During talks around the country in recent years, I’ve been asking Catholic audiences how many of those present know the date of their baptism. The high-end response is a little under 10 percent. The average is about 2 to 3 percent. This, brethren, is a problem.
You know your birthday. You know (or you’d better know, gentlemen) your wedding anniversary. You know your children’s birthdays. So why don’t you know the date when you became a friend and companion of the Lord Jesus Christ—the most important day of your life?
I started thinking about this some thirty years ago, when I began working with evangelical Protestants on religious freedom and pro-life issues. (“Religious freedom” in that innocent age meant prying “dissident” Christians and Jews out of the clutches of the KGB, not trying to keep the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from bullying the Little Sisters of the Poor.) And I discovered that these folks had an interesting way of introducing themselves at meetings.
Throw a dozen Americans, unknown to each other, together, and the normal way of letting people know who you are is by saying what you do: “I’m Jane Smith and I’m a pediatrician.” Or “I’m John Jones and I work for Microsoft.” That’s not how my new acquaintances identified themselves, however. They’d say, “I’m Jane Smith and I was born again on” such-and-such a date, usually a few years back, when Jane would obviously have been an adult. “I’m John Jones and I was born again on. . . .” And so forth and so on.
When the introductions came around to me, I would say, “I’m George Weigel and I was born again on April 29, 1951—at which point I was precisely twelve days old.” It was a shock to some, but it did get a few interesting conversations about sacramental theology going.
Then, when I was working on the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, I had to describe the Pope’s visit to his home town, Wadowice, during his first papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. He of course went to the church he had known as a boy; but what did he do when he got there? He went straight to the baptismal font, knelt, and kissed it. Why? Because St. John Paul knew that the most important day of his life was the day of his baptism: not the day he was ordained a priest, or consecrated a bishop, or elected pope. The day of his baptism was, literally, the font from which everything else in his life flowed.
And that’s not just true of saints. It ought to be true of each of us. Because on the day we were baptized —as infants or teenagers or adults—we became friends of the Lord Jesus Christ and we received a missionary commission: we were commissioned to “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them all that I have commanded you.” That instruction in Matthew 28.19-20 was not just addressed to a ragtag band of eleven men from the cultural and political fringes of the Roman Empire. It was addressed to you, and to me, and to everyone else in the Church, on the day of our baptism.
So after my little quiz, I suggest to my audiences that they go home that night, dig out the file where they keep the “Catholic paper,” look up the date of their baptism, memorize it—and then celebrate it every year. Having done this for years, I now find out that there are special graces to be obtained from partying on the date of your baptism: a plenary indulgence may be obtained on the anniversary of baptism by renewing your baptismal promises “according to the approved formula.” Which every Catholic ought to know from the Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday Mass, when we renew our baptismal promises as a community.
Owning your baptism is the precondition to being a member of that “Church permanently in mission” which Pope Francis calls us to be. So own it, celebrate it—and then put that renewal of grace to use in inviting others to become friends of the Lord Jesus Christ.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.