Fr. Roger J. Landry
Meditation on Renewing and Living our Baptism as Priests and Seminarians
Rome Experience for Seminarians, CIAM Center, Urbanium University
June 5, 2014
To listen to an audio recording of this meditation, please click below:
The following text and notes guided the meditation:
Today is going to be a very full and rich day for us as disciples, apostles, priests and God-willing future priests. Over the last few days we’ve focused on enhancing our devotion to and friendship with St. Peter, St. Paul and with the Blessed Mother. Today we have in line five different visits, all of which will be powerful, and a unifying theme is not quite as obvious. But I think there’s still one, one which is always important for us to ponder, especially during the Easter Season that is drawing to a close. It’s baptism. Today as we progress on our pilgrimage in Rome, we ponder the beginning of our pilgrimage of faith. And we’ll have the privilege to do so at the Lateran Baptistery, historically the most famous baptistery in the world after the Jordan River, where over the centuries so many Christians were reborn to eternal life.
Many of us as Catholics don’t ponder enough the meaning of our baptism because for most of us it happened before we had a capacity to remember. Baptized as children, it really wasn’t adequately a sacrament of conversion, a sacrament for which we prepared, a sacrament that subjectively was taken as seriously as its objective impact. The day of our baptism is simply the most important day of our life but few Catholics think about it enough.
Pope Francis has been trying to reinvigorate our understanding and appreciation for this Sacrament. One way is by getting all of us to celebrate our baptism. On November 13, he said during his Wednesday audience in the presence of a packed St. Peter’s Square, “Baptism is in a certain sense the identity card of the Christian, his birth certificate, and the act of his birth into the Church. All of you know the day on which you were born and you celebrate it as your birthday, don’t you? We all celebrate our birthday. I want to ask you a question, one I have already asked several times, but I’ll ask it again: Who among you remembers the date of your Baptism?” When few raised their hands, he said. “Let’s do something: today, when you go home, find out what day you were baptized, look for it, because this is your second birthday. The first birthday is the day you came into life and the second birthday is the one on which you came into the Church. Will you do this? This is your homework!” He asked the same question, got the same percentage of response, and gave the same homework during his audience on September 11, specifically calling on all Catholics to “carry [the date of their baptism] in their heart and celebrate it” like they celebrate their birthday.
When I prepare parents and godparents for the baptism of a new baby, one of the counsels that I give to godparents is that if they’re going to give their godchild one gift over the course of the year to give it not on the child’s birthday or even at Christmas but on the anniversary of the child’s baptism. I tell the godparents that naturally parents and family members are going to give gifts and have a part on the child’s birthday and many others will give presents at Christmas, but the godparents have a special connection to the day of baptism. If every year on the anniversary of the child’s baptism, the child begins to look forward to a gift from his or her godparents — and depending upon proximity — even a visit with a cake or other means to celebrate that day, then the child will grow up knowing that the day of baptism was really quite special. It can be a day to look over photos or videos of the baptism, to bless themselves with some holy water saved from the baptismal font, to light the baptismal candle and pray for fidelity to the promises the parents and godparents made on that day, to have a one-on-one conversation about the joys and struggles the godchild may be having in life in general or in the faith in particular. But it all begins with taking seriously the date of baptism. The day of our baptism — even should we live to be well over 100 — is the most important day of our life, the day that made us a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a member of Christ’s body the Church. It’s a day that opened up heaven for us. It deserves to be celebrated. The same thing goes for the date of the baptism of our loved ones.
But relatively few Catholics — even the most faithful Catholics — even know the date of their baptism. This lesson was recently brought home to me when I was doing a registration drive at the new parish of St. Bernadette so that we could update the parish database. The database the parish had after the merger between Notre Dame and Immaculate Conception was, I liked to call it, “state of the art 1995.” It wasn’t compatible with many of the inventions over the last couple of decades that make parish communications with various generations much easier and cheaper. On the new registration sheet, in addition to the obvious queries, we ask for the normal data on sacraments received. Unsurprisingly, almost every married couple was able to put down the date and place of their marriage. But fewer than five percent of parishioners could remember their baptismal information, even though the cover letter asked them to take a few minutes and find the info from the baptismal certificates I presumed they had with their important paperwork.
I was baptized on April 19 and every year I do try to celebrate it with a special holy hour of gratitude, a renewal of my baptismal promises, a petition of thanksgiving at Mass, and, when I can, by going out to dinner with friends. I also pray in a special way that day for my parents and godparents, my twin brother, who was baptized together with me. He’s often jocularly held his five-minute primogeniture from the womb over me in life, but I’ve always shot back that I was the oldest to be born from the womb of the Church. (I don’t really know who was baptized first — neither my parents nor godparents remember — but I was always pretend as if I was and my name is the first one listed in the baptismal register). I also prayed for the priest who made me a child of God, Fr. Richard L. Mahoney, OMI, a priest who was very old at the time of the baptism whom I never had the chance to know, but who gave me the greatest gift of my life. I also prayed for the priest who made me a child of God, Fr. Richard L. Mahoney, OMI, a priest who was very old at the time of the baptism whom I never had the chance to know, but who gave me the greatest gift of my life.. There would obviously be many areas of the Christian life in which I need a lot of improvement, but on the homework Pope Francis has given every Catholic, I would like to think I’d deserve an A. How about you? What’s the day of your baptism? And how will you celebrate it?
Today we have a chance to renew our gratitude for the gift of our baptism. It’s a day for us to renew our total rejection of Satan, his empty promises and evil works. It’s a day for us to renew our faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the holy Church Jesus founded, in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. It’s a day on which we can check to see if our garment is still white for the eternal wedding banquet or if the banquet were held today, we’d be thrown out for improper vesture. It’s a day to examine whether the flame of faith is still alive in our heart, whether we’re full of oil to keep the flame of faith burning for the return of the Bridegroom. It’s a day on which we can recall the Ephapththa gesture opening our ears and mouth and examine whether we’re really using our ears primarily to hear God speaking and our capacity for communication to speak first and foremost to him and about him.
We’ll renew our baptism at the Lateran baptistery, built originally by Constantine, which was the only place in Rome where one was baptized. Eventually so many wanted to approach the sacrament that it needed to be enlarged by the same team that built St. Mary Major, Pope St. Sixtus III and his archdeacon, the future Pope Leo the Great. It was built as an Octagon to symbolize that baptism begins an eternal eighth day, we enter into Jesus’ resurrection that happened on the first day of the new week. There are three steps down into the huge font, symbolizing the three days of death in the tomb and then one comes up on the staircase on the other side. There are sculptures of deer in the font symbolizing that we, like the Psalm says of them, are meant to year for flowing streams.
There are a series of porphyry columns around the font leading upward that would hold curtains for the baptisms. And on the outside, there are some famous verses written by the Deacon and future St. Leo the Great to remind everyone what is happening at baptism. These would be words for us to ponder and to assimilate as we prepare so many for RCIA and so many parents for the baptism of their children:
- Here is born from life-giving seed a people, consecrated to another city, whom the Spirit brings forth from the fertile waters.
- They plunge in the holy purifying flood the sinner, whom the wave receives as old but gives forth as new.
- None reborn is different from others it makes one, one font, one Spirit, one faith.
- Mother church as a virgin brought forth those who are born, whom she conceived by the divine breath and brought into being in the flowing water.
- The person who wants to be innocent is here made clean by washing, whether from the guilt of the first parent or one’s own.
- Here is the font of life that bathes the whole world, its ultimate source the side of Christ wounded.
- Reborn in this font for the kingdom of heaven, the blessed life does not receive those born only once.
- Be not afraid of the number or kind of your sins, For the one born in this river will be holy.
A smoother translation is:
“A Race destined for Heaven is born here of holy seed that the Spirit begets from life-bearing waters. Plunge, sinner, in the holy flood which will make you clean, For the wave which receives the old man will bring him forth as new. There is no difference between those reborn, Whom one font, one Spirit, one Faith have made one. The children Mother Church has conceived in her virginal womb By God’s Breath, she bears in this stream. If you wish to be guiltless you must wash in this bath, Whether Adam’s sin or your own presses you down. This is the fount of life, which has cleansed the whole world, Flowing from its source, Christ’s Wound. Only those reborn here may hope for the Kingdom of Heaven: The Blessed life is not for those born once. Let no one fear the number or the nature of his sins: The man born in this stream will be holy.”
Scala Sancta (the Holy Stairs) and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem).
To renew our baptism is to renew our death and resurrection in Christ.
Easter Vigil we read Rom 6. “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
Holy Staircase from Praetorium. Prophecies of Christ’s Passion in all the art of the five staircases. What Jesus would have said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus to make their hearts burn.
People enter into this reality by ascending the staircase on their needs.
At the top of the stairs there are three images of Christ’s death as his exaltation, that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up. It’s necessary for us to be lifted up with him.
Relics of the saints. “There’s no holier place in the world”
The image of Christ, which is about heaven.
Relics of the Passion.
- True Cross
- Thomas’ finger
- Part of the Column
- Long Nail
- Title Plate
- Even dirt from Jerusalem
Finding of the True Cross. Healing Power.
Main image of the apse mosaic from the early 1100s in the latest version of the Church is that the Cross of Christ is the Tree of Life. The cross blooms forth from an acanthus plant, and because the Savior had died on it , the waters of life flow beneath it, permitting the animals of creation to slake their thirst from its abundance. The twelve doves, symbols of the apostles and of the faithful, perch peacefully on the cross, for it is in the cross that they find their salvation. They’re poised to fly to the ends of the earth with the Gospel. They’re weren’t 12 doves on Good Friday, but they returned to the Cross after the Resurrection, after Pentecost. All the apostles died as martyrs except the one who was on Calvary. The branches of the plant grow luxuriantly and fill the entire apse. Its fullness is indicated by the personages, exotic animals, flowers and fruit placed amid the foliage. There are four doctors of the Church included within it — Augustine, Jerome, Gregory and Ambrose. Below is the Lamb in the center and 12 lambs approach from the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Dead serpent.
That’s what happens in a parish. San Clemente is one of the first and oldest parishes. We’ll be able to go down into the excavations of the fourth century Church. And then down even lower to what antedated it.
St. Clement himself entered into Christ’s Cross and reigns in glory.
St. John Lateran Basilica.
An image of the Church constantly living through the Paschal Mystery. The history of the Lateran is, in many ways, the history of the Church as a whole. Over the course of the centuries, the Lateran has been pillaged by vandals, decimated by fire three times, toppled by an earthquake, and neglected by the Popes and people sometimes for decades. After every fall on its Way of the Cross through time, however, the Lateran rose again, continuing to proclaim to the city and the world the Church’s faith, through the words of the popes and five ecumenical councils held there, and through the language of its art and architecture.
Constant need to rebuild the Church. St. Francis.
Image of Christ in apse. Jeweled Cross underneath it, with water flowing from the font of Jesus’ open side, with deer drinking, with Peter and Paul underneath, with fish swimming in the river, showing how it gives life. The Cathedra is directly underneath.
Apostles with their symbols of martyrdom.
Point/counterpoint series, all relating to this mystery of death and resurrection.
- Noah and the Ark/Jesus’ baptism
- Sacrifice of Isaac carrying wood/Jesus’ carrying his own wood
- Moses and the Red Sea/Jesus bringing souls out of sheol
- Betrayal of Joseph/Betrayal of Judas
- Adam and Eve being kicked out/Good Thief Getting In
Living the reality of the faith that flows from baptism. Baptism leads to faith leads to eternal life. We have an inspiring example we will meet today, someone I hope you’ll learn to love like I do.
Passed by this tomb many times without knowing anything about the person. It all changed for me around Christmas 2007. Pope Benedict mentioned her in an address to Catholic school children and I began to read up on her. He proposed to them as an example a six-year-old girl, Antonietta “Nennolina” Meo (1931-1937), whom he said he one day hopes will become the youngest non-martyred saint in the history of the Church. I began to read up on her and a devotion quickly followed.
He mentioned that Nennolina, who died of bone cancer in Rome at the age of six, has left all Christians, young and all, “a shining example” that “shows that holiness is for all ages: for children and for young people, for adults and for the elderly.” He stressed that in her few years on earth, she “reached the peak of Christian perfection that we are all called to scale; she sped down the ‘highway’ that leads to Jesus.”
From the time Antonietta learned how to write at the age of four-and-a-half, she began, beautifully, to compose letters to God. Each night before she would go to bed, she would scribble a note to God the Father, or to Jesus, or to the Holy Spirit, and place the note under the statue of Jesus in her room. She did this “so that he could read them.” She would praise and thank each of the divine Persons, tell them how much she loves them, ask them to give messages to each other, petition for them to bless the clergy, her family, the souls in Purgatory and others in need. If one did not see the awkward script of a young girl, it would be hard to believe they come from someone so young.
“Dear God the Father,” Nennolina scrawled just short of her fifth birthday, “I love you so much! Really very much! Make Christmas come soon. Tell your Son that I love Him and also tell Him that I’m waiting for Him in my heart. I wish you to set a lot of souls in Purgatory free so that they can go to Paradise and glorify you and I also wish you to convert a lot of sinners. I ask you to grant me the favor of helping my father. Make me good. Many greetings and kisses by your daughter!”
She was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 5 and demonstrated a profound comprehension for the meaning of redemptive suffering. She saw it as a mark of divine favor — “I am happy that Jesus sent me this difficulty. It means that I am his beloved” — and, expressing her gratitude, she sought to offer it for others: “I thank you for having sent me this illness because it is a means to get to Paradise. Jesus, give me the strength to bear this pain I offer you for sinners.”
Eventually she would need to have her leg amputated, but wrote to Jesus, “I’m not saying to give me back my leg. I gave it to you!” She told her mother why she gave it. “You know, mum? I offered my leg to Jesus for the conversion of poor sinners.” When others kindly told her they were praying for her to get better, she asked them rather to pray that she do God’s will. “I want to stay with Him on the Cross because I love him.”
In one of the last of her 105 letters, she asked the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Tell Jesus to make me die before I commit a mortal sin.” It seems that her prayer was answered. She reached the end of the highway that leads to Jesus a short time later, five months before her seventh birthday.
If the holiness that flows from baptism is possible for Nennolina, it’s possible for us too.