Grayson Alan Thomson — shown with parents Kristin and Jeff — was recently baptized at St. Charles, Hartland. (Submitted photo)

It’s a good problem to have, certainly: too many baptisms.

But it does pose a pastoral conundrum, especially in the cases of families who are not practicing their Catholicism and regularly attending Mass.

It’s a situation that Fr. Ariel Orozco, Associate Pastor at St. Charles Parish in Hartland, found himself facing as his community emerged from the pandemic with a backlog of unbaptized babies. Preparing 50 to 60 families each year was a huge undertaking, and Fr. Orozco didn’t want anyone falling through the cracks.

Furthermore, he wanted each family to have exactly the kind of personalized accompaniment they need as they approach the sacrament of Baptism.

“What I noticed is that when I was doing baptism prep classes once a month, parents would come in and I would have them for an hour and (for them) it was just like, come, check the box and then go,” said Fr. Orozco, who has been at the parish since he was ordained in 2019. “So, I don’t think it was accomplishing anything other than fulfilling the duty, what we requested of them, and it was ineffective.”

So, Fr. Orozco came up with a new way to approach Baptism prep: harnessing the wisdom and witness of other young families at the parish.

“I started asking couples who are younger and active parishioners, who have little ones and who live a witness of their faith — would you be able to help me doing Baptism prep?” said Fr. Orozco. “I said, ‘You don’t have to do all the catechesis, but rather, can you give them a true witness of your own experience? What does it mean for you to raise your child Catholic? How do you teach them to pray? How do you teach them to embrace the habit of coming to Mass every Sunday?’”

Chris and Julie Esser were two of the people Fr. Orozco approached. They liked the idea right away.

“He said, ‘Since you guys have kids, too, you’re in the same place in your life as these other families,’” said Chris Esser. “We thought it was a great idea.”

“For both of us, it was an easy ‘yes,’” said Andrew Nothem, another parishioner who assists with the ministry alongside his wife Kate.

It’s important not only to provide these families with the necessary sacrament, said Fr. Orozco, but to go the extra mile and help them to embrace their role as Christian parents.

“I find it that the newer generation of parents — my generation, the millennials —  they don’t want to commit to anything in the parish. In fact, most of them are not even members,” Nothem said. And while he can catechize them and instruct them in the practice of the faith, Fr. Orozco is frank about the limitations his own witness as a priest may have on young parents who are struggling to fit God into their lives during a time that is incredibly vulnerable for them spiritually, emotionally and physically.

“I don’t have much to offer them as a celibate man. Even if I do, it’s purely theoretical,” Fr. Orozco said. “In their minds, in their ears, ‘What does Father know about waking up at three o’clock in the morning to nurse your baby?’”

Parents seeking Baptism are still given catechesis and support from the parish, and Fr. Orozco personally handles any cases that require delicate pastoral ministry. But what the Essers, Nothems and other participating couples provide through their ministry is an additional, relationship-based dimension that helps families to connect with a lived Catholicism. It also allows them to tap into a sense of community that is based on faith.

“People are hungry for relationships,” said Nothem. “The most common theme that we see is that parents of young children can feel isolated and alone.”

Fr. Orozco gave the couples several questions to discuss with the Baptism families, prompting them to consider what kind of relationship they want to have with their children and what relationship they want their children to have with the Church and with God.

The Essers let the visiting couple decide if they want to come over to their house for dinner or to meet at a restaurant. “The kids can roam around and do whatever they want. It’s a very casual setting,” said Chris Esser. After dinner, they start to discuss the questions. “They’re deep questions, and when I ask them sometimes people are like, ‘Wow, I never thought about that.’ You can see people thinking.”

“Our conversations with these families take all different forms — sometimes we get into the nitty-gritty of what it means to baptize a child and be a Catholic in today’s world, and other times it is very simple and informal,” said Nothem, who along with his wife has met with 10 families so far. “We both try to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and meet each family where they are.”

Some of the families seeking Baptism are doing so because of familial expectation, said Julie Esser. “It’s a box to check,” she acknowledged. But the questions help them to view Baptism as a crucial decision of Christian parenthood, one that is leading them to accept the important role of forming their children in the faith. It helps to contextualize the sacrament within their own responsibility as parents.

“We often tell parents to keep these questions and refer back to them as their child grows,” said Nothem. “The answers may evolve, but more importantly they can really center you on what is important in the growth and life of the child.”

The ministering couples also offer their own witness in living the Christian life, and can speak to the importance of family prayer, regular Mass attendance and Confession.

“We’re by no means perfect. We’re people, too. But it might be a good resource for them to have another couple to talk to or recognize at Mass,” said Julie Esser.

“We leave the meeting telling the couples that we are always available as a resource to them. We want them to know that we care and that the community of St. Charles cares,” said Nothem.

Since this ministry began, Fr. Orozco said that he has had two couples not only baptize their own babies but join RCIA to come into full communion with the Church themselves.

“Sometimes the new parents may not fully grasp it, but they see there’s something good here and they want to be part of it,” he said. “And that’s it — it begins by attraction.”