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from issue no. 08 - 2009

ARGENTINA. Baptisms in Buenos Aires

Baptism is a simple matter

In the archdiocese of Buenos Aires all priests are invited to make the receiving of baptism as simple as possible. By avoiding righteousness and artificial demands that increase de-Christianization. The mere fact of asking for baptism for oneself or one’s children “is already a fruit of the grace of God”

by Gianni Valente

<I>Peter baptizing the neophytes</I>, Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, Florence

Peter baptizing the neophytes, Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, Florence

They did not spare energy or imagination in Mataderos. Flyers in mailboxes, posters hung at bus stops, notices in shop windows, manifestos at the busiest intersections. Four boys went from street to street with a cart with a loudspeaker. The message was simple and direct so that everyone would hear, and everyone understand: you are not baptized yet? You haven’t had your children baptized yet? Come along, it’s easy, just sign up, don’t wait any longer, don’t miss this gift from heaven. In the former slaughterhouse district of Buenos-Aires – an industrial area converted into an inhabited area, after the recession of 2001 had left sheds, warehouses and factories deserted – new people continue to arrive, attracted by the still fairly cheap prices. And the parish priest Fernando Giannetti and his friends wanted to tell everybody that getting baptized there is easier than buying a house. Last time, in early July, at the first fiesta popular del bautismo almost one hundred and fifty came asking for baptism for themselves or their children. Including a girl from a distant neighborhood who had seen the Mataderos posters as she happened to pass in a bus. A brief pre-baptismal ciarla at eleven, to remind everyone what happens when you’re baptized with water and the ritual words, and then Mass, with the church packed with parents, relatives and godparents, followed by a parish celebration with the band, pizzas and burgers. During the festival, more than thirty people gave their name for the next Mass with baptisms already scheduled for late October, and many of the newly baptized enrolled in the courses for communion and confirmation. Don Fernando was a little surprised that the thing had caused such clamor, that even La Nación, the most circulated daily in the country, had written it up, presenting it as a campaign to make access to baptism “easier”. He repeats that he and his colleagues had no intention of inventing anything original. They just wanted to reach “those who for various circumstances in life had not been baptized, let them know that there was a clear and uncomplicated opportunity to receive baptism, without conditions added to that given in the Code of Canon Law, namely that it be the parents who ask baptism for their children”.
Don Fernando was a little surprised, but one must grant Silvina Premat – the journalist who wrote the “note” for La Nación – a certain professional flair: saying in the Church and the world today that baptism is a simple thing is really in danger of becoming news.

As soon as possible
On the other hand, they are right, Don Gugliemo and other parish priests of Buenos Aires – like the one at San Diego, or the one at the Niño Jesus – have spread the word in their neighborhoods and throughout the city to remind everyone that being baptized is something simple, that anyone can ask for themselves and their children. Their initiative is far from an extravagance invented for the newspapers. They, as priests, have merely taken on board the concrete circumstances in which they operate, also heeding suggestions from their bishops, in full ecclesial communion.
The fact is that in Catholic Argentina, where they chose the colors of Our Lady’s cloak for the national flag, and where up to 1994 a non-Catholic could not become president, it was realized that there was a growing number of people – children, teenagers, young people, adults – who had not yet received the grace of baptism. It had come about for many reasons, cultural, psychological and moral conditioning of various kinds: because there was no money to have a celebration, because the godparents had to come from a long way off, because the parents were separated or not married canonically, so people thought the thing could not be done. The Buenos Aires diocese has recently printed a handbook, El bautismo en clave misionera, which is the guideline for its parish priests, which shows that the problem had long been the center of the pastoral concern of the local Church.
The bishops of the metropolis of Buenos Aires – which includes the dioceses of Morón, San Justo, Merlo-Moreno, San Martín, San Miguel, Gregorio de Laferriere, Avellaneda-Lanús and Lomas de Zamora – put on paper in October 2002, after careful reflection, a series of pastoral guidelines for the baptism of children, now republished in the handbook in the intent of “giving everyone, at least, the grace of access to the salvific action, within which baptism is primary”. The memorandum set out from the realization that “the number of children who receive baptism has been diminishing”. Among the reasons for the reduction are tersely listed growing secularization, extensive religious ignorance, the increase in couples with irregular family situations, inadequate pastoral communication with those who approach parishes asking for baptism for their children. Without recriminations or getting lost in abstract speculations, the path suggested by the bishops was clear: not to add burdens, not to make difficult demands, to clear the way of all obstacles of a social, cultural, psychological or practical nature that might furnish people with an excuse for postponing or dropping the idea of baptizing their children. The minimal stated goal was to ensure that no parent leave the parish premises with the idea that someone, for some reason, had abrogated the power to deny baptism to their child.
Don Fernando Giannetti baptizes a girl at the popular baptism festival in the parish of Nostra Señora de la Misericordia di Mataderos in Buenos Aires, 5 July 2009

Don Fernando Giannetti baptizes a girl at the popular baptism festival in the parish of Nostra Señora de la Misericordia di Mataderos in Buenos Aires, 5 July 2009

The handbook of 2002 already set out this concern in a number of concrete indications across the board, clearing from the outset that no contraindication to the celebration of baptism may derive from the level of religious “preparedness” of parents and godparents, or their state of awareness of the responsibility they assume for the Christian education of the child for whom they ask baptism.
Baptismal catechesis – the bishops of the Buenos Aires metropolis suggested all of seven years ago – will have to adapt to the life situation and real possibilities of parents and godparents, particularly with regard to times and procedures. Going, if need be, to homes, so that this duty effectively achieve its purpose and not become a troublesome hindrance resulting in delaying or canceling the baptism requested. Indeed, in special cases, the homily during the celebration of baptism is indicated as valid and sufficient opportunity to provide the essential teaching required.
The choice of godparents – a matter of considerable importance in family-oriented Latin America – is also dealt with softly, from the implicit fact of their accessory character (“the discipline of the Church requires that the child who receives baptism be given a godfather only to the extent possible”). The handbook notes that the sponsors “play a role more social than anything else, and apart from exceptions do not tend to consider themselves as educators and guarantors of the growth in the Christian life of their godchildren”. It recognizes that “when parents have invited someone to be a godparent and they have agreed, it is a very fierce act to replace them”. It takes account of the fact that “in the poorer social sectors and in the cases of immigrants and single mothers some baptisms are postponed even several years out of a natural modesty because godparents possessing the requisite attributes have not been found”. While it must be insisted “that recently born children be baptized as soon as possible”. It lays down that cases in which the chosen godparents are poorly adapted to the role be treated with delicacy and “pastoral charity”. Should the life of a godparent be publicly inconsistent with the principles of Catholic doctrine, the handbook even suggests the ploy of accepting the nominee as a witness, as required for non-Catholic Christians. The primary goal is always to “avoid baptism being deferred indefinitely or prevented by reason of the choice of godparents”. In order not to get tangled in unnecessary red tape, the need to request and grant permits and “nulla osta” between one parish and the next is also repealed. There’s even an eloquent reminder of the welcoming attitude that parish office workers must show, avoiding the inquisitional and intimidatory posturing as “officials of the sacred” (“often”, the handbook acknowledges, “those who do not participate in habitual fashion in the life of parish communities lack the courage to recount their own situation or seek some explanation. They go away saddened and disgusted, convinced that they had come to seek to baptize their child but have not been welcomed and that many obstacles have been set in their way that in their eyes are just bureaucratic hassle”).
The indications from the group of Argentine bishops insist on the respect with which any request to baptize children must be dealt, regardless of who comes. “Those who come seeking baptism for their child are taking a very important step that must be dealt with carefully, as an expression of the religious feeling of our people”. Above all, what must be absolutely avoided is any arbitrariness in linking the administration of baptism to attempts to impose “mortgage guarantee” on the destiny of the person to be baptized. The Code of Canon Law prescribes that one should have a “well-founded hope” that the child baptized is brought up in the Catholic faith. The pastoral indications of the bishops of the metropolis of Buenos Aires on this issue make clear that the mere fact of having sought baptism for one’s child is already sufficient reason to “assume, unless there be evidence to the contrary, that there is willingness to educate the child in the faith”. When this guarantee seems completely absent in the parents, it will be up to the Christian community, led by the parish priest, to find ways of compensating for these shortcomings, because baptism is not a solitary performance, but “is administered in virtue of the ‘faith of the Church’. Therefore”, the handbook well puts it, to avoid any uncertainty, “baptism cannot be denied to children of single mothers, couples united only by the civil bond, children of divorcees with a new relationship or people who have lapsed from the practice of Christian life”. Father Giannetti, in the light of his long pastoral experience, considers them self-evident: “In the many years I’ve been a priest,” he says, “I’ve never heard that the baptism of some child in the Buenos Aires region was refused or postponed because the parents were not married in church. It would be like trying to make the children pay for the frailty of the parents, in a sort of pretty mean blackmail”.

A priest confessing a woman during a pilgrimage to the church dedicated to San Cayetano in the district of Liniers in Buenos Aires, 7 August 2009 <BR>[© Reuters/Contrasto]

A priest confessing a woman during a pilgrimage to the church dedicated to San Cayetano in the district of Liniers in Buenos Aires, 7 August 2009
[© Reuters/Contrasto]

It’s enough to ask
Unwillingly, the Argentine bishops’ pastoral guidelines to facilitate baptisms reproposes an approach to the first sacrament that has been cyclically put in question in the history of the Church in Latin America, and not just there. Already at the time of the arrival of the Christian message in the Americas, the Franciscans had to engage in arduous theological disputes to defend their decision to facilitate to the utmost the baptism of the Indios. Today the objections come from what the handbook calls the ilustrada culture: the widespread idea of those who more or less explicitly argue that baptism be administered only to those who show readiness, that is, to those who manifest “awareness” of its meaning, demonstrating knowledge of its implications and providing reliable guarantees of commitment to the baptismal vows.
The handbook briefly summarizes the terms of the disagreement and finds for the criterion of “facilitation” comforting backing in the Fathers of the Church and in the fine insights of Father Rafael Tello, the theologian of popular devotion and of the poor who died in 2002. It was Father Tello who, without rancor, described the ilustrada mindset as the approach that identifies baptism as a rite of acquisition of “a spirituality capable of conferring on people the ability to perform spiritual actions”. A conception in which one sees resurface the old misunderstanding, the one that according to the poet Charles Péguy perverts Christianity into a sort of “superior religion for the upper classes”: the idea that salvation comes from knowledge, and from the capacity for self-correction based on knowledge. Whereas, finding backing in Augustine and Thomas, in Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Cyril of Jerusalem, the Buenos Aires document acknowledges that “in our historical and cultural context baptism entails enormous consequences for the message and not to administer it, or put obstacles to people’s approach, helps the de-Christianization of our people”. As happened in late antiquity through the rigidity of the catechumenate “the tendency to make many demands, whereby it became difficult to gain access to the sacraments, led in a few centuries to large-scale de-Christianization of Europe that later had to be reversed by efforts in the opposite direction, the main figures in which were monks of ‘barbarian’ origin”. In the claim to make administration of the sacraments conditional on some kind of guarantee of “preparedness” the handbook also identifies the danger of a certain “phariseeism” that converts everything into mere bureaucratic “formalities”: “Nobody can really believe that by hearing some instruction parents and godparents become thereby qualified to educate [their children] in the Christian faith and life”. While the identifiable danger is that of intimidating and alienating all those who for one reason or another have the impression of not being “worthy” or “suitable” to receive the sacraments or request them for their children.

The crowd of worshipers in front of the sanctuary of San Cayetano, the patron saint of work and bread, on his feastday, 7 August 2009 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The crowd of worshipers in front of the sanctuary of San Cayetano, the patron saint of work and bread, on his feastday, 7 August 2009 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Effortlessly and painlessly
But the recommendation to encourage in every way the celebration of baptisms, adapting to circumstances and setting aside all artificial conditions arbitrarily self-generated by pastoral practice is not a gimmick for times of de-Christianization, a tactical choice to staunch the outflow of the faithful. The handbook printed in Buenos Aires several times suggests that this approach is more in tune with and respectful of the very nature of baptism and the other sacraments. As Cyril of Jerusalem writes in his Catechesis, quoted in the Buenos Aires handbook: “Christ received the nails in his immaculate hands and feet, and experienced the pain; and to me, painlessly and effortlessly, salvation is given gratuitously through communication of His pain”. This gratuitousness is the proper and peerless feature that marks the entire dynamics of the sacraments as the Church has always administered them, starting from baptism: “The initiative of baptism,” it says in the handbook, “comes from God, who inspires Christian parents to ask it for their children. Even when they do not know how to give adequate reasons [for their request, ed.] and even without knowing it, they are acting because of the free and loving favor of God who wants that baby to be His child in Jesus Christ”. And in another passage: “We believe that the decision to bring the child to be baptized is already a fruit of the grace of God: the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of those parents, and moves them to seek baptism for their child”. Popular piety – insists Father Tello – is the expression of the sensus fidei which has recognized and acknowledged for centuries, without much talk, baptism’s nature as a gratuitous act of the Lord: “A material fact [the baptismal rite, ed.] perceived as the sign that God takes the baptized person to Himself, uniting them to His Son Jesus Christ”. And those who trust “in the merciful action of God who saves” don’t even think of putting awkward obstructions in the work of grace. If anything, they try – in so far as they can – to make room, clear the way, to make the path smoother. They know by the instinct of faith that the Church of Christ cannot hold hostage the gifts of the Lord. Because those gifts are not their property.

Like a small path for everybody
Among the documents gathered from various sources in the handbook, there is also a brief series of suggestions offered to parents in the parish of the Immaculate Conception on how to help their children grow in the faith in the early years after baptism. Suggestions offered, without pretension, for simple, brief and concrete gestures, also taking account of certain guidelines proposed by modern evolutionary psychology. Small tips to enhance the growth of healthy, confident and happy children. Thus, for the first year of life, it is suggested that parents, “along with the good night kiss, bless their child by tracing the sign of the cross on its forehead, asking the good Lord to protect it”. For the second year, the advice is to “visit the local church, so it become familiar to the child”. And given that children at that age begin to imitate what they see done by others, inviting the parents to “blow a few kisses at the image of Jesus, the Virgin or some favorite saint, or keep silence a little while. Always short and simple gestures”. For the third year, when the child starts kindergarten and meets some new little friends, the advice is to tell stories of his friend, Jesus, teaching the Hail Mary and the prayer to the guardian angel...
Thus, day after day, one grows. Almost without realizing that each new step can be as simple as the first, throughout life.

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