The grace of God is that supernatural assistance which He imparts to us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, for our salvation. It is called supernatural, because no one by his own natural ability can acquire it.
Without Divine grace we can neither conceive nor accomplish anything for the sanctification of our souls. "Not that we are sufficient," says the Apostle, "to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God."[II. Cor. iii. 5.] "For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish"[Phil. ii. 13.] anything conducive to your salvation. "Without Me," says our Lord, "you can do nothing."[John xv. 5.] But in order that Divine grace may effectually aid us we must co-operate with it, or at least we must not resist it.
The grace of God is obtained chiefly by prayer and the Sacraments.
A Sacrament is a visible sign instituted by Christ by which grace is conveyed to our souls. Three things are necessary to constitute a Sacrament, viz.--a visible sign, invisible grace and the institution by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus, in the Sacrament of Baptism, there is the outward sign, which consists in the pouring of water and in the formula of words which are then pronounced; the interior grace or sanctification which is imparted to the soul: "Be baptized, ... and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost;"[Acts ii. 38.] and the ordinance of Jesus Christ, who said: "Teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."[Matt. xxviii. 19.]
Our Savior instituted seven Sacraments, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders and Matrimony, which I shall explain separately.
According to the teachings of Holy Writ, man was created in a state of innocence and holiness, and after having spent on this earth his allotted terms of years he was destined, without tasting death, to be translated to the perpetual society of God in heaven.[See Wisdom ii. 23.] But in consequence of his disobedience he fell from his high estate of righteousness; his soul was defiled by sin; he became subject to death and to various ills of body and soul and forfeited his heavenly inheritance.
Adam's transgression was not confined to himself, but was transmitted, with its long train of dire consequences, to all his posterity. It is called original sin because it is derived from our original progenitor. "Wherefore," says St. Paul, "as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death, and so death passed unto all men, in whom all have sinned."[Rom. v. 12.] And elsewhere he tells us that "we were by nature children of wrath."[Eph. ii. 3.]
"Who," says Job, "can make him clean that is conceived of unclean seed," or, as the Septuagint version expresses it: "There is no one free from stain, not even though his life be of one day."[Job xiv. 4.] As as infant one day old cannot commit an actual sin, the stain must come from the original offense of Adam. "Behold," says David, "I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me."[Ps. 1. 7.] The Scripture also tells us that Jeremiah and John the Baptist were sanctified before their birth, or purified from sin, and, of course, at that period of their existence they were incapable of actual sin. They were cleansed, therefore, from the original taint.
These passages clearly show that we have all inherited the transgression of our first parents, and that we are born enemies of God. And it is equally plain that these texts apply to every member of the human family--to the infant of a day old as well as to the adult.
Indeed, even without the light of Holy Scripture, we have only to look into ourselves to be convinced that our nature has undergone a rude shock. How else can we account for the miseries and infirmities of our bodies, the blindness of our understanding, the perversity of our will--inclined always to evil rather than to good--the violence of our passions, which are constantly waging war in our hearts? How well does the Catholic doctrine explain this abnormal state. Hence, Paschal truly says that man is a greater mystery to himself without original sin than is the mystery itself.
The Church, however, declares that the Blessed Virgin Mary was exempted from the stain of original sin by the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ; and that, consequently, she was never for an instant subject to the dominion of Satan. This is what is meant by the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
But God, in passing sentence of condemnation on Adam, consoled him by the promise of a Redeemer to come. "I will put enmities," saith the Lord, "between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head."[Gen. iii. 15.] Jesus, the seed of Mary, is the chosen one who was destined to crush the head of the infernal serpent. And "when the fulness of time was come God sent His Son, made of a woman, ... that He might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons."[Gal. iv. 4, 5.]
Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, came to wash away the defilement from our souls and to restore us to that Divine friendship which we had lost by the sin of Adam. He is the second Adam, who came to repair the iniquity of the first. It was our Savior's privilege to prescribe the conditions on which our reconciliation with God was to be effected.
Now He tells us in His Gospel that Baptism is the essential means established for washing away the stain of original sin and the door by which we find admittance into His Church, which may be called the second Eden. We must all submit to a new birth, or regeneration, before we can enter the kingdom of heaven. Water is the appropriate instrument of this new birth, as it indicates the interior cleansing of the soul; and the Holy Ghost, the Giver of spiritual life, is its Author.
The Church teaches that Baptism is necessary for all, for infants as well as adults, and her doctrine rests on the following grounds:
Our Lord says to Nicodemus: "Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."[John iii. 5.] These words embrace the whole human family, without regard to age or sex, as is evident from the original Greek text, for τις, which is rendered man in our English translation, means any one--mankind in its broadest acceptation.
The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul, although containing only a fragmentary account of the ministry of the Apostles, plainly insinuate that the Apostles baptized children as well as grown persons. We are told, for instance, that Lydia "was baptized, and her household,"[Acts xvi. 15.] by St. Paul; and that the jailer "was baptized, and all his family."[Ibid. xvi. 33.] The same Apostle baptized also "the household of Stephanas."[I Cor. I. 16.] Although it is not expressly stated that there were children among these baptized families, the presumption is strongly in favor of the supposition that there were. But if any doubt exists regarding the Apostolic practice of baptizing infants it is easily removed by referring to the writings of the primitive Fathers of the Church, who, as they were the immediate successors of the Apostles, ought to be the best interpreters of their doctrines and practice.
St. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, says: "Christ came to save all through Himself; all, I say, who are born anew (or baptized) through Him--infants and little ones, boys and youths, and aged persons."[Lib. II. adr. Haer.]
Origen, who lived a few years later, writes: "The Church received the tradition from the Apostles, to give baptism even to infants."[In Ep. ad Rom.]
The early church of Africa bears triumphant testimony in vindication of infant baptism. St. Cyprian and sixty-six suffragan Prelates held a council in the metropolitan city of Carthage, in the year 253. While the Council is in session a Prelate named Fidus writes to the Fathers, asking them whether infants ought to be baptized before the eighth day succeeding their birth, or on the eighth day, in accordance with the practice of circumcision. The Bishops unanimously subscribe to the following reply: "As to what regards the baptism of infants, ... we all judged that the mercy and grace of God should be denied to no human being from the moment of his birth. If even to the greatest delinquents the remission of sins is granted, how much less should the infant be repelled, who, being recently born according to Adam, has contracted at his first birth the contagion of the ancient death."[Epis. ad Fidum.] The African Council asserts here two prominent facts--the universal contagion of the human race through Adam's fall, and the universal necessity of Baptism without distinction of age.
Upon this decision, I will make two observations: First--Fidus did not inquire about the necessity of infant baptism, which he already admitted, but about the propriety of conferring it on the eighth day, in imitation of the Jewish law of circumcision. Second--The Bishops assembled in that Council were as numerous as the whole Episcopate of the United States, which contains about five thousand Priests and upwards of six millions of Catholics. We may therefore reasonably conclude that the judgment of the African Council represented the faith of several thousand Priests and several millions of Catholics.
St. Augustine, commenting on this decision, justly observes that St. Cyprian and his colleagues made no new decree, but maintained most unanimous sentiment of tradition from the days of the Apostles to our own times.
It is not ludicrous as well as impious to see a few German fanatics, in the sixteenth century, raising their feeble voice against the thunder tones of all Christendom, by decrying a practice which was universally held as sacred and essential? In judging between the teachings of Apostolic antiquity on the one hand and of the Anabaptists on the other, it is not hard to determine on which side lies the truth; for, what becomes of the Christian Church, if it has erred on so vital a point as that of Baptism during the entire period of its existence?
Original sin, as St. Paul has told us, is universal. Every child is, therefore, defiled at its birth with the taint of Adam's disobedience. Now, the Scripture says that nothing defiled can enter the kingdom of heaven.[Apoc. xxi. 27.] Hence Baptism, which washes away original sin, is as essential for that infant as for the full grown man, in order to attain the kingdom of heaven.
I said that regeneration is necessary for all. But it is important to observe that if a man is heartily sorry for his sins, if he loves God with his whole heart, if he desires to comply with all the Divine ordinances, including Baptism, but has no opportunity of receiving it, or is not sufficiently instructed as to its necessity, God, in this case, accepts the will for the deed. Should this man die in these dispositions, he is saved by the baptism of desire, as happened to the Emperor Valentinian who died a Catechuman: "I lost him whom I was about to regenerate," says St. Ambrose, "but he did not lose that grace he sought for." Or, if an unbaptized person lays down his life for Christ, his death is accepted as more than an equivalent for baptism; for he dies not only sanctified, but he will wear a martyr's crown. He is baptized in his own blood.
But is not that a cruel and heartless doctrine which excludes from heaven so many harmless babes that have never committed any actual fault? To this I reply: Has not God declared that Baptism is necessary for all? And is not God the supreme Wisdom and Justice and Mercy? I am sure, then, that there can be nothing cruel or unjust in God's decrees. The province of reason consists in ascertaining that God has spoken. When we know that He has spoken, then our investigation ceases, and faith and obedience begin. Instead of impiously criticising the Divine decree, we should exclaim with the Apostle: "O! the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways! For, who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been His counsellor?"[Rom. xi. 33, 34.]
Let us remember that heaven is a place to which none of us has any interest right or natural claim, but that it is promised to us by the pure favor of God. He can reject and adopt whom He pleases, and can, without injustice, prescribe His own conditions for accepting His proffered boon. If your child is deprived of heaven by being deprived of Baptism, God does it no wrong because He infringes no right to which your child had any inalienable title. If your child obtains the grace of Baptism be thankful for the gift.
It is proper here to state briefly what the Church actually teaches regarding the future state of unbaptized infants. Though the Church, in obedience to God's Word, declares that unbaptized infants are excluded from the kingdom of heaven, it should not hence be concluded that they are consigned to the place of the reprobate. None are condemned to the torments of the damned but such as merit Divine vengeance by their personal sins.
All that the Church holds on this point is that unregenerate children are deprived of the beatific vision, or the possession of God, which constitutes the essential happiness of the blessed.
Now, between the supreme bliss of heaven and the torments of the reprobate, there is a very wide margin.
All admit that the condition of unbaptized infants is better than non-existence. There are some Catholic writers of distinction who even assert that unbaptized infants enjoy a certain degree of natural beatitude--that is, a happiness which is based on the natural knowledge and love of God.
From what has been said you may well judge how reprehensible is the conduct of Catholic parents who neglect to have their children baptized at the earliest possible moment, thereby risking their own souls, as well as the souls of their innocent offspring. How different was the practice of the early Christians, who, as St. Augustine testifies, hastened with their new-born babes to the baptismal font that they might not be deprived of the grace of regeneration.
In an infant is sick, no expense is spared that its life may be preserved. The physician is called in, medicine is given to it, and the mother will spend sleepless nights watching every movement of the infant; she will sacrifice her repose, her health; nay, she will expose even her own life that the life of her offspring may be saved. And yet the supernatural happiness of the child is too often imperiled without remorse by the criminal postponement of Baptism.
But if they are to be censured who are slow in having their children baptized, what are we to think of that large body of professing Christians who, on principle, deny Baptism to little ones till they come to the age of discretion? What are we to think of those who set their private opinions above Scripture, the early Fathers of the Church and the universal practice of Christendom?
We may smile indeed at a theological opinion, no matter how novel or erroneous it may be, so long as it does not involve any dangerous consequences. But when it is given in a case of life and death, how terrible is the responsibility of those who propagate doctrines so erroneous!
The opposite practice of the Catholic and the Baptist churches, in their treatment of the new-born infant, may be well compared to the conduct of the true and the false mother who both claimed the child at the tribunal of Solomon. The king exclaimed: "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other." The pretended mother consented, saying: Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. "But the woman whose child was alive, said to the king (for her bowels were moved upon her child): I beseech thee, my lord, give her the child alive, and do not kill it." While the Baptist church is willing that the child should die a spiritual death, the true mother, the Catholic Church, cries out: Keep the child, provided its spiritual life is saved, even at your hands. Let it be clothed with the robe of innocence even by a stranger. Let it be nursed at the breasts even of a step-mother. Better it should live without me than perish before my face. I will still be its mother, though it know me not.
Ah! my Baptist friend, you think that Baptism is not necessary for your child's salvation. The old Church teaches the contrary. You admit that you may be wrong, and it is a question of life and death. Take the safe side. Give you child the benefit of the doubt. Let it be baptized.
Baptism washes away original sin, and also actual sins from the adult who may have contracted them. The cleansing efficacy of Baptism was clearly foreshadowed by the prophet Ezechiel in these words: "I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness. And I will give you a new heart and will put a new spirit within you."[Ezech. xxxvi. 25, 26.]
When the Jews asked St. Peter what they should do to be saved the Apostle replied: "Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins."[Acts ii. 38.]
And Ananias said to Saul, after his conversion: "Rise up and be baptized, and wash away thy sins."[Ibid. xxii. 16.]
"We were by nature," says St. Paul, "children of wrath," but by our regeneration, or new birth in Baptism, we become Christians and children of God. "For, ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ."[Gal. iii. 26, 27.] We are adopted into the same family with Jesus Christ. What He is by nature we are by grace--children of God, and consequently brethren of Christ. Nay, our union with Jesus is still more close. We become true members of His mystical body, which is His Church, and His Divine image is stamped upon our soul.
Baptism also clothes us with the garment of sanctity, so that our soul becomes a fit dwelling-place for the Holy Ghost. The Apostle, after giving a fearful catalogue of the vices of the Pagans, says to the Corinthians: "And such some of you were; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God."[I Cor. vi. 11.]
Baptism, in fine, makes us heirs of heaven and co-heirs with Jesus Christ. "We ourselves also," says St. Paul, "were sometimes unwise, incredulous, erring, slaves to divers desires and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But when the goodness and kindness of God our Savior appeared, ... He saved us by the laver of regeneration and renovation of the Holy Ghost, whom He hath poured forth abundantly upon us, through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace, we may be heirs, according to the hope of life everlasting."[Tit. iii. 3-7.]
Here we plainly see that the forgiveness of sin, the adoption into the family of God, the sanctification of the soul and the pledge of eternal life are ascribed to the due reception of Baptism--not, indeed, that water or the words of the minister have any intrinsic virtue to heal the soul, but because Jesus Christ, whose word is creative power, is pleased to attach to this rite its wonderful efficacy of healing the soul, as He imparted to the pool of Bethsaida the power of healing the body."[John v.]
From what has been said, I ask you candidly what are you to think of the decision rendered in 1872 by the Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church, who, in their convention in Baltimore, declared that by the word regeneration we are not to understand a moral change. If no moral change is effected by Baptism, then there is no change at all; for certainly Baptism produces no physical change in the soul.
Is it no change to pass from sin to virtue, from a "child of wrath" to be a "child of God;" from corruption to sanctification; from the condition of heirs of death to the inheritance of heaven? If all this implies no moral change, then these words have lost their meaning.
Modes of baptizing. The Baptists err in asserting that Baptism by immersion is the only valid mode. Baptism may be validly administered in either of three ways, viz: by immersion, or by plunging the candidate into the water; by infusion, or by pouring the water; and by aspersion, or sprinkling.
As our Lord nowhere prescribes any special form of administering the Sacrament, the Church exercises her discretion in adopting the most convenient mode, according to the circumstances of time and place.
For several centuries after the establishment of Christianity Baptism was usually conferred by immersion; but since the twelfth century the practice of baptising by infusion has prevailed in the Catholic Church, as this manner is attended with less inconvenience than Baptism by immersion.
To prove that Baptism by infusion or by sprinkling is as legitimate as by immersion, it is only necessary to observe that, though immersion was the more common practice in the Primitive Church, the Sacrament was frequently administered even then by infusion and aspersion.
After St. Peter's first discourse three thousand persons were baptized.[Acts ii. 41.] It is not likely that so many could have been immersed in one day, especially when we consider the time occupied in instructing the candidates.
On reading the account of the Baptism of St. Paul and the jailer the context leaves a strong impression on the mind that both received the Sacrament by aspersion or by infusion.
Early ecclesiastical history records a great many instances in which Baptism was administered to sick persons in their beds, to prisoners in their cells, and to persons on shipboard. The Fathers of the Church never called in question the validity or the legitimacy of such Baptisms. Now, it is almost impossible to believe that candidates in such situations could receive the rite by immersion.
We have seen, moreover, that Baptism has always been declared necessary for salvation. It is reasonable, hence, to believe that our Lord would have afforded the greatest facility for the reception of so essential a Sacrament.
But if Baptism by immersion only is valid, how many sick and delicate persons, how many prisoners and seafaring people, how many thousands living in the frigid zone, or even in the temperate zone, in the depth of an inclement winter, though craving the grace of regeneration, would be deprived of God's seal, or would receive it at the risk of their lives! Surely God does not ordinarily impose His ordinances upon us under such a penalty.
Moreover, if immersion is the only valid form of Baptism, what has become of the millions of souls who, in every age and country, have been regenerated by the infusion or the aspersion of water in the Christian Church?