It is generally agreed today that Christian initiation is a process. Where parents are both Baptists, the beginning of this process is generally marked by a dedication service soon after the birth of a baby. The parents commit themselves to the Christian upbringing of their child, and the local church community accepts its responsibility to support the parents in this task. Then after some years the growing child is baptised as a believer; in some countries this happens when the child is as young as 7 or 8, but in England often at around 12 14 or later, depending entirely on the particular individual. Soon after baptism the young person is welcomed into the membership of the local Baptist church. This tradition can be asked the question: what is the relation of the unbaptised child to the church?
Where parents are both Roman Catholics, the process of initiation is generally marked by infant baptism, followed by First Communion and confirmation for the growing child. In England the order and the usual age for these sacraments, which complete the process of initiation, differ from diocese to diocese. This tradition can be asked the question: if baptism makes the child a member of the church, what does confirmation add in terms of membership?
However, it is now generally recognised in the Roman Catholic Church that the baptism of adults is the norm (even if it has happened less often than the baptism of infants throughout long periods of Christian history). It is in relation to the baptism of adults that the baptism of children should be understood. The Second Vatican Council prescribed the revision of the rite of baptism of adults and decreed that the catechumenate for adults, divided into several steps, should be restored. By this means the time of the catechumenate, intended as a period of instruction for an adult looking forward to baptism, would be marked by liturgical rites to be celebrated at successive intervals of time. The resulting Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was published in 1972. Could the rites of the RCIA be adapted for the Christian initiation of the child of Catholic-Baptist parents?
First step: acceptance into the order of catechumens
There would seem to be some striking similarities between the status of an infant whose parents have brought him/her to a dedication service in a Baptist church and a person who has been accepted into the order of catechumens in the Catholic Church. This acceptance is a public ceremony witnessed by the church community. The candidates declare their intention of proceeding to baptism, and the Church ‘accepts them as persons who intend to become its members’ (RCIA 41). ‘The rite consists in the reception of the candidates, the celebration of the Word of God, and the dismissal of the candidates’(44). ‘It is desirable that the entire Christian community or some part of it, consisting of friends and acquaintances, catechists and priests, take an active part in the celebration. The presiding celebrant is a priest or a deacon. The sponsors should also attend’(45).
‘After the celebration of the rite of acceptance, the names of the catechumens are to be duly inscribed in the register of catechumens, along with the names of the sponsors and the minister, the date and place of the celebration’(46). ‘From this time on the Church embraces the catechumens as its own with a mother's love and concern. Joined to the Church, the catechumens are now part of the household of Christ, since the Church nourishes them with the Word of God ... One who dies during the catechumenate receives a Christian burial’(47)
Of course the Rite of Acceptance would have to be adapted to replies given by parents rather than by the candidate, e.g. ‘What is your name?’ would become: ‘What is your child's name?’ and ‘these candidates’ could be replaced by ‘this child’ in the question: ‘Are you, and all who are gathered here with us, ready to help these candidates find and follow Christ?’, and the question could be asked of parents and sponsors together.
This is not just a liturgical matter, and an underlying question is whether the Catholic Church would give the status of catechumen to the child of Catholic-Baptist parents who asked for this.
The catechumenate is an indeterminate period; the Presentations of the Creed, the Lord's prayer and the Ephphetha Rite can all take place during this period, and would make a lot of sense in the development of a growing child. The second big stage, the Rite of Election, would need to take place at a time when the child was more immediately preparing for baptism.
A child is the only point on which there converges from everyone a feeling of love and gentleness. People’s souls soften and sweeten when one speaks of children. The whole of mankind shares in the deep emotions which they awaken. The child is a well spring of love.
This might be a possible way forward for parents who want to respect both their traditions. It would mean that their child could be welcomed into the church community and that the community could accept responsibility for contributing to his/her nurture in the Christian faith.
It would also mean that their child could have the experience of being baptised as a believer who had made a response in faith to the call of Christ. The age at which baptism should take place would not be pre judged; it might be at the time when the child's contemporaries were celebrating their First Communion; this would depend on the child's own faith journey.