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Priests can reflect the warmth of Christ to their congregations

Thoughts on a Christening.

I have just returned from my granddaughter Iona’s christening in Scotland. It was supposed to be a community welcoming, a rejoicing because new life was coming into the parish; the different stages of the baptism took place throughout the 90-minute High Mass. Since most of our party of 18 family and friends were non-believers I prayed long and hard that it would be a beautiful and uplifting spiritual experience for all. God knows it is hard sometimes to show our church in a good light these days.

I cannot fault the ritual of the ceremony. There was a choir which processed down two aisles, a vigorous shaker of the thurible and all the vestments and trappings were as ornate as we would expect of a High Mass. However, viewing it through the eyes of outsiders it did seem rather strange, detached almost. Little Eimear, 25 months, exclaimed in surprise when she saw the priest appear on the altar, “Look, mummy, dat man playing dressy-up!!” Out of the mouths of babes…

The one recognisable prayer was in Latin and so only the few of us older folk who remembered bits of the Pater Noster were able to recite it. It was altogether a fine example of Roman Catholic ritual but was there any real connection with the people there?

After the Mass the four sets of parents, who were all of different nationalities, Polish, French, American and Scots/Irish, were left in the church and no one came over to say hello or smile or connect in any personal way. The only communication up to this had been by telephone or email with a rather abrupt secretary.

I thought of how these four beautiful babies were supposed to be welcomed into this Christian community and I wanted to weep. Where was the welcome, really? Why couldn’t the celebrant or even a representative of the parish have shaken hands with the parents, smiled at the new little Christians, made some sort of effort to connect heart-to–heart?

I have lined up after Mass outside another church where the celebrant, a member of the hierarchy, stood to shake hands and have seen him hold his hand out and turn away his face. It wasn’t that he was talking to anyone on the other side but simply perhaps because he was bored, tired and not thinking. Why go through this ritual if there is no real connection of person to person?

So this is a plea to priests to think about ritual and about real connection. What matters if you stumble over the words or get flustered over which chasuble should be worn or whether something is or is not liturgically correct? Does it really matter what garment is worn as much as clothing yourselves in and reflecting Christ’s warm, loving, reaching-out to all in the congregation. A smile, a nod of warmth, a handshake with eye-to-eye contact, a pat on the back, a hug – these are the marks of Christ. These convey so much more than you realise.

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    Blessings of joy on your little granddaughter Iona: May she have life,and have it to the full!
    Perhaps priests (and others) can only reflect the warmth of Christ to their congregations if they themselves are basking in the sunshine of that warm, tender Love, and if they know, really know, themselves loved by God beyond their wildest dreams…..After all, isn’t that what the Good News is about?”

  2. Kathleen O'Connell says:

    I must congratulate our Pastor, Fr. Joe Fata, for his warmth in welcoming new babies and their families and all receiving sacraments to our parish, St. Luke, Boardman, OH, US.
    While a special song is sung, Fr. Fata takes the baby and holds them up section by section and all clap a warm welcome. It brings tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Thanks Mary – but tell me, are you awa’ in the heid or what? Sure they never taught us any of them fancy paraliturgical folderols (nods and winks and handshakes) in Maynooth and I’m sure the Scottish seminary didn’t specialise in hugs and pats on the back either. I agree, you’d expect that someone who spent years in ‘Roma del forte abbraccio’ could rise above the cold formalities, even in the teeth of an Armagh November gale or weighed down by its barometer.
    Obviously it’s time the Roman Catholic House of Laity agreed with the overwhelming demands from its House of Bishops and House of Clergy for the ordination of women bishops. Hugs and smiles all around. 🙂

  4. Mary,
    It sounds like a dispiriting experience indeed for everyone involved, but was it a failure to evangelise or to socialise, that upset you? Maybe it was the lack of social function in the occasion which was disappointing? In which case, the parents, being non-believers, could have been expected to be able to cater for that themselves, as they may all the more easily subscribe to purely secular values.
    Was it a Tridentine Rite? Could the parents not have chosen to have the Baptism take place in a Sunday or weekday Mass, thereby integrating it to the worship of the faithful, which of itself might have helped render it accessible and meaningful?
    Then, I can`t accept that it was, as you describe it, “.. altogether a fine example of Roman Catholic ritual but was there any real connection with the people?”(sic). There is a basic contradiction here. Full and active participation of the People of God is the hallmark of “fine Catholic ritual”, and not otherwise.
    You refer to the new-born being welcomed to a “community”, but what community can you mean if the four sets of parents are not believers and do not practise, and therefore don’t meet as members of a Catholic community? Surely the “Christianising” of infants is a process as well as a ceremony, which begins before Baptism and continues afterwards as the child grows, with parents attending Mass and participating in the sacramental life of the church. But if they can`t or won`t give that kind of commitment, even non-believers, as you say most of the families were in this case, might, in common-sense, be expected to inform themselves of the meanings of the liturgy they freely choose to be part of.
    The failure as you imply it of the clergy involved to “reach out”, sadly, seems matched here by the failure of the parents to “reach in” responsibly.

  5. Mary O Vallely says:

    mjt (4) I’m afraid you make assumptions. I am sure all four sets of parents are believers, otherwise they would not have chosen to get their child baptised.There was no choice of when or where the baptism would take place. The rule in that parish is that baptisms take place once a month at that particular Mass. I am also writing as an outsider to that parish and as a grandmother with different and more positive experiences of baptism. The parents did NOT fail their child in any way and you need to be careful not to assume that. Perhaps I did not explain it properly. Many of those there to support our family were not believers and that is why I wished them to feel welcomed into that sacred space.
    I also appeal to all laity that we too extend the hand of friendship, the welcome into our homes, to all our priests. Let us not forget why we are all in this church. We love because we KNOW we are loved. Christ must be allowed to rule our hearts most of all.

  6. My mistake(s).Your “Since most of our party of 18 family and friends were non-believers ” had set me off on the wrong path. How easy it is to do..

  7. Fr. Kieren says:

    Hi Mary,
    I suppose what you describe is one of the reasons I rarely celebrate the sacrament of baptism within Mass, nor do I tend to do group baptisms. Baptism is a special sacrament opening us up to and welcoming us to the life of Christ. I personally tend to do at least 3 baptisms every weekend, but separately. It means that I can be more welcoming to each family, this means that I do over 100 baptisms a year and although it is tiring I feel that on occasion I really connect with the family, and on occasion gently prompt some back to Mass. However, I won’t criticise other priests for doing it differently, as we each have to decide how to address and fulfil the sacramental life of the parish.

  8. I contrast your experience Mary with another Catholic gathering I experienced at the ACP/ACI meeting in the Regencey hotel recently. There I both saw and experienced people, who had previously never set eyes on each other, hug, drink, laugh, pray, and discuss in depth, the plight of our beloved Church. Yes I said “Lord it is good that we are here”. Believe it or not I even saw a few priests having a laugh over a few pints. What a joy. This is the model of church I wish to belong to.

  9. Fergus P Egan says:

    I have had two recent experiences with my grandchildren.
    Both were in the same church, and both were quite different.

    The first was a Baptism outside Mass. This was an hour-long ceremony – I cannot say “celebration”. Throughout all the readings we had anxiety about the baby. Is he asleep? Is he awake? Does he need to be changed again? Of course he needed to be changed – twice in one hour. It was a very trying experience. For the most part we ignored the celebration and hoped we could survive the ordeal. (Who could even come up with such a ritual?)

    The second experience was excellent.
    It was during Mass. There was no pressure to have the baby present ALL the time; if the mother preferred, she could retire to the “Crying Room” which is sound proof, and which has facilities for changing the baby. But the most moving part was the Baptism itself. It was performed after the procession of the gifts. The baby was one of the “gifts” that was processed through the church, and she was presented to the community and Baptised at the altar. It was dignified, warmly received by the congregation, and was not at all trying for baby or mother. And Yes! she was warmly welcomed by all present.

    Funny thing: this was the same church, but a different celebrant.

    Fergus P Egan

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