St. Louis Marie and Baptism

The feast of St. Louis Marie de Montfort coincides this year with Easter Wednesday. This liturgical concurrence provides us with an especially felicitous occasion for considering the sacrament of Baptism. Why? Let us recall two things at the very start. First, the Lenten and Paschaltide liturgy makes little sense unless we keep in mind the catechumens who were to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. (Last time, we made a few comments about this.) Second, the Marian consecration of Saint Louis de Montfort is none other than a renewal of one’s baptismal vows, through the hands of the Blessed Mother of God.

During her Paschaltide liturgy, the Church lavishes her maternal attention on the neophytes, who were born again at the baptismal font. This is especially true during this Easter Octave. Today, she thus calls to mind the sacrament of regeneration in the Easter Wednesday collect:

O God, who hast united the various nations in the confession of Thy name, grant that those who have been born again of water in baptism may be one in faith and one in deed in holiness of life.

Here, the Church reminds us that nations have been united in the confession of Christ’s name. God wants Catholic nations, not merely secular ones (like the U.S.), that happen to have Catholics in them. Once a nation has a majority of its citizenry united in the true Church, the life of that nation is to reflect God’s law, God’s justice, God’s love. Think of St. Louis IX’s France or the Spain of St. Ferdinand III. This union of “various nations in the confession of Thy name” has a name. It is “Christendom,” and it is a much greater thing than the vague notions of Europe’s “Christian roots”” It is Europe’s Catholic Faith, and all that fructifies from that faith: Catholic liturgy, Catholic family life, Catholic social justice, Catholic polity, in short, Catholic culture.

This collect also calls for the unity of Christians. All who were born of the font are Christians. They have all been “Christened.” However, post-baptismally they may sever themselves from the Church’s unity either by heresy (faith) or schism (deed). Therefore, we pray for heretics and schismatics to return to the fold, and for Catholics to be of one mind in living the Christian virtues.

The Church has us all renew our Baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil, reminding us that we are all born into life at the baptismal font. The ancient Latin word for that font was piscina, which comes from the Latin word piscis, meaning fish. The piscina is the fish-pond whence Christians are born. Why are we called fish? Tertullian, Latin father of the Church, tells us in a treatise on Baptism: “But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound.” Fisheaters has a good little resume of the imagery of the fish. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a slightly longer one. Both of these show that the fish is a symbol of Christ and of Christians, who are to be “little Christs.”

For this reason, I do not like the label “cradle Catholic” to describe someone brought up in the Faith. I prefer, “font Catholic.” I didn’t come from a cradle; I came from a font. I must remain in that water, as Tertullian suggests, by which I take him to mean that Christians must be faithful to our baptismal promises. And what are those?

Priest: N., do you renounce Satan?

Baptizand (or Sponsors): I do renounce him.

P: And all his works?

B: I do renounce them.

P: And all his attractions?

B: I do renounce them.

Shortly afterward follows the profession of Faith, in which each of the articles of the Creed are pronounced and assented to. After the sacrament itself is administered, the priest admonishes the neophyte, as he hands him a lit candle: “Take this burning candle as a reminder to keep your baptismal innocence. Obey God’s commandments, so that when our Lord comes for the joyous wedding feast you may go forth to meet Him with all the saints in the halls of heaven, and be happy with Him forevermore.” Notice the connection of fire and water, illumination and washing, enlightening and rebirth: This is Holy Saturday in a nutshell.

These promises are meant to be kept. They ought, also, to be renewed.

In composing his Act of Perfect Consecration to the Blessed Virgin, St. Louis Marie de Montfort was heavily influenced by a movement in his day encouraging the faithful to renew their baptismal vows. For that reason, the Marian consecration is itself a baptismal renewal through the hands of the Blessed Virgin: “I have said that this devotion could rightly be called a perfect renewal of the vows and promises of holy baptism. … By this consecration we give ourselves explicitly to Jesus through Mary’s hands and we include in our consecration the value of all our actions” (True Devotion, No. 126).

The saint goes on:

The Council of Sens, convened by order of the Emperor Louis the Debonair to remedy the grave disorders of Christendom, came to the conclusion that the main cause of this moral breakdown was man’s forgetfulness of his baptismal obligations and his disregard for them. It could suggest no better way of remedying this great evil than to encourage all Christians to renew the promises and vows of baptism. (Ibid. No. 128)

When a religious takes his vows, it is often literally done “in the hands” of his superior. Why? It is a medieval practice, a development of the more ancient rituals of monastic profession, with the addition of a Germanic feudal ritual, namely, the pledge of fealty to the liege-lord. In that feudal ceremony, the knight or vassal placed his folded hands in the open hands of his liege (as in this picture). It is believed that this use of the hands in a religious profession — and also a similar gesture in priestly ordination — has its origin in the feudal practice.

St. Louis Marie, who had no doubt witnessed this ritual gesture numerous times (and indeed had himself performed it on his ordination day), incorporated it into his act of total consecration, where he has us say:

I, (Name), a faithless sinner, renew and ratify today in Thy hands the vows of my Baptism…

Therefore, the Blessed Virgin is our Superior, the Lady to whom we render our fealty in renewing our baptismal vows. Let us ever be true to such a worthy Lady.