One of the great upheavals that took place in the church at the time of the Reformation was the rise of the Anabaptist movement. The term Anabaptist literally means rebaptizer and traces its roots to the fourth century.
In the 16th century, several movements arose which denied the validity of infant baptism. While some of these movements denied the necessity of any baptism with water, others advocated "believer's baptism," the baptism of only adults who understand and are committed to the Christian faith. These latter groups coalesced around the leadership of Menno Simons (1496-1561), a former Catholic priest from whom the Mennonites derive their name and their teaching.
Catholics and mainline Protestants reject any notion of re-baptism and defend the validity of infant baptism. However, one thing which is notable and most praiseworthy about the Mennonites is their strong Christian formation and commitment.
Moreover, this commitment is not merely intellectual. It shows itself in an uncommonly strong dedication to social action and work with the marginalized. The Mennonites have a level of presence among Canada's oppressed and rejected people which far outstrips their numbers in the total population.
This is because they take their baptism seriously. Baptism is a sign of faith in God and that faith means a different way of life. When Menno Simons disparaged the sacraments as "ceremonies" with no power to transform the lives of people who receive them, he was not seeking to abandon the faith. Rather, he wanted to return to the vibrant faith and dedication of the early church.
In the early church, believer's baptism was the norm. (Infant baptism can be traced back to the second century -- it's not clear whether it took place during the time of the apostles.) The catechumenate was a time of long and intense preparation for baptism. This preparation was mainly moral, not doctrinal. Those preparing to enter the church were told little about the "sacred mysteries" celebrated by Christians because the church was outlawed and often in danger of persecution. But these newcomers were expected to adopt a highly ethical lifestyle.
Only in the last few weeks before baptism did the catechumens receive doctrinal instruction and prayers, such as the Apostles' Creed, to memorize. But even in this period, the focus was on their personal lifestyles. Exorcisms were performed on them and they were expected to re-examine their lives.
When the time for baptism came, there were days of elaborate rituals culminating with the immersion in water at the Easter Vigil. No one could avoid the conclusion that this moment represented a decisive break with the past and that he or she would henceforth strive to live a life that provided stark contrast with the surrounding decadent society.
Oh, that baptism today could be expected to bear such fruit! Oh, that we should go beyond admiring Jesus, even go beyond imitating Jesus, to actually live in Christ as the baptismal liturgy calls us to do! Oh, that we would be a clear sign of contradiction to an evil and unjust world!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states eloquently that baptism is connected with faith. It says, "Baptism is the sacrament of faith, . . . not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop" (no. 1253).
It is a fine thing to baptize babies. But parents need to continue to nurture the faith of their children just as they give ongoing attention to their physical, emotional and intellectual needs. They have a responsibility to take the beginning of infant baptism and help their children develop real faith.
Even young children can be very open to hearing about God, angels and the saints. They willingly accept the notion of a realm which transcends the visible if we take the time to introduce it to them. Prayer comes naturally to them if their parents let them know it is important.
It's not a good policy to ignore children's faith development and hope the schools will look after it. It generally won't happen. Just as children need a supportive environment at home to develop good literacy skills so they also need support to get moving on the road of faith.
It doesn't take a lot to start the journey. A children's Bible, a few plastic rosaries and a commitment to attend Sunday Mass can help the seeds of Baptism produce a bountiful harvest. So can informal discussions about trying to live the way Jesus lived.
Parents, you have been given God's Spirit in abundance through your own Baptism. Do what you can to pass on that Spirit to your children just as you will pass on the other good things of life.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
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