February brings a lot of anniversaries for me. The 6th was, in Jack Benny’s vocabulary, the 29th anniversary of my 39th birthday; the 18th of this usually dreary month was my 6th anniversary of becoming a cardinal; on February 23 I observed nine years of my appointment by Pope Benedict XVI as your pastor.
Yet, there’s one more, and the impact of this event towers higher than all of the above: Last Monday, February 26, was the 68th anniversary of my Baptism!
That “christening,” at Immaculate Conception parish, Maplewood, Missouri —where, by the way, my grandparents and mom and dad were also baptized long before—was even more significant than my natural birth. On the day of my birth, I entered the world and became a member of a loving earthly family; three weeks later, I was “reborn” by water and the Holy Spirit, was rescued from the darkness of sin, claimed for Christ our Savior, became a member of a supernatural family, the Church, and was given a pledge of everlasting life.
To give priority to the day of my Baptism puts me in rather good company. The patron of my home archdiocese, St. Louis IX, King of France, reflected:
“I think much more of the place where I was baptized than of the cathedral at Rheims where I was crowned. For the dignity of a child of God which was bestowed at Baptism is greater than that of the ruler of a kingdom. The latter I shall lose at death; the other will be my passport to everlasting glory.”
When Pope St. John Paul II returned to his beloved Poland for those “nine days that changed the world” in June, 1979, he of course went back to his hometown, Wadowice, and immediately entered his boyhood parish church, telling his old neighbors that, most of all, he wanted “to give thanks to God for the gift of my Baptism on June 20, 1921,” and then knelt in prayer before the font, gently kissing it before he departed.
And now there’s Pope Francis, who often reminds us, as recently as last month, to celebrate the day of our christening.
Lent is an especially appropriate reason to recall with praise and reverence the day of our Baptism. Why?
In the early decades of the Church, these forty days were the final dramatic stage of an intense preparation for those eager for Baptism on Holy Saturday. They were called catechumens, and we’re still blessed to accompany them in our parishes this Lent.
For all of us, though, Lent is an invitation to recover our baptismal innocence and hope. On that blessed day when the waters were poured over us, we were claimed by Christ and His Church.
These forty days prompt us to acknowledge that we have sadly wavered from that claim.
Yes, other forces, other powers—sin, Satan, selfishness, other attractions—have lured us from the dominion of Jesus Christ. Our Lord invites us to return, to come back, to recover our identity as a child of God, redeemed by His Son, a member of His body, the Church, destined for eternity.
Then, at Easter, after a fruitful Lent, we’ll be invited at Mass to renew our baptismal promises, to be sprinkled with the freshly blessed paschal water.
True, we were christened once-and-for-all on the day of our Baptism. But we can renew it anytime...Lent’s a grand time to do it!