. We can perhaps see in the sacraments of Christian initiation something of this progression. The Christian journey begins at baptism with the cleansing of the soul from sin, and is then strengthened and illuminated by Confirmation – and then the Christian way continues, nourished by the Eucharist and by the mercy of God given through the sacrament of reconciliation, through to the final encounter in death, assisted by the anointing of the sick.

“Baptism seals every Christian into the life of prayer. St Catherine of Sienna taught her followers: ‘Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it’ ”

Not everyone is a mystic, but all Christians are called to holiness. Basil Hume has written that the struggles of the Christian in prayer are a bit like that of a child trying to climb stairs, while his father waits at the top. The child can either give up the struggle and sulk at the bottom, or go off to another room, or keep trying – and the father will come down and carry him upwards. He goes on:

I like the concept of man being in search of God. Slowly, we come to realise that it is only one way of speaking of our response to God’s search for us. That is where the initiative lies. God in search of man reveals himself in a way which the created universe cannot. It is a special kind of revelation. It reached its high point when the Son of God became man.26

Perhaps there is also a sense in which the Christian mystical tradition echoes the life of Christ himself. At the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8), Peter James and John – significantly after climbing up a mountain with Jesus – saw him shining with light. As Ramsay put it:

The voice saying ‘This is my son’ recalls the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the note of time ‘after six days’ links the event with the recent prediction by Jesus of his suffering and death, the radiant light tells of the glory at the future coming of Jesus…”27

Newman taught that to be a child of God in baptism means to become in a wonderful way, His members, the …sacramental signs, of the One Invisible Ever-Present Son of God, mystically reiterating in each of us all the acts of his earthly life, His birth, consecration, fasting, temptation, conflicts, victories, sufferings, agony, passion, death, resurrection and ascension.28

Baptism seals every Christian into the life of prayer. St Catherine of Sienna taught her followers: “Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.”29 Prayer may not always be easy – some great saints have had a terrible sense of loneliness and even of the absence of God when they pray30 – but the bond with God, established at baptism, cannot be effaced.

Joanna Bogle is a journalist, broadcaster and writer based in London. She is currently filming a new series on feasts and seasons of the Church for EWTN, the global Catholic television network. 


1Cross, F L (ed) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p126.

2website: https://bakhitacatholic.info

3Roman Missal, Easter Vigil, Blessing of Water.

4For a full analysis of the Protestant/Evangelical understanding of baptism, see Bridge, Donald and Phypers, David, The Water that Divides (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977).

5Roman Missal, Easter Vigil, Blessing of Water.

6Apostle for our Time: Pope Paul VI, p168.

7CCC 1239-1245.

8Roman Missal, Easter Vigil, blessing of water.

9CCC 1257-1262.

10Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer IV.

11Maasburg, Leo, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait, p135.

12Weigel, George, “St Evelyn Waugh” in Practising Catholic, pp135-136.

13Most obviously, for example, by a nurse or midwife to a frail baby who seems to be in danger of death.

14Benedict XVI Homily, 4 Nov 2011, the Altar of the Chair in the Vatican Basilica.

15Sister Ann Catherine Swailes OP, Magnificat, Holy Week 2013, p4.

16Hitchcock, James, History of the Catholic Church, p68.

17CCC 1254.

18CCC 1269.

19A Handbook of Christian Theology, p336.

20CCC 1304, quoting the Council of Trent, and Luke 24:48-49.

21Lumen Gentium, (Vatican II) 40.

22The Place Within: Poetry of Pope John Paul II, p37.

23CCC 1255.

24Quoted in “The Tractarian Liturgical Inheritance” in Tradition Renewed: The Oxford Movement Conference Papers, p117.

25Michael Ramsey, quoted in Michael Ramsey as Theologian, p148.

26To be a Pilgrim, p51.

27Ramsey, Michael, Be still and know, p61.

28Parochial and Plain Sermons, VI, p3. Quoted in Tradition Renewed.

29Catherine of Sienna, p25.
30As revealed, for example, by M Teresa in her letters. See Mother Teresa of Calcutta, pp188-189.

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