BISHOP RICHARD J. SKLBA
Over the years, I have gathered quite a large collection of memorial cards: mementoes and pictures of relatives, former colleagues, friends, each printed and distributed on the occasion of a person’s death and funeral, and even a few commemorations of the lives of a couple of folks I didn’t always like or agree with. I have them piled up close to my prayer chair – quite a collection after all these years. Some retired priests I know keep them on their at-home make-shift altar tables where they celebrate daily Mass, turning over a few cards from the pile each morning to be reminded of so many familiar and sometimes genuinely loved individuals. After 60 years of priesthood, I confess that I have such little stacks everywhere.
The cards invariably record dates of birth and death, sometimes ordination or marriage, and occasionally include a picture, biblical citation or a favorite prayer.
Almost never do we find the date of a baptism noted with humble pride and gratitude for posterity. I confess that as a Catholic I find that omission very strange; at least for anyone who professes Christianity as a hallmark of her/his existence. Baptism, together with our physical birth, remains one of the most important milestones of our personal existence. Entrance into this terrestrial life and then initial membership in God’s eternal family marks us forever, and consequently its anniversary should really be celebrated every year. Moreover, that conviction is much more than simply “any excuse for a party.”
I was born on Sept. 11, a date now stained by the memory of the tragic attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and baptized on Sept. 30 – the Feast of St Jerome, Biblicist par excellence. On my birthday, I used to take my parents out to a very nice dinner as a sign of my enduring gratitude. On the anniversary of my baptism, I always pray for the priest (Fr. Henry Novotny) who baptized me at old Holy Trinity Parish in Racine and for my long-deceased godparents (Mary and Joe).
A little more than two weeks ago, we just concluded our annual celebration of the great mystery of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection. Holy Saturday is usually the prime time for welcoming new members into the Church by the solemn celebration of baptism. For all who gather on Holy Saturday, the celebration of the baptism of adults and the renewal of the entire community’s sacramental rebirth are high points in our celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. The Feast boldly commemorates our entrance into the great mystery of salvation. The great “trinity” of salvation remains the Lord’s Death, his Resurrection and our baptism. Nothing else achieves that level of eternal value. The sacrament of baptism is precisely how we share Christ’s history-changing gift. For each of us, the two realities of redemption and baptism are bound together in this life and forever.
Whenever we enter a parish church or chapel, we search for the holy water font and bless ourselves as a reminder of that sacrament which gives us access to the Eucharist, and we even repeat the action at the beginning of each Mass. When we leave, moreover, we repeat the same gesture as a reminder that the sacrament sends us back into the world as God’s ambassadors and instruments for the salvation of the world.
Unfortunately, this year our Easter festivities were muted and postponed to quieter but more convenient and hopefully healthier dates. Sad to say, the celebration of Easter itself could be lost amid the anxieties of the moment, but the loss of any recognition of the remembrance of the precious gift of our baptism even more so.
In my personal file stashed away somewhere in the Chancery archives are the instructions (or suggestions, because we really have no control over what people decide after we’ve left this world) for my funeral. I made a point of asking that any memorial card developed at the time of my death also contain a reference to the date of my baptism, Sept. 30, 1935, something far more significant than ordination dates or other historical trivia! May all the blessings of this holy season be yours in abundance.
PS: On the evening of Wednesday, April 8, Jewish families of the world gathered to celebrate Passover. On Friday, April 24, the entire worldwide Muslim community entered this year’s annual celebration of Ramadan, a 30-day period of joyful fasting and prayer. Full embrace of this devotion in Islam includes complete abstinence from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset – not even a glass of water. Imagine the burden of this intense spiritual season for our famous Muslim athletes, especially basketball champions during the height of the normal season. During that time, festive Muslim family celebrations mark early pre-sunrise breakfasts and often-late dinners with friends (depending on the time of the year because the festival actually moves across the calendar from year to year). These days, therefore, are also a time to pray with and for our Jewish and Muslim neighbors and friends.