The meaning of Baptism


27 Sep 2020

Pope Francis’ prayer intention for October is for the laity’s mission in the Church – specifically we pray that by the virtue of baptism, the laity, especially women, may participate more in areas of responsibility in the Church.

When Pope Francis prays that lay people may share more fully in responsibility for the Church, he begins with baptism. That is telling, because many Catholics would automatically think first of Holy Orders. Priests and Bishops have responsibility in the Church, and others help them in their work. Pope Francis would describe that way of thinking as clericalism.

He invites us to think more deeply about the meaning of Baptism. We can easily think of it as a ritual celebrated for us as babies when we enter the church. It is like a key that gets us inside the church so that we can receive other sacraments, but it doesn’t entitle us to do anything.


In Pope Francis’ understanding baptism makes us entitled to be active in the church and to share responsibility for it. It is not the first step along a path to Holy Orders and so to office in the Church, but empowers us to be active and responsible in caring for the church. Holy Orders creates particular relationships in the community, but adds nothing to baptism. Baptism in Peter’s words makes us a royal priesthood, a people set apart.

If we think of responsibility only as power within the internal relationships of the church, we might think that the church has only begun to trust lay people. That judgment is understandable. But if we look more generally at what Catholics do and at their relationships with one another and the outside world, and ask who is responsible for making things happen, the picture is very different.

In church organisations many of the key managers are lay people. In Catholic schools, the majority of teachers and a fair proportion of principals are women. This is even more true of Catholic hospitals and social outreach organisations. They are responsible for maintaining the Catholic spirit of the schools and the organisations. The same is often true now, too, of many parishes where lay people actually hold the church together. The priests who are attached to these organisations are there as servants and not as masters. This will be even more true of the Catholic Church in the future.


There is a gap, of course, between this reality of church life and the formal ways in which the life of the church is expressed. And this gap can be aggravating. Many Catholics have expressed their frustration that the Plenary Council, so important in the life of the Church, will be so overwhelmingly composed by Bishops and priests and that critical voices with experience of good governance in civil life will not be represented. Similarly, the scope for women to have their gifts accepted in taking responsibility for the Church is still limited. We would expect in an organisation where women had full responsibility, that men, including priests, would routinely be accountable to women in their work. These situations suggest that there is a long path to follow, which will involve change in church practice and attitudes.

Pope Francis prays that the laity may find more areas of church life in which they are responsible. To pray takes us out of planning and proposing and defining boundaries into the life of God. We pray in the Spirit, who is always a Spirit of possibility, one who opens doors and does not lock them. For all the frustrations evoked by this intention, prayer commits us to hope that the Spirit will help us find a way.

Fr Andy Hamilton SJ is editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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