Baptism is the launch of a new Christian. It and the Eucharist are explicitly mentioned in the New Testament far more than any other sacramental rites. The vast majority of Christians hold fast to belief in the practice of baptizing with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In order to help those with an ecumenical interest to appreciate the uniting power of baptism, the Parish-to-Parish Learning Community organized a one-day community building event titled “Christian Baptism As Practiced by Different Christian Traditions” The program was held from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. on October 25, 2014.
The program began at Old St. Mary’s Church on South State Street. Fr. Paul Huesing of the Paulist Fathers led the group to the baptistery in the back of the church. The baptistery was designed to have a curving flow of water empty into a pool. The womb-shaped baptismal font allows for baptism of adults by immersion, as well as baptism of infants in the smaller pool above.
Fr. Paul explained well the Catholic understanding of baptism, including the R.C.I.A. He did well to frame the point that the initiation of adults through R.C.I.A. can provide key links to those who practice believer’s baptism, such as what we later saw in the Baptist tradition. We also explored the role of godparents, changes in the prayers and experience of baptism since Vatican II, and some of the symbols utilized during the service.
Following an animated discussion with Fr. Paul, the group boarded a bus to take us to Saint George Greek Orthodox Church, 2701 North Sheffield Avenue in Chicago. The interior was full of rich mosaics and paintings of the Blessed Virgin, the saints (especially St. George) and, of course, angels surround the ceiling. Dan Olsen, the program leader, commented, “I found it a beautiful church that provided a visual explosion of colors, art forms and history.”
The pastor, Fr. Chris Kerkeres, greeted us. We were fortunate to be able to observe an actual baptism. A Greek Orthodox family graciously invited us to attend the baptism of their child. The preparations for the sacrament busied several members of the parish, as a hundred or more guests began to arrive. Much of the liturgy was sung or spoken is in Greek. Fortunately, a booklet was handed out that explained the many liturgical segments and provided us with translation. One participant commented, “The prayers are beautiful and compatible with the Roman Catholic doctrines, but I found the writing style and terminology a little different than in a Catholic prayer book.”
Catholic and Orthodox Christians are very similar in their theological understandings of baptism but the two churches administer Baptism in much different liturgical form. The Sacraments (called Mysteries in the Orthodox Church) of initiation into the faith are baptism, confirmation, and Holy Eucharist. In the Orthodox Church, they are all administered at the same time to the infant or adult being welcomed into the faith.
As with all Christians, the Orthodox see water as a natural symbol of cleansing and newness of life. They practice a three-fold immersion in the waters of Baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity. In the Orthodox tradition the infant is thrice dipped naked into the baptismal waters and raised high by the priest.
The way interior spaces are used fascinated several of us. As in all Eastern Orthodox churches a wall of icons (called iconostasis) separates the nave from the sanctuary, with a door in the center for the ministers to pass back and forth. Dan Olsen, liked how they utilized the entrance space during the liturgy, where they held the “exorcisms” before the baby was brought into the church by the parents. “It truly looked like an entrance into a Church community as the child was brought forth from the rear of the church to be baptized in Christ,” commented Olsen.
Dan went on to say, “I was struck by the fact that I went away happy that a new Christian was initiated that day. Knowing that she was initiated into the Orthodox Church didn’t dispel my overall sense that a new Christian disciple was born in our midst that morning. What a gift!”
The next stop on our tour was Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, 2798 South Wabash, Chicago. We were warmly greeted by Pastor Robert C. Jones. Pastor Jones introduced some of his staff and gave us a bit of the history of the church. Pastor Jones has been in the preaching ministry for 39 years. As he put it, “God placed him at Mt. Carmel” in December 2008. He is the third pastor of Mt. Carmel, a community that goes back to 1945.
The pastor then turned to the featured topic—their practice of baptism. Similar to Catholics, one of their teachings is that Baptism is an outward (public) showing of an inward (spiritual) action. Baptists practice what they call “believer’s baptism.” A person must be old enough to choose for themselves to become baptized. Therefore, unlike Catholics, they do not baptize infants. However, new babies are presented to the congregation and the community promises to teach them as they grow.
As we sat in the oldest part of their building, the original sanctuary, Pastor Jones described for us the central sacrament of the community. A walk-in pool about ten feet by eight feet serves as a full immersion baptismal font. Some of us were doubtlessly impressed by the large size of the baptism pool and area around it. Catholics are so accustomed to infant baptism that it is difficult to imagine this other way. But if we think of our adult baptisms at Easter Vigil, it is not such a big leap.
Pastor Jones then invited the group to the main worship space. It was a contemporary looking interior and sanctuary. Colorful banners proclaimed inspirational messages from scripture to the congregation. In this simple sanctuary, it was easy to see the centrality of the Word to Baptists.
Many participants were struck by the graciousness and patience that Rev. Jones exhibited throughout the question & answer period. We had many questions as Baptists seemed most different to us. At one point toward the end of our visit, a guest asked if he could join Pastor Jones and his community in worship some Sunday. The pastor got a stern look and replied, “No!” Then immediately started laughing and said, “Of course you can come and visit, whenever and as often as you’d like!” This exchange revealed to those listening his sense of humor and welcoming spirit, something every pastor would do well to exhibit.
The tour returned to St. Mary’s for lunch and discussion. Clearly, those gathered around the table enjoyed each other’s company and shared their impressions. Dan Olsen led a very lively discussion session exploring what we had learned about ourselves and about others. The formal part of the program ended with a prayer.
Despite differences in practices surrounding baptism, it was clear that we were united with our Orthodox and Baptist Christian brothers and sisters, both in faith and in baptism. Many seemed excited to go back to their parishes and tell others what they learned about baptism and its testament to Christian unity.