ROME – In one of the most intimate moments on the papal calendar ever year, Pope Francis on Sunday baptized 34 children born during the past year to lay workers in the Vatican, gathered for the occasion in the relatively small space of the Sistine Chapel. The baptisms included 16 boys and 18 girls.
The crop, by the way, included a baby boy named “Francesco,” though it wasn’t clear if that’s in honor of the pope or simply a traditional family name.
During the rite, held each year on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the usual majesty of the Sistine Chapel temporarily gives way to the ethos of a day care center, as the cries and squeals of babies more than hold their own with the chapel’s choir in terms of supplying the soundtrack for the event.
For adepts of Catholic liturgy, the annual Mass for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is also of interest because it’s the only regular occasion every year when the pope celebrates Mass ad orientem, meaning with both the celebrant and the congregation facing East, and thus the celebrant at several points during the rite faces away from the congregation.
Although the choice to celebrate ad orientem is often seen as part of the “Liturgy Wars” in Catholicism, with more traditionalist groups generally favoring it and progressives looking askance, the choice in this case has more to do with architecture than politics, since the design of the Sistine Chapel more or less imposes it.
(A mobile altar can be set up in the Sistine Chapel to allow the more customary post-Vatican II style of celebration, which Francis used for a Mass with the cardinals the day after his election. For the baptisms over the last five years, however, he’s used the traditional altar built into the chapel.)
Also as is customary, Francis had no prepared text for his homily during the Mass on Sunday morning, preferring to speak off-the-cuff.
The pope focused on the idea of the duty of parents to transmit the faith to their children, saying that’s the reason they brought their children to be baptized.
“This is the first step in the duty you have, the duty of transmission of the faith,” he said, adding that to do so, “we need the Holy Spirit, we can’t do it by ourselves.”
“This is a grace of the Holy Spirit, the possibility of transmitting [the faith] … here, your children receive the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who will live in their hearts.”
Francis then stressed the importance of a “dialectic” in handing on the faith.
“Transmission of the faith can only be done in dialectic, the dialectic of the family, the dialectic of mother and father, of grandpa and grandma,” he said. “Catechists can develop it, giving ideas and explanations, but the first transmission is here.”
“Don’t forget this,” the pope said. “If the dialectic is missing at home, if parents don’t speak that language of love among themselves, transmission isn’t easy, it can’t be done.”
Francis then said that children too have a dialectic, adding their own voices to the “concert” of the family.
“Jesus advises us to be like them, to speak like them, and we must not forget this language of children,” he said, adding that at that moment, “the children seem quiet, but all it takes is for one to set the tone and the concert will follow!”
In a customary pastoral touch, Francis then told the parents that the ceremony was going to go ahead, and, “If your babies start to make a concert because they’re uncomfortable, or too hot, or if they’re hungry … don’t worry, go ahead, breast-feed them, give them something to eat, don’t be afraid, because this too is the language of love.”
At least one mother took the pope up on his offer, giving her baby a bottle as the morning’s baptisms stretched on.
Shortly before entering the Sistine Chapel for Sunday’s ceremony, Francis dispatched a tweet devoted to the theme of baptism.
“The name of Baptism is also ‘Illumination,’” the pope wrote, “because the faith illuminates the heart, it makes things be seen in a different light.”
Later in the day, during his noontime Angelus address, Francis set aside a chunk of his prepared text to offer an extemporaneous but pastoral counseling to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
“I can’t ask most of you if you remember the day of your baptism, because for the majority of you, you were babies, as I was,” the pope said.
“But let me ask you this: Do you know the date of your baptism? Do you know what date you were baptized on? Think about it … if you don’t know or have forgotten, go home and ask your mom or dad, ask grandpa or grandma, ask your aunt and uncle, what date was it?”
“We always have to remember that date,” Francis said, “because it’s a festival, it’s the date of our sanctification, it’s when we were given the Holy Spirit, and it’s the day of our great forgiveness.”
Later, Francis reminded the crowd of its homework, and even asked if everyone understood what they were supposed to do.
Sunday’s baptism Mass brings to a close another busy holiday season for Pope Francis, which began in late December with his annual address to the Roman Curia and extended through the celebrations of both Christmas and New Year’s.
Tomorrow, Francis will address the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, in what’s usually considered his most important foreign policy speech of the year. On Jan. 15, the pontiff is scheduled to depart for a seven-day trip to Chile and Peru, his fifth return to Latin America since his election in March 2013.