Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why was John baptizing?, and John Paul II: When confession is need before communion

2nd Sunday of Advent, Mark 1:1-8
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
St. John the Precursor is a central figure of the Advent season and his baptism is set before us not only this Sunday but also the following. But why was John sent to baptize in the first place?
What was the value of John’s baptism? Was it a sacrament? Did it forgive sins? Did it confer grace? Why did John baptize? We will see that our answer directs us to the devotion with which we must receive our Lord in Holy Communion, and the role that confession plays in preparing the way of the Lord.

Four reasons for John’s baptism
St. Thomas Aquinas, following the Church Fathers, enumerates four reasons for John’s baptism (ST III, q.38, a.1):
1) Since it was through being baptized by John that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism, it is clearly necessary that John should have baptized. Nor would it have been sufficient for John to baptize the Savior alone, since this would make the baptism of John seem to be more precious than that of Jesus – since, John’s baptism would have been applied solely to the God-man, but the baptism of Christ would be applied to many. Further, John led others to the baptism of Christ through his baptism; and thus, it was necessary that others than the Lord should be baptized by him.
2) John baptized in order that Christ might be manifested, for it was through his baptism that the Savior was shown to all as the Beloved Son of the Father. Further, John announced to the crowds who came to him that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and that it was upon our Savior that John saw the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove and remain upon him.
3) John baptized that, by his baptism, he might accustom people to the baptism of the Lord. Indeed, in contrast to the ritual cleansings of the Pharisees, John’s baptism emphasized spiritual conversion. And thus, by gradual steps, the Lord led the people from the purely exterior rituals of the Old Law, to the Sacraments of the New which confer interior grace by the exterior words and actions. (though, to be clear, some of the sacraments of the Old Law did indeed confer grace; but that is another discussion).
4) Finally, John baptized in order that he might induce men to do penance and so to prepare themselves to receive the baptism of the Lord.
John’s baptism did not give grace or forgive sin, but it did prepare the way of the Lord
Still, as valuable as the baptism of John was, it must be admitted that it did not confer grace or forgiveness of sins. Certainly, the repentance that often accompanied the baptism did bring about grace and redemption; but the baptism itself was utterly void of any and all conferral of grace. It is for this reason that St. Thomas states that, “The baptism of John was not a sacrament properly so called, but a kind of sacramental, preparatory to the baptism of Christ.” (ST III, q.38, a.1 ad 2)
Bl. John Paul II: On preparing for communion
The baptism is John is presented to us in order that we might head his words to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts. Indeed, the best way to be prepared for the second coming is to be united with Christ now; and the best way to succeed in meditating upon Christ in the mysteries of his conception and birth, is to welcome the Savior’s hidden advent (coming) into our hearts now.
Most especially, we want to receive communion with particular devotion during this holy season – since communion is the most precious and intimate moment of receiving Christ into our hearts (not only by grace, but according to substance).
In regard to making worthy communions (and, we add, especially during Advent), Pope John Paul II offers advice regarding the preparation and repentance necessary to approach the sacrament:
“And keep in mind that the teaching of the Council of Trent on the need for confession of all mortal sins still holds and will always hold (sess. XIV, chap. 5 and can. 7). The norm taught by St. Paul and by the same Council of Trent, according to which the worthy reception of the Eucharist must be preceded by the confession of sins when one is conscious of mortal sin, is and always will be in force in the Church (sess. XIII, chap. 7 and can. 11)” (Address to penitentiaries of the four major basilicas in Rome, 30 January 1981).
Thus, it is very much in imitation of St. John the Baptist that the pastors of the Church often offer numerous penance services during the season of Advent – for it is through the sacrament of confession in Advent, that the soul is most well prepared for a fruitful Christmas communion.

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Father S. said...

@ Father,

Are you advocating "penance services" in the sense of inviting many priests to one's parish to hear Confession? Or, are you advocating simply hearing more Confessions? For example, in my parish of about 1000 souls, we have Confession every day, sometimes twice a day, as it is before every Holy Mass. In Advent, I offer an additional hour on Saturday mornings. I don't see the benefit of inviting other priests to come in until the number of Confessions is too large for me to handle or I am incapacitated. There is some argument for bringing in other priests just for the sake of those who prefer more anonymity, but we are fifteen minutes away from two other parishes and five other priests, so it seems like that could be accomplished by visiting those parishes for their daily Confessions. Thoughts?

Kind Regards,
Father S.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S.,
I meant the comment about "penance services" as more descriptive than prescriptive ... that is to say, the fact of an increase in penance services is an opportunity to prepare the way through confession.

As to whether or not we should have penance services ... I would think that (as you mention) it would depend upon the situation in the parish.

In Montana (where I am from), parishes are often very spread out (perhaps an hour or more between towns), and then a penance service can be very helpful -- it will be one of the few opportunities to confess to a different priest.
Also, it seems to me that many people will return to confession through the opportunity of a penance service, whereas they might not come to just a regularly scheduled confession time.

Most definitely, I agree with your practice of hearing private confessions more often during Advent ... I should think that the practice of offering confession every day would be very beneficial for souls!

I am certain that you have had more pastoral experience than I, so I would be interested to hear any advice you have in this regard (if there is anything in particular you recommend). +

Nick said...

Baptism was a Jewish rite up to the coming of Christ, whereby the newly converted were dunked into running water (like rivers) to symbolize the purification from sin and entering into the House of Israel. There were other baptisms as well, such as the purification of common utensils, but the baptism of repentance was the one which symbolized conversion and penance and God's Mercy on sinners.

Kathleen said...

It's also striking that the first Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan from slavery to freedom. The Jordan River was even more richly symbolic for Jews than crossing the Mississippi is for Americans.
I wondered why Jesus, sinless, chose baptism, but Paul solves the mystery with his meditation on Jesus leading the way from death to life, slavery of sin to freedom. Location, location, location.

Father S. said...


I am not sure that I have had that much more experience than you. That being said, I do have one thought on the matter. I think that penance services (as permitted in law, not those invented on the fly) have some ill effects.

First, people who go only to these almost universally do not know an act of contrition.

Second, these often are insufficiently private. It is too easy to overhear others.

Third, the rights of the priest are almost always dismissed. Screens are often not provided, and hearing with or without a screen is the confessor's discretion.

Fourth, they are rushed. People see five priests and one hundred penitents and are rarely well-recollected.

Are there exceptions to this? Sure. More and more, I see that parishes simply invite several priests to hear Confessions at the same moment without the opening hymn and communal act of contrition. People can come and go as they please. I think that this is a very fine model.

I cannot speak for what goes on in Montana. I've been to Dickinson, ND, but that's the closest I've come. Around here, I just don't see that penance services are all that fruitful.

Kind Regards,
Father S.

Jack said...

The Jewish Rite of Mikveh is still done if a Jewish couple adopts a Gentile infant of either sex and wishes to raise this child as a Jew.

So, as you see, infant baptism is not something thought up by that nasty ole pope feller, but is a carry-over from pre-Christian Judaism.

Derrick said...

Did those who were baptized by St. John need to be baptized again by Jesus or the disciples of Jesus in order to receive the Sacrament?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr. S,
I agree with you about the need to provide screens (both for the priest's sake and that of the penitent, especially when young adults are confessing [since they are often ashamed to confess sexual sins face to face]) and also on the importance of giving adequate privacy (so that confession are not overheard).

Further, there is no doubt that rushing confessions is a big mistake ... especially at penance services when many people come who have not been to confession in a long time!
There is also generally a lot of pressure from other priests to "speed it up" ... and that is terrible.

Still, I am delighted when a penitent comes who hasn't been in a long time and who doesn't know the act of contrition ... now we have a chance to do some good catachesis! If the penance service gets them there, I'll take it.

On the other hand, I also agree with you that simply offering confessions more often (and occasionally bringing in several priests) is a huge step toward solving the problem.

Thank you for the reflection! Peace to you. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Peter Lombard (The Master who wrote the Sentences) erred on this point ... he thought that some of those who received John's baptism did not need to receive the baptism of Christ.

However, we know that only the baptism of Jesus makes us fit to receive the other sacraments ... hence, it is certain that those who received John's baptism were further baptized in the Name of the Trinity when they began to follow our Savior.

Excellent question! +

Bernardus said...

Peace and blessings to your Father Ryan.
It has been a very long time since I've offered a comment, though I follow this blog daily. I enjoy your thought provoking dialogue. This teaching is very good and will allow me to further dive into St. Thomas' teaching, as well as other Church Fathers.
Your dialogue with Fr. S was very helpful. I've never found a communal penance service helpful in my spiritual life for the reasons you and Fr. S mull over.
But......but, what caused me to post this comment was what @Jack December 3, 2011 6:06 PM said.
"...something thought up by that nasty old pope feller,..."
To those of us who pledge an allegiance to the successor of Peter, I took that as an offense. To you Jack I say please be civil and keep such comments to yourself. You are entitled to your opinion, but please, let's use some tact and civility.
Sorry to vent Father Ryan.
Peace and blessings to you.

Ernie Bragiel (aka Bernardus)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thanks for commenting, it is always good to hear from you. I'm glad that you are still with us! :)

Regarding the comment from Jack ... I believe that he meant the phrase "nasty old pope feller" in a joking sense ... i.e. I think that he was mocking the typical anti-catholic attitude, and saying that the traditions of the Church are very ancient and true; but I could be wrong.
In any case, it is certainly difficult to sense irony and/or sarcasm in an internet comment!

Peace and many blessings to you for a holy Advent. +

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