Shortly before Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned, he implemented a small but significant change to the rite of Baptism in the Catholic Church. Currently, the priest or deacon at the rite of baptism closes with the words ‘the Christian Community welcomes you with great joy.’ The words were changed, effective March 31st of this year to: ‘the Church of God welcomes you with great joy.’ Practically speaking, this effect will be seen later at parish levels as the USCCB prepares new Baptismal Rites books, but is effective immediately when the baptism is in Latin. The announcement was made by the Congregation for the Faith’s bulletin Notitiae just two weeks before Benedict abdicated his pontificate.
Why the change? Perhaps a look at the words themselves will illuminate the thought process of Benedict the theologian, and why he felt this to be a necessary return to the original Latin text.
Communitas Christiana, or “the Christian Community” (the text prior to March 31), suggests Christians of varying faiths, including Protestants and non-denominational churches that seek to live in the way of Christ. It emphasizes the communal aspect of baptism and the relational responsibilities with which we become indelibly imbued. Communitas Christiana communicates how we are to relate to the world around us.
Ecclesia Dei, “the Church of God” (new text), strikes me as exclusionary. It carries a tone of the Catholic Church being the Church of God, separate from other faiths that seek to live Christian lives of love and charity. Without demeaning the identity of Catholics, the words presuppose an unnecessary presumption of superiority over others and emphasize the institutional reality over the communal reality of Baptism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks eloquently about the rite of Baptism as it expounds upon our configuration to Christ and our entrance to life in the Spirit. The plunging (to baptize, Greek baptizein, means to “plunge” or “immerse”) into the waters and again rising with Christ ritualistically blesses the baptized so that they may exercise their baptismal priesthood by the witness of holy lives and practical charity. It is this witness and charity, so central in Christ’s teachings, that baptism reveals its significance.
Our lives should be a reflection of these waters. Through our witness to holiness and charity, those who look upon us and who encounter us should see and feel Christ’s presence, and through connection of heart, be reminded of their connection to a mystical body of unity and feel a bit of the water that was poured onto us. I see no necessity to use words that imply division rather than inclusion for a task so crucial as making ‘disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). I take comfort in knowing that in reality, these two words spoken at the rite of Baptism will be relatively insignificant compared to how the child is brought up in the faith, to the extent that the godparents demonstrate a positive influence on their spiritual lives, and how the child responds to the world through an open and accepting example of loving parents.
Semantics? Splitting hairs? Perhaps not. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matthew 12:36). Words, and the intent which delivers them, carry creative potential. We would do well to choose and speak them mindfully, and with great care in our day-to-day lives, and in how we conduct our sacraments.