My husband says being Catholic, for him, is like being gray-haired or left-handed. It’s self-evident, fundamental to who he is, but not something he wants to display on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker.
Though I’m still brunette and a righty, I agree. Faith proclamations and demonstrations always make me feel uncomfortable. I haven’t liked walking around with ashes on my forehead since leaving Sacred Heart Elementary in sixth grade. Even saying grace at a group meal feels awkward. Maybe it’s my training as a journalist, a profession that instills skepticism, but the pews at Mass are the most public place I care to display my faith. And as far as church attendance goes, if something else comes up, it slides off the schedule with little afterthought. We’re not as infrequent as Christmas and Easter Catholics, but our offertory envelopes do seem to wind up in the recycling more often than in the collection.
A Baptism for Owen
Thus the baptism of our son Owen this past spring was not an event we anticipated. We knew we’d do it, but it felt like we were going through the motions rather than really invested. I liken it to his immunizations. You know it’s important, you know it’s the right thing to do. So you schedule the appointment, go to the doctor’s office, get it done. But there’s little reflection on the meaning of the whole thing, of the fact that this decision portends a host of consequences for your child, some negative, like the immediate pain of the shot.
The baptism started like that. We called the church, picked a date, chose godparents, bought a white outfit. It was held after Mass for our family only, lessening the aspect of spectacle my husband and I both dislike. It was also a double baptism with my brother’s son, meaning a dimmer, shared spotlight on Owen and us. A low-key ceremony, just as we liked.
But standing at the altar, watching my husband try to tip back Owen’s unwilling head, I had a moment to reflect. I realized that while the event might be low-key, its significance will resonate through all of our lives. There’s nothing like taking responsibility for another being in this world to make you realize your own profound, humbling humanity. In realizing your human limits, and seeking to overcome them, you reach for divinity.
That was taking place officially on the altar. But it had already started, really. A moment from several months earlier flashed back. Frustrated after an evening enduring colicky screaming, my husband asked if I wanted to say a prayer. It was something we’d never done together. But we’d never felt more desperate for God’s help than in our new role as parents. That spontaneous recitation of the Our Father – on that evening and others to come – brought comfort and peace whenever we did it.
I felt that comfort and peace again as I watched the ritual unfold, the priest blessing Owen, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. Besides wanting God’s help as a parent, I want God’s grace, presence and intervention in Owen’s life. That’s not a sentence I could imagine writing before his birth. Saying it still feels a little funny, like walking around with a smudged forehead. But as it turns out, the baptism ceremony wasn’t just something to check off on the list of childhood to-dos.
Instead, surprise, surprise, I do feel invested in raising my son to be a person of faith in the Catholic Church. There will be some conflicts – say when Owen starts asking about a brother or sister that my husband and I don’t see as likely to join the family. That’s why I say I want to raise my son first as a person of faith. Like the syringe delivers the vaccine, the Catholic Church will be the vehicle by which our son receives faith. But his full dose will mix ungraced dinner table conversations with Sunday homilies. Visits with his grandmothers – one a devout Catholic, the other an abandoned. A household in which the virtue of charitable action and attitude is instilled, even if some offertory envelopes go unused.
That’s the faith commitment I can not only uphold, but am eager to bear and to share with Owen, as all three of us grope for divine assistance while coping with our humanity.