Yes, it was considered important to have children baptized as soon as possible after birth. Even in the coldest winters, these newborns were taken long distances to church by horse and sleigh to be baptized a day or two after birth.
This urgency of Baptism was prompted by our belief that unbaptized infants would spend eternity in limbo, a place where they would never enjoy the vision of God.
EARLY CHRISTIAN LIMBO
Limbo was never a dogma of faith and the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t mention it. From where then did we get this idea? The formulations of our beliefs often came from early Christian thinkers counteracting those who challenged Christian beliefs.
Some believed that we can be saved through our own efforts and so denied the reality of original sin and the necessity of infant Baptism.
Augustine argued that we must be in sacramental communion with Christ’s redemption if we are to attain salvation, indicating that the practice of infant Baptism proved the reality of original sin.
Later centuries used this argument to state that infant Baptism was necessary to take away original sin. This seemed almost to become the only reason for Baptism.
The Church’s previous infant Baptism ritual frequently mentions original sin while the present one only mentions it once, therefore, putting it into a truer perspective.
The Catechism (n. 1261) in 1994 stated “Regarding children who die without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God . . . who desires that all should be saved. Jesus’ tenderness towards children (Mark 10.14) . . . allows us to hope there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism”.
A 2007 Vatican document states that the concept of limbo presents an “unduly restrictive view of salvation.” It refers to “hope that . . . unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. . . .
“There is ‘no explicit answer’ from Scripture or tradition and exclusion from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ’s special love for children. . . . God desires salvation for all and can give the grace of Baptism without the sacrament being conferred.”
ROLE OF BAPTISM
However, both documents state Baptism is the ordinary way to salvation and encourages Baptism of infants within a reasonable time. Even before these documents, the Church began to look more carefully into its understanding of the role of Baptism.
The disciples were told “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28.19). Christian Baptism is a participation in Jesus’ mission of salvation, which is inaugurated by his Baptism. Christians become new creatures, sharing in the priesthood of Christ.
Through Baptism, they become children of God, strengthened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which enable them to grow in holiness, faith, hope and love. It is the privileged responsibility of parents to nurture the faith in young children through their own faith and prayer, their teaching and their awareness of God in these children.
Through Baptism, children are brought into the family of the Church, into the faith community. They are incorporated into Christ and become members of Christ’s body, the Church.
The whole Church shares the responsibility of praying for and nurturing newly baptized children in the faith. That is why today we baptize children at Sunday liturgies where the whole community participates.
But we must remember that Baptism is not the end but rather the beginning. It continues to be the combined responsibility of the home, school and Church to initiate the children into the sacraments by giving them a firm grounding in the faith through knowledge and understanding of Scripture and Church teaching.
The example of their parish community living prayerful, moral, loving and faith-filled lives will help them develop into Christians strengthened by divine grace who truly will become disciples bringing others to Christ.
(Please send your questions to Sr. Louise at firstname.lastname@example.org.)