Dear Friends in Christ,
We often receive requests from people who want to get married at St. Mary’s or want to have their baby baptized here or who have been invited by a friend or relative to serve as a sponsor for a Baptism or Confirmation somewhere else. And very often these requests come from people who even if they are registered here are not regularly practicing the Catholic faith by participating in Sunday Mass. Such requests from non-practicing Catholics are one sign of the most important religious trend of our time: the majority of baptized Catholics in the United States live as though they are not Catholics, but despite not practicing the Catholic Faith they still think of and identify themselves as Catholics. This is part of the phenomenon that I call cultural Catholicism, and I believe that hastening the end of cultural Catholicism is an essential part of clarifying for everyone what it means to be a Catholic Christian.
One enters the Church, as through a door, by Baptism, and because most Catholics are baptized as infants or very young children, their parents and godparents must profess the Catholic Faith on their behalf. But if the parents and godparents are not practicing the Catholic Faith and living according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they cannot make that profession of faith without swearing a false oath. And that is why I cannot grant permission for the baptism of a child whose parents are not practicing the faith or allow a non-practicing Catholic to serve as a sponsor for Baptism or Confirmation. For me to allow this – even under great pressure to conform to social expectations – would be a lie, and nothing good can come from complicity in that sort of self-deception. Moreover, when parents ask to have their child baptized without any serious commitment to practicing the Faith, then in truth they are merely laying heavy burdens on the child in the years to come.
Baptism is not a permanent membership card in the Church that confers privileges; it is an indelible mark on the soul that brings obligations. Baptism brings the Cross into our lives, both the burden and the victory of the Cross. I ask you who are reading this column to understand and be ready to explain all of this, because those who most need to hear this summons to continuing conversion will probably never read these words. They very rarely join us at Mass. They seldom hear the Gospel proclaimed and explained. They are not atheists, but they do not experience the grace of their own Baptism as a life-changing friendship with the Lord Jesus. In many ways they live their lives as though God does not exist, though if asked they would deny this, perhaps angrily. These are the 45 million “baptized pagans” or lapsed Catholics who constitute the largest religious body in the country; but while I cannot reach them, you can. You live and work side by side with them, and you may be the only evangelist they ever hear. Remember, then, that you are all missionary disciples and that with cultural Catholics you have a precious opportunity to teach by word and deed what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and a member of his holy Catholic Church.