A responsibility of a bishop when he is either celebrating an event or visiting a parish is the examination of the official parish sacramental books. These books contain the information of all the sacramental activities (baptisms, communions, confirmations, marriages and deaths). There is an ethical, canonical and even a legal obligation to keep accurate records. It is the pastor’s obligation to ensure that sacraments are properly recorded, so that in the future a reference can be made to the proper reception of the sacraments necessary when individuals wish to further their life in the Church by becoming priests, entering religious life or marrying. They may even need their sacramental records when moving to a new location.
It’s interesting what one can discover about the life of a parish by examining the sacramental record books. The lifeblood of a community is the celebration of the sacraments. A parish community that is young will often record a number of baptisms; as the parish ages, the numbers of baptism begins to diminish. In rural communities, it was not uncommon years ago for many farm families to have six, seven or 10 children. Baptisms were plentiful. But in this day and age, two or three children are more the norm. Their children are choosing other careers. So it’s easy to understand why the family farms are vanishing. Also, the numbers of parishioners the rural Church can draw upon have decreased. As the rural Church communities progress, the possibility of reimagining ministry in the rural communities must be confronted.
Even in urban areas, where shifting demographics challenge the parish’s existence, one can see why thriving Catholic schools now struggle to stay open. Counting the number of baptisms 50 or 60 years ago, there might be 40 or 50 in a year, but today single digits mark an entire year. Of course, it’s obvious the school will struggle, and even the future of the parish will be questioned.
Many parents are waiting longer to baptize their children. Better medical care has lessened the fear of infant death, so baptism is often delayed until it’s convenient for family members. In my experience as a priest, I have rushed to hospitals at premature births to baptize infants no more than 2 pounds. I cannot begin to describe to you the consolation that the parents experience with the knowledge that their child has received the sacrament. My experience leads me to counsel new parents to have their babies baptized as soon as possible. It is stated by the Church.
Canon 867: 1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it.
2. An infant in danger of death is to be baptized without delay.
I think that many forget how necessary baptism is for all Christians:
Canon 849-: Baptism, the gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by desire, is validly conferred only by a washing of true water with the proper form of words. Through Baptism, men and women are freed from sin, are reborn as children of God, and configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church.
A surprising discovery affirmed by many of the pastors is how few marriages are being performed in our churches. As a young priest, a month wouldn’t go by without officiating at one or two marriage ceremonies. But over the last 40 years, cohabitation, destination marriages and lack of catechesis have personalized marriage so that the idea of a sacrament is foreign to young adults.
Canon 1055: 1. The matrimonial covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.
In many ways, the baptized Catholic couple entering into marriage outside of the Church denies themselves the preparation required by all dioceses. It is an opportunity to understand all the aspects of the marital relationship through the lens of the faithful, the social, practical and spiritual challenges facing a couple in our society. The Church in her wisdom requires couples to reflect on the Church’s teaching, helping them to understand the greater significance of their action. With marriage failing at more than a 50 percent figure, a couple needs all the reinforcement possible to weather the difficulties they will face.
I have been privileged to present the theology of marriage to couples attending the premarital preparation meetings. It is important that they spend some time focusing on the meaning of their marriage as a covenant with God. There is little doubt in my mind that couples who practice their faith together will be able to experience their marriage as more than a commitment to each other.
Many pastors are concerned at the cavalier attitude of couples avoiding Church weddings. They are denying themselves the grace of the sacrament. In a materialistic world, “grace” may have little significance. However: “grace is the free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children. Sacramental grace and special graces (charisms, the grace of one’s state in life) are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us live out our Christian vocation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church p.881)
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s 2014 Synod established a mission statement:
“To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ through his saving death and resurrection by calling, forming and sending disciples to go and make new disciples.
As a people, we are called to encounter Jesus and grow as disciples through the SACRAMENTAL life of the Church.”
We must not lose those sacramental moments. They are the source of living the Christian life of holiness and the road to life everlasting.