Feb 15, 2003

Immersed in controversy – fonts or pools?

Online Edition

– Vol. VIII, No. 10: February 2003

Immersed in controversy – fonts or pools?

by Susan J. Benofy

What happens when the baptismal font is replaced by a large pool with running water? Is this really aimed at achieving "a fuller sign" of the rite of baptism? Or is something else going on?

One of the most contentious issues in the Church in the US today is the renovation of church buildings. Proposals for radical (and expensive) changes often give rise to protests from parishioners. Such renovations have for years involved banishing the tabernacle to an obscure location, removing Communion rails, and moving altars and rearranging pews. In the last decade or so a new feature has been added to such plans: the replacement of the existing baptismal font with an immersion pool, often with constantly running water. Sometimes an older font is incorporated into the new arrangement, with the water flowing from the traditional font down into the new pool.

Liturgical consultants for proposed church renovations often claim that this new arrangement is necessary because of the revised rite of Baptism, now part of the more elaborate Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Like the claim that the Council required the removal of the tabernacle from the sanctuary, this is based, at best, on an exaggerated emphasis on one option in the rite. What does the RCIA really require?

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium §§64-69, called for the establishment of a catechumenate in several stages and for revision of the rites of Baptism for both infants and adults. On the Solemnity of the Epiphany in 1972 the Congregation for Divine Worship published the new rite, including several stages and called The Rite of Christian initiation of Adults. A provisional English translation was approved for use in the United States in 1974, and the definitive translation in 1987. Along with the translation, the US bishops approved a set of "National Statutes for the Catechumenate" (November 11, 1986).

The General Introduction to the RCIA says:

§22 As the rite for baptizing, either immersion, which is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, or pouring may lawfully be used.

§213 Therefore in the celebration of baptism the washing with water should take on its full importance as the sign of that mystical sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through which those who believe in his name die to sin and rise to eternal life. Either immersion or the pouring of water should be chosen for the rite, whichever will serve in individual cases and in the various traditions and circumstances to ensure that clear understanding that this washing is not a mere purification rite but the sacrament of being joined to Christ. [The paragraph number given here is from the ICEL translation. It corresponds to paragraph #32 of the Latin edition.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) also mentions immersion in its description of the various stages of the RCIA.

§1239 The essential rite of the sacrament follows: Baptism properly speaking. It signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ. Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring water three times over the candidate’s head. [Emphasis in the original.]

§1278 The essential rite of Baptism consists in immersing the candidate in water or pouring water on his head, while pronouncing the invocation of the Most Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Neither of these official documents exhibits a strong preference for immersion. Immersion is said to be "more expressive" but either immersion or pouring may be chosen — "whichever will serve in individual cases and in the various traditions and circumstances". In the brief summary paragraph of CCC (§1278) no preference is mentioned.

The instructions for the performing of Baptism given in the RCIA simply give two options without expressing a preference:

§226 The celebrant baptizes each candidate either by immersion, option A, or by the pouring of water, option B….

A If baptism is by immersion, of the whole body or of the head only, decency and decorum should be preserved. Either or both godparents touch the candidate. The celebrant, immersing the candidate’s whole body or head three times, baptizes the candidate in the name of the Trinity.

N., I baptize you in the name of the Father,
He immerses the candidate the first time.

B If baptism is by the pouring of water, either or both godparents place the right hand on the shoulder of the candidate, and the celebrant, taking baptismal water and pouring it three times on the candidate’s bowed head, baptizes the candidate in the name of the Trinity….

N., I baptize you in the name of the Father,
He pours water the first time.

Note the description of immersion: either the whole body or the head only may be immersed in the water. The National Statutes for the Catechumenate for the US take note of this option:

#17 Baptism by immersion is the fuller and more expressive sign of the sacrament and, therefore, provision should be made for its more frequent use in the baptism of adults. The provision of The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for partial immersion, namely, immersion of the candidate’s head should be taken into account.

The term "partial immersion" in the Statutes does not occur in the RCIA where the term "immersion" is used for both the full body and the head only. Thus, though the statutes require that there be provision for immersion, they do not require immersion, and in any case note that the head only may be immersed.

In 1985 the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) published "Study Text 10 Christian Initiation of Adults: A Commentary", which contains the following comment on form A of the Rite described above:

There are two forms of immersion stated in the rite: of the head only or of the whole body. The concern for decency and decorum in this paragraph indicates that baptism by immersion of the whole body is indeed a possibility to be considered. (p. 71)

So thirteen years after the RCIA became the official rite for Baptism of adults, immersion of the whole body was only a "possibility to be considered". Why, then, are so many people under the impression that every church must have some form of immersion pool? Most probably because the liturgists who write most of the "planning guides" and give the majority of liturgical workshops strongly advocate immersion. They tend to scorn pouring of water over the head as a "minimal sign" and never mention the immersion of the head only. Even though it is stated merely that immersion is preferred, it is implied that this is tantamount to a requirement.

A typical treatment is found in Sourcebook for Sundays and Seasons, 1997: An Almanac of Parish Liturgy by Peter J. Scagnelli (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1996):

Immersion is the preferred method of baptism in the Roman Catholic Church. If the permanent font does not allow for that, consider temporary arrangements until full renovation is possible.

These annual LTP Sourcebooks are widely used. The 2002 edition contains the same advice, and its author, Father Paul J. Turner, describes his own renovated parish church. It has, among other trendy features, "a way cool baptismal font where neophytes get very, very wet every Easter".

"Way cool" hardly seems an expression of "decency and decorum", so it is not surprising that the requirement in the rite for these attributes is not mentioned in Father Turner’s discussion of immersion pools.

Father Turner also writes bulletin inserts, a regular feature of the magazine Ministry and Liturgy (ML). (This publication was formerly called Modern Liturgy and originally known as Folk Mass and Modern Liturgy. Their most recent name change, the editors said, was motivated by the desire to be post-modern.)

"Choreographing" the baptismal rite

The March 2002 issue of ML has a detailed description of an Easter Vigil baptismal rite recommended in the column "Choreographing the Catechumenate" by Michael Mansfield, who teaches dance, among other things, at the Institute for Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College. (Those with long memories will recall that the Institute for Creation Spirituality was founded by Matthew Fox, who was expelled from the Dominican order for his radical new-age opinions. He is now an Anglican priest.)

In the ceremony Mansfield describes, the procession to the font is led by the "parish dancers or procession leaders":

Each picks up, dramatically, the water jar … brought from home and filled with water. This gesture is the cue for the parishioners to reach down and pick up the jars of water they brought from home…. All of the water is carried in sung procession to the font.

After all have arrived at the font, and those to be baptized have come forward:

The presider invites prayer by holding up his water jar. All in the church hold up the jars and cups and bottles….

During the Litany of the Saints the people fill the font with water from their various vessels so that the assembly can sense "its ownership of the waters as the symbol of their baptism". (p. 38)

Profession of Faith and Baptisms follow.

As each baptized Christian emerges from the waters, the assembly sings the antiphon. If the assembly can make noises with their water jars and applaud while they sing, all the better. (p. 38)

The clothing of the baptized with a baptismal garment is the next community ritual action. This is the next symbol that the assembly needs "to own" and remember. After the baptized return to the font, the garments – made by the community and reused every year – are brought to the back of the assembly…. The garments are then passed over the heads of the assembly, toward the font. Ideally each member of the assembly will be canopied by a white garment and symbolically retouch his or her own baptismal garment. (p. 39)

Despite the emphasis on preference for immersion that is cited as justification for the installation of pools, it appears that most of the baptisms that occur in these pools are not really by immersion, but, in fact, by pouring.

Father Paul Niemann, then director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, discussed this in his book for Modern Liturgy, ML Answers the 101 Most-Asked Questions: The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book (San Jose: Resource Publications, Inc, 1998):

First of all, let’s talk about what "immersion" is. The Roman rite provides for two forms of baptism: immersion and infusion (pouring). In some places, immersion is taken to mean the pouring of a large quantity of water over the whole body of the catechumen, who stands or kneels in a shallow basin. This author maintains that this is simply a generous infusion: water is being poured.

Immersion is the dipping or "submersion" of the body into a large container of water. The question of whether this was "the original form" of baptism is irrelevant. The Roman liturgy simply states that whether the water is brought to the catechumen or the catechumen is brought into the water, it is acceptable. (p. 95)

The notion that a pool is to be used for this sort of Baptism by pouring may have been influenced by the (now supplanted) Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), a 1978 document of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy on church architecture. EACW has been influential far beyond its level of authority, primarily because of its popularity with liturgists and liturgical consultants.

EACW §76 To speak of symbols and of sacramental significance is to indicate that immersion is the fuller and more appropriate symbolic action in baptism. New baptismal fonts, therefore, should be constructed to allow for the immersion of infants, at least, and to allow for the pouring of water over the entire body of a child or adult. Where fonts are not so constructed, the use of a portable one is recommended.

A portable font? Why, if true immersion is preferred, is it necessary to build fonts that allow for pouring over the entire body? Immersion and pouring are very different. It is ironic that the same liturgists who insistently remind us that the sacraments are actions are the ones who confuse these two different actions.

The option in the Baptismal rite for pouring specifies that the water is to be poured "on the candidate’s bowed head". It does not say it is to be poured over the whole body, an invention of liturgists, with no precedent in tradition or justification in the current rite.

The only connection pouring water over the whole body has with true immersion is that by either procedure the baptized "get very, very wet every Easter". Why build an immersion pool to baptize by pouring? There is no directive in any official rite to use "temporary" measures if the church has a traditional font.

In 1999 the US bishops replaced EACW with a new document, "Built of Living Stones". Its section on the baptistry lists six criteria that "can be helpful when choosing the design of the font" (p. 17). None of these criteria suggests temporary arrangements or pouring water over the entire body. The only one that mentions the form of Baptism says:

2. The font should be large enough to supply ample water for the baptism of both adults and infants. Since baptism in Catholic churches may take place by immersion in the water, or by infusion (pouring), fonts that permit all forms of baptismal practice are encouraged.

A footnote cites the National Statutes for the Catechumenate, no.17, and RCIA §213 , both of which are quoted above.

Visual prominence of pools

Those who advocate pools seem to have another intention as well. A pool is larger and generally placed more prominently than a traditional font. This gives greater visual prominence to Baptism in the plan of the church. The place for Baptism takes up more space than before and may be presented continuously to one’s consciousness by the constant gurgling of running water. The prominence of the pool-font as a focal point often goes along with an excessive emphasis on Baptism as entrance into the community (as in the rite described above) and as the pre-eminent sacrament. According to this view, the "community" is the primary symbol of the Church, and the "priesthood of the laity" is more important than the ordained priesthood. But such an exclusive focus on the sacrament of Baptism often results in a diminution of emphasis on the other sacraments, including the Eucharist, especially its sacrificial aspect.

Tabernacle subordinate to pool

A contemporary renovation plan often combines the "pooling" of the font and its relocation to a central place with the removal of the tabernacle from a place of prominence to an obscure "reservation chapel" (the former baptistry is one favored place).

One example of this striking symbolic shift can be seen in the recent renovation of the Milwaukee cathedral, where the former baptistry is now a chapel for reservation; the immersion pool-style baptismal font is in the center of the entrance aisle of the nave; and the choir now occupies the former sanctuary. Further, the altar is in the nave, and the columns from the baldachino over the tabernacle in the sanctuary were cut down to form a base for the tabernacle in the new adoration chapel.

Re-imaging in renovations

Liturgical consultant Marchita Mauck, who has served as an advisor to the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), comments on the baptismal font at length in her book Places for Worship: A Guide to Building and Renovating (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995).

Mauck says that the font should be at the entrance to the church and that a third of the total area of the "worship space" should be devoted to the place for "birthing new members" by "the assembly":

Because we are beginning to understand again that it is the Church — not just the priest — which baptizes, it is effective and appropriate that the assembly can actively participate in the initiation rites, particularly at the Easter Vigil. Proximity and active participation in the baptismal rite … underscores the centrality of the assembly’s role in the birthing of new members. The assembly participates in the singing of acclamations, in taking the risk of even getting splashed by the baptismal water, in smelling the scented oil poured out in confirmation…. The font serves best when the assembly can surround it at or near the entry (pp. 39-40).

Mauck’s view of the baptismal rite requires a large amount of water:

The amount of water for baptism is important. Most bluntly stated, there must be enough water to die in! … There should be at least sixteen or more inches of water, capable of being warmed, in the font (p. 40).

She insists that the baptismal font must be placed in a way that shows it is related to the reconciliation chapel and the altar, and in discussing the Eucharist Mauck again exaggerates the role of the "assembly":

Since the entire congregation — the assembly, presider, and other ministers — offers the Eucharist, the altar as central focal point of the rite should be located within the assembly (p. 43).

In speaking of the role of a planning committee in a church construction or renovation Mauck says:

It is their responsibility to insure that the location of the altar bespeaks a ritual place for all the actions of the Eucharist by the presider, other ministers, and the assembly, and that the design of the Eucharistic ritual place expresses its relationship to the rites of baptism. (p. 45)

Mauck comments on the relationship of "other rites" to "font and table" — funerals (and wakes), weddings, anointing of the sick and Penance.

She discusses the place for the reserved Eucharist:

A chapel for Eucharistic reservation makes clear the distinction between the celebration of the Eucharist and its reservation. The reserved Eucharist is most clearly honored when the tabernacle is the only focal point in the space, effectively lit, and free standing (p. 50, emphasis in original).

In Mauck’s view, the reservation is "not intended as a celebration or a public assembly space, but a space of homage, reverence, and awe" (p. 52). Arguably so, but in her scheme of architecture focused on relationship, the main effect of this arrangement is to make devotion to the Eucharist to appear, like the tabernacle itself, free-standing — unrelated even to the altar on which sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated, much less to any other Sacrament. But the isolation of the tabernacle conflicts with the Church’s concept of Eucharistic worship, which must always be closely connected to the Mass, the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

Re-symbolizing ritual

A photograph on page 51 of Mauck’s book well illustrates the attitude of those who most strenuously advocate immersion pools. It is a photograph of a "reservation chapel" converted from the former baptistry, with the tabernacle perched uneasily on a base that is clearly the traditional baptismal font — one that has, no doubt, been replaced by a pool.

Such an arrangement — especially in a church that has a baptismal pool as a focal point — conveys that the reserved Eucharist, like the "recycled" font, is outmoded, "pre-Conciliar", and unsuitable for the "reformed" Church. It also exemplifies post-modern eclecticism, which radically alters meanings and symbols by ripping them from their normal and traditional context, recombining them at will. It is, in essence, theologically destructive. And that is, ultimately, the point.

The radical reconfiguration of church interiors, it is by now clear, is not merely a matter of updating style to reflect "modern" tastes, or even of a functionalist approach to church architecture. It is, in fact, a determined and systematic re-symbolization, reflecting a fundamentally altered liturgical theology.

The substitution of pools for baptismal fonts is an important part of re-imaging, of re-writing the rite. Like relocating the altar and the tabernacle, eliminating kneelers, altar rails, images and confessionals, its objective is the architectural enforcement of a "new way of being church".

Susan Benofy is the Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, and a frequent contributor.

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Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.