Mystery Part I: The Mystery of My Baptism
In the Byzantine churches of the East, the sacraments are called mysteries. My own baptism is thus a double mystery because, to this day, I do not know why my parents had me baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. It remains a mystery.
My mother, who was born in England, liked to think of herself as belonging to the High Church of England. In fact, the church where she worshipped, St. Cyprian’s Anglican Church, in the district of Maisonneuve in the East End of Montreal, was actually rather Low Church: the Anglican priest, who ministered there at that time, was known as Mister Ashdown, not Father Ashdown.
My father was born in Berlin of a French-speaking Belgian Catholic mother and a Danish Lutheran father, and was brought up in Brussels speaking French. Perhaps it got overlooked in the move to Belgium, but he was never baptized. Both my parents emigrated to Montreal, my mother as a young child and my father when he was about thirty-five.
There they met and were married in the Anglican Church, and there my sister Audrey and I were born. She and I were brought up in English and sent to a Catholic elementary school, St. Aloysius. We walked together every Sunday morning to the nine o’clock children’s Mass in the parish church of that name, while my father worshipped at the Municipal Golf Course.
Audrey and I had both been baptized at a French-language church. Our godparents, Georges and Stella Gaudette, were godparents by proxy for our Belgian godparents, in my case, for my grandmother, Jeanne Pitre Jensen, and for my godfather, Eric Reyntiens, whom I later came to know and love. He came to visit us in Montreal in 1950, and that summer my father put Audrey and me (she was 15, I was 14) on a 10,000-ton Norwegian freighter and sent us to Belgium to visit his mother and his younger sister, Nelly, and, of course, to see my godfather.
Though I never asked my father why he chose to have his children baptized in the Catholic Church, I suspect it was because of his closeness to my godfather and his family, who were traditional Catholics. He probably admired their faith and wanted his own children to share it.
My father was seventeen years older than Eric Reyntiens, and perhaps something of a father to him who had lost his father when very young. At our baptisms the priest may simply have assumed that my father was Catholic – why else would he come to a Catholic church to have his children baptized? And, besides, he spoke French – proof enough in the Quebec of those days!
At that time in the Province of Quebec, a baptismal certificate served also as a birth certificate, and so one day when my father showed me his birth certificate, on a long form written in German, I assumed that it was his baptismal certificate. I recall later finding a book on his bookshelves with the title, Rebuilding a Lost Faith, which seemed finally to confirm that he was what was known as a “fallen away Catholic” – one of those who, like my father, rarely if ever went to church and who ate meat on Friday.
When I began my schooling in grade one at St. Aloysius, I soon learned that it was a mortal sin not to go to Mass on Sunday or to eat meat on Friday, and that the consequences were pretty horrendous. And so, from the age of six I began to pray that my father would return to the Catholic Church. Because I prayed earnestly for someone I loved dearly, God became very real for me. This nightly prayer for my father continued through my years in high school, through my years at Loyola College, and then through my years as a Jesuit.
One summer day while visiting from Winnipeg (where I was teaching at St. Paul’s High School), I was alone briefly with my father when he said, “There’s something I’d like to talk with you about – something that’s been worrying me for a long time.”
“What is it?”
“I’d like to be baptized.”
My father was then 79 years old. I was 38, and had been praying for him for almost thirty-two years. It took me a while to absorb how marvellously God had worked during those years, but, in the shock of the moment, I simply said, “Oh … OK, I’ll phone the Jesuits at l’Immaculée Conception Parish, and set up an appointment for you to meet with someone.” Which I did, and which he did. He was baptized a year later at the age of 80. I was in Winnipeg and unable to be present.
That I should be the one to arrange for my father’s baptism – those many years after he had arranged for mine – strikes me as something only God could arrange. I have since come to think of God as the great Arranger: the One who created the universe and arranged the stars in place; the One who puts things in order; the One who assures us that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well,” as Julian of Norwich says so quaintly in her Revelations of Divine Love.
Most of all, I have experienced the power of prayer in seeing the prayer for my father answered. It was a prayer made in trust, and made without fully understanding what I was praying for. The answer went beyond my imagining and united us more deeply than ever in the mystery of our shared baptism. Despite my occasional criticism of the pre-Vatican II Church, I know it is to this Church that my godfather and his family owed their faith, to it that my father owed his faith, and to it that I owe my baptism, my schooling, my education in the faith, and my Jesuit vocation.
When I was born there was no formal preparation of parents for the baptism of their infant children. In most cases, they just showed up with their baby and the parish priest did his thing. In the post-Vatican II Church, however, if parents such as mine had come seeking baptism for their little Eric, they would have been asked, “Who is going to raise him in the faith – his Anglican mother or his unbaptized father?” I would simply have been refused baptism, or else my father would have been invited to seek baptism first for himself.
When I was baptized, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was still far in the future. Adult candidates for baptism were usually given some individual instruction by a priest to see if they were properly disposed to receive the sacrament. I love the moment in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, where one of the characters, a non-Catholic Canadian eager to marry into a wealthy English Catholic family, is taking instruction from their pastor. When he seems to have no questions about any part of Catholic belief, the priest asks him if he accepts the infallibility of the pope. The young man says he does, and so the priest asks, “What if the pope said it was going to rain tomorrow – would it have to rain?”
“Yes, it would.”
“But what if it didn’t?”
He thought for a moment and answered, “Then I suppose you could say that it was raining spiritually but we were too blind to see it.”
There are a lot of things that we priests have been too blind to see. After teaching at St. Paul’s, I spent sixteen years at St. Ignatius Church in Winnipeg, as associate pastor and as pastor. I had a number of single mothers come asking for baptism for their baby, sometimes after having been refused more than once by priests in other parishes – on one occasion with the words, “We don’t baptize bastards.”
Sometimes it was unmarried couples who came after being refused baptism for their children – all this despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states: “The Church and parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth” (paragraph 1250).
This applies especially to pastors. I always made it a point never to refuse baptism to anyone’s children, whatever their state, simply because of my own personal history with the mysterious power in this sacrament.