In the beginning

Column: Catholics baptized into community of faith

by Father Mike Stubbs

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD Mt 28:16-20

The Vatican recently issued an instruction which reaffirmed the traditional formula for baptism:

“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Feb. 29 response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also rejected newer
versions proposed in some non-Catholic churches, such as: “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier.”

The instruction grounds itself in the long-standing tradition of the Catholic Church, as well as the words of Scripture, specifically the Gospel reading that we will hear this Sunday when we celebrate the feast of the Ascension (Mt 28:16-20): “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

This Trinitarian formula most likely reflects the ceremony of baptism as practiced in the early Christian community which produced Matthew’s Gospel. At the same time, alternate formulas were apparently also floating around in some of the other communities. For example, the Acts of the Apostles mentions baptism “in the name of Jesus” a couple of times (Acts 2:38; 10:48). But early on, the consensus among Christians rejected that simpler formula, and any others not recorded by history, in favor of the Trinitarian formula found in Matthew’s Gospel. That consensus has continued on in the consistent tradition of the church, practically without dissension until recent times.

The only exceptions to that rule come from some Protestant sects which prefer the simpler formula in the Acts of the Apostles, the “Jesus Only” Pentecostals. Those sects also reject the doctrine of the Trinity and substitute for it a revival of the heresy of Sabellianism, which teaches that God is only one person, appearing in different forms or modalities. For that reason, that heresy is also sometimes called “Modalism.”

In contrast, Matthew’s formula for baptism clearly affirms Christian faith in the Trinity. That belief is so central that we draw upon that baptismal formula to provide the words when we make the sign of the cross, one of the simplest and yet most important of Catholic prayers. The gesture of making the cross proclaims the importance of Jesus’ saving death on the cross. The words proclaim the Holy Trinity. Thus, that simple prayer combines two basic beliefs: salvation through Jesus Christ and faith in the Holy Trinity.

Besides its firm grounding in tradition and Scripture, the Trinitarian formula offers something else to recommend itself. As it incorporates the individual being baptized into a community of faith, it refers to the divine community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit. It thus reinforces the understanding of baptism as initiation into the Christian community.

On the other hand, the simple formula of baptism “in the name of Jesus” lacks that communitarian slant. It lends itself to an understanding of baptism as creating a relationship between the individual being baptized and Jesus, without any connection to a community — a “me and Jesus” approach to faith.

For some, especially those emphasizing the individual, that understanding would hold a definite attraction.

But we Catholics have always placed a great deal of importance upon the community. That emphasis shows up consistently in our tradition, even in something so familiar and habitual as making the sign of the cross. Even then, perhaps unconsciously, we are reminding ourselves of our baptism into a community of faith.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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