Early English stone baptismal fonts (FALKENSTEINFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo)

I recently had occasion to visit the church of the parish where I grew up. My family is deeply associated with it: my parents were married there and buried from there; my siblings and I received our first sacraments there; our faith and sense of belonging was nurtured there, in what was always a lively parish community. The church is a little gem of nineteenth-century Romanesque revival architecture. At times it has been run-down, at other times renovated and refurbished. I hadn’t been there in some years, so when I walked through the door, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Yet there it all was, a mix of the familiar and the new: some changes to the lighting and devotional niches; the same stained-glass windows, ambo and altar, and the wooden pews that I knew so well. Memories of people and events from years gone by came flooding back. But what affected me most powerfully was seeing the font.

It used to be tucked away in a small chapel at the rear of the church, almost invisible. Now it stands in a central position in the nave, with a direct sight-line to the altar. This follows the recommendation of the U.S. bishops’ document on church design, “Built of Living Stones,” which suggests that placing the font on an axis with the altar is an admirable way to symbolize the journey of a Christian from baptism to Eucharist.

I had seen the font before, in its former setting, but I never really looked at it. To be fair, the baptismal chapel was dark and secluded; small wonder that one took little notice. The font itself was covered by a lid in those days too, as I recall—a practice dating from medieval times, when churches worried about people stealing the baptismal water for purposes of magic. Now here it was, open, fully visible, standing in the light, and filled with water so that the faithful could bless themselves. The elegance of the polished marble; the simple, strong lines of the pedestal and supports; the detail of the scrollwork on the basin, incorporating Trinitarian motifs and the emblem of Christ in Greek (IHS)—all spoke of the dignity of the sacrament and of those who receive it.

“Christian, remember your dignity!” Pope Leo the Great thundered in a fifth-century homily. “Bear in mind who is your head, and of whose body you are a member.” In the course of Christian history, alas, this sense of the dignity of the baptized began to fade. Ultimately it dwindled until baptism was considered little more than a way to save infants from original sin. The decline of a robust ecclesial understanding of what takes place at the font undermined the very possibility of conceiving what is called “the baptismal priesthood”—the sharing of all the baptized in the one priesthood of Christ. As the ordained, or ministerial, priesthood began to be explained in the twelfth century by a theology of powers conveyed by Holy Orders, and belonging to the priest alone, the earlier ecclesiology of communion, which was a baptismal ecclesiology, went into eclipse.

What affected me most powerfully was seeing the font.

Vatican II set out to retrieve this patristic heritage, and it did much to recover the central importance of baptism through the liturgical reform. It led parishes to take their fonts out of the closet, so to speak, and it gave Catholics a series of rites with which to celebrate baptism that were far more communal and robust than they had been for centuries. It restored the catechumenate to its place in the cycle of the liturgical year and called the community of faith to a responsible role in accompanying candidates through all the stages of Christian initiation. Parents as well as godparents were given speaking parts in the baptismal rite for infants; the families are now met at the doors of the church, and ultimately led to the altar, where their children will later share in the Eucharist.

Yet have we fully grasped what it all means? As I stood there, looking past the font to the altar, the words of liturgical historian Aidan Kavanagh came back to me: “We baptize to the priesthood.” No, we certainly do not yet understand this truth. The words of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy point to it, however: the liturgy, in which we are to fully and consciously participate, is called by this Vatican II document “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ” (SC 7). The fathers of the council went so far as to say that the people participate by offering the sacrifice at the altar with the priest. They offer themselves in that sacrifice too: “By offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves” (SC 48). Without using the words “baptismal priesthood,” this is exactly what the document is affirming.

For many years, I thought that the journey from the font to the table was for the purpose of sharing in the Eucharist, to complete Christian initiation by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. This is true as far as it goes, but, in reality, there is much more to it than that. We arise from the waters of baptism as a priestly people, because it is only then that we can go, joyfully, to the altar of God (Psalm 43:4) to offer the sacrifice. We place our own lives on the altar with the bread and the wine, joining our imperfect self-offering to the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

The whole Church is, in a word, priestly. One becomes a Christian—another Christ—so as to bear Christ’s light and life to others and, ultimately, to offer the whole world back to God in the Eucharist, transformed by faith, hope, and love. This is what St. Augustine meant when he explained to the newly baptized that the Eucharist on the altar is their own mystery, and why he said, “We call everyone priests because all are members of only one priesthood.”

Can all of this be gathered simply by looking at a baptismal font and its placement in a parish church? Of course not. It requires sound initial teaching, homiletic and catechetical unpacking, and a lived faith experience in community to bring these insights home. What a font can do for us—beyond the celebration of baptism itself—is to awaken a memory of these sacred realities and stir up a longing for their fulfillment. It is a place to touch the mystery of who we are, and marvel anew.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the April 2023 issue: View Contents
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