It’s one of the happiest times of your life, but there’s much to do and celebrate the safe arrival of a newborn child. For many committed Catholics, planning a Christening will be at the forefront of their mind as they contemplate their child’s future. In this blog post, we'll look at the whole story...
It’s all about wetting the baby’s head; we all know that, but behind this is one of the most important rites in Christianity. Christening itself is more widely understood as the form of baptism given to infants.
Baptism is the only sacrament shared by all Christian denominations. It’s also quite unusual in that it can be administered to an individual only once during their lifetime. This means a christening or baptism carried out under one denomination is usually deemed acceptable under any other. However this is more relevant for adults entering the church than for a newborn child, so for the latter the christening ceremony is the norm.
Infant baptism has long been practised. In fact, it’s widely believed to date back to the beginning of apostolic preaching in the first century AD, however many see it as incongruent with the principle that it’s a state that should be entered into consciously by an individual, and that the grace of sacrament is freely accepted in full knowledge. All impossible for a newborn child.
This is why the need for the alternative christening liturgy originated. For Catholics, christening is considered to be the most urgent obligation for parents after the birth of their child. As salvation is considered an unmerited favour from God, it should be accorded within the first week after their birth. This is especially important if there’s a danger of the child’s death, in which case christening should be carried out with the utmost haste as any who die un-baptised can only be entrusted to the mercy of God.
Baptism is the first of the seven sacraments that Christ instituted and entrusted to the Catholic Church. The sacraments are rituals performed at various stages of life that channel God’s grace to those who receive them. Baptism is the first mark of the Holy Spirit, paving the way for the remaining sacraments as the individual passes through their life. It was always traditional that infants were baptised as soon as possible after birth as a guard against high infant mortality rates. These days it’s often carried out a little bit later on, but still generally at a younger age than in the Anglican Church.
Baptism is about cleansing sin, so why should it be given to a newborn that hasn’t yet had the chance to sin? This is another common question explained thus: When Adam originally sinned in the Garden of Eden, his sin was inherited by the whole of humankind. It’s to remove this original sin that’s present in every human being that christening is performed. Sometimes christening is regarded as a vaccine against sin, something that protects and cleanses the child on its arrival into the world. However in the present day, it’s more generally thought of as a means of welcoming the child into the Catholic faith.
The rite is carried out by baptising the child in water, then anointing them with holy oils. Most commonly, the ceremony takes place in a church, but afterwards there’s often a reception at the parents’ home or another venue. As this is a purely religious service with no civil purpose, unlike marriage for example, there’s no reason for it to take place anywhere other than a church unless one is unavailable. On these rare occasions, there are other traditions that have grown up, such as a christening at sea being performed using the upturned ship’s bell as a font.
There are rules and traditions around every aspect of this rite and in the Catholic Church, unlike some denominations, the christening service should usually take place on a Sunday. The ceremony should be held during mass or after the last mass on Sunday morning, otherwise at any time on Sunday afternoon. The reason for this is that Sunday is the day that the church celebrates the paschal mystery – the central concept of the Christian faith, when a communal celebration is held in the presence of the faithful. So what better opportunity to introduce a new adherent?
However, you can’t just turn up with a child and expect them to be welcomed into the faith. For a Catholic christening to take place, at least one parent must be a practising Catholic. The child must have at least one godparent, although most will have two, and the parents may be required to attend a couple of preparation sessions with a priest beforehand in order for him to be satisfied that they’re aware of their responsibilities for the child’s religious education.
The christening ceremony is usually led by the local parish priest or a deacon and will often start with the singing of a psalm or an appropriate hymn, if the ceremony is being held in its own right rather than as part of the regular mass.
At the service, all attendees will be required to reject Satan and profess their faith, but for parents and godparents a little more is involved, with individual assurances made to proclaim their own faith. They will be asked to publicly make three declarations: that they turn themselves to Christ, repent all their sins, and renounce all evil.
They do this simply by affirming each statement and then they will be asked three further questions: Whether they believe and trust in God the Father who made Heaven and Earth? Whether they believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ who redeemed mankind? And whether they believe and trust in his Holy Spirit that gives life to the people of God?
Once they have answered all three in the affirmative, the child is baptised. The priest will pour blessed water over the child’s head three times, invoking the Holy Trinity as he does so. The parents and godparents are given a lighted candle representing Jesus as the light of the world. These three sacraments leave an indelible mark on the child’s soul; they can never be un-baptised.
Being a godparent has always been seen as a serious matter and a great privilege for those chosen. A godparent is a sponsor to bring the child into the church and provide them with guidance in their faith. At least one godparent must be designated but usually there are two. This allows there to be one godparent of each gender, often selected from either side of the family.
The tradition behind the provision of godparents is a very practical one. Customarily they are responsible for taking over the child-rearing if the parents died prematurely, but these days there is no provision in civil law giving godparents legal rights to custody. The greater part of the role now means being an active Christian and being a good role model for the child as it grows up.
You can’t choose just anybody to be a godparent though, although as with so much else the rules are more relaxed than they once were. A godparent still needs to be over sixteen years old and a practising Roman Catholic who has received Holy Communion and been confirmed.
It isn’t possible for non-Catholic Christians to be godparents to a Catholic child, though they may participate as Christian witnesses as long as there’s another practising Catholic as a godparent as well. Unfortunately anyone who’s renounced Christianity altogether or is of another faith cannot be considered for the role.
One of the most vital, and frequently overlooked, characteristics of a godparent is that they’re available on the required date, so don’t forget to check this when arranging the service because they can’t take on the role in absentia.
This is the really important bit! After all you wouldn’t want to have everything else just right and the little star of the show completely unprepared now would you?
The christening is the child’s baptism, but it’s also their naming ceremony and naturally very careful thought should be given to what you’re going to call them. Traditionally in Catholicism, a child should have been given a saint’s name as at least part of their name but these days more is flexibility given. Even so, many priests will find it very uncomfortable to christen a child with something unconventional or obviously non-Christian.
Using a saint’s name does confer certain advantages; it’s a name that will probably never go out of fashion, as well as automatically providing another patron and exemplar to your child. With such names being very conventional they’ll be unlikely to suffer bullying for it either.
For the ceremony, the child should be dressed in white or cream garments. These are often adorned with frills and lace, not unlike a wedding dress. Often in the past, the christening clothes would be fashioned from the same material as the mother’s bridal gown. Sometimes such christening gowns are handed down through the family but if that’s not the case, a range of beautiful gowns are available from Little Doves. A specially made christening gown will become a treasured keepsake and may even find itself used by many children, not just siblings, but maybe offspring and grandchildren too.
Whether you buy brand new bespoke christening clothes or use those that have been in the family for ages, remember they’re for a newborn – a child who will be near water and may well be able to splash it about – so having a change of clothes and a towel available is a wise precaution.
For those attending a christening it’s customary to give a gift, especially for those who are invited but unable to attend for whatever reason. Anyone other than the parents or godparents, who will give more specific items, should bring a small gift for the child and these should take the form of something enduring, something to keep.
Picture frames and photo albums are highly appropriate, as are items to do with religious observance such as children’s rosaries, jewellery and crosses with a name and a date that they can treasure for their lifetime. Non-Catholics should however be wary not to give items that they wouldn’t use for practising their own faith.
Equally valid are monetary gifts in the child’s name, a sum in an account that can accrue as they get older. The emphasis here is on things that last or grow, so symbolic of the child themselves.
Naturally, christening is purely a religious rite of the utmost seriousness; nobody would see it otherwise would they?
Okay, yes it is customary that the family lay on a little celebration of some sort, though being on a Sunday it may be a muted affair. However, this is the modern world and it’s not unknown for the drink to flow and for a good time to be had by all.
Food is usually served, anything white, light or sweet is appropriate, once again the predominant themes of the ceremony reflected in the choice of edibles. The same themes should run through the room decorations with white flowers and strings of white Christmas-style lights being provided. They may be complemented by more candles and balloons, all in pale colours.
Traditionally it was popular to decorate the place with scallop shells; although they’re actually a pagan fertility symbol they’ve subsequently come to symbolise baptism as well so they’re entirely appropriate.
So while christening is a serious business for the practising Catholic, it also has its lighter side. As long as the primary aim of cleansing the child and bringing it to the faith is fulfilled, there’s no reason not to let your hair down and enjoy the occasion; it’s a wonderful chance to bring your family and friends around, talk about old times and anticipate a new life.
And don’t forget to invite the priest!