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.