Rediscovering baptism in plague time

George Weigel

On April 29, 1951, Father Thomas Love, SJ, baptized me in the Church of Sts. Philip and James, near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Family legend has it that I raised such a furor during the proceedings that my cousin Judy hid in a confessional. There are pictures of the christening, and a few years ago I found a lovely letter that Father Love (whom I never met) wrote me shortly afterwards. But I cannot say that I took the date of my baptism seriously until I was nudged into greater baptismal awareness in the 1980s.

The first nudge involved working with evangelical Protestants, who typically identified themselves to strangers at a meeting by saying, “I’m [so-and-so] and I was born again on [such-and-such a date].” That made me think about when, precisely, I had been born again; so April 29 began to loom larger in my mental calendar of Important Dates. The second nudge came from writing about John Paul II. During his pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979, the Pope went straight to the baptistry of his former parish church in Wadowice, knelt, and kissed the baptismal font. Why? Because, I realized, he knew that the day of his baptism was the most important day of his life: for it was the day that made his life in Christ, which he knew to be the deepest meaning of his life, possible.

Ever since, I’ve been urging fellow-Catholics to mark the day of their baptism. So let me urge you again: make this time of plague and quarantine the occasion to dig the “Catholic paper” out of your records, find your baptismal certificate, and learn the date of your baptism. And then, with appropriate celebration, ponder just what happened to you that day.

As the Catholic Church has understood it for two millennia, baptism is far, far more than a welcoming ritual: baptism effects a fundamental change in who we are, what we can “see,” and what we must do.

Being born again by water and the Holy Spirit in baptism, we become far more than [fill in the name] of a certain family, address, and nationality. We become living cells in the Mystical Body of Christ: members of the New Israel, the beloved community of the New Covenant, destined for eternal life at the Throne of Grace where the saints celebrate what the Book of Revelation calls the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 19:7, 21:2). We become the people in whom humanity’s greatest hopes, incapable of fulfillment by our own devices, will be realized.

Having been cleansed in the waters of baptism and instructed in the truths of faith, we can “see” the wonders God has done in history more clearly. Thus baptism, in a certain sense, sacramentally recreates the Easter experience of Mary Magdalene in the 20th chapter of John’s gospel. At first, Mary thinks the Risen Lord is a gardener. Then, after he calls her by name, she clings to his feet; but that is to cling to the past, to the Jesus who was, and so she is told, “Do not hold me” (John 20:17). Finally, Mary begins to comprehend that the Jesus she once knew, the Jesus beneath whose cross she stood, had been raised to an entirely new dimension of human existence – a life no longer shadowed by death, a life beyond death. And so she became the first messenger of the Gospel as she made a radical act of faith before the other friends of Jesus: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

Which brings us to what we, the baptized, must do.

In baptism, we die with Christ, the Risen Lord who lives in the presence of God and amongst his brothers and sisters in the Church. That Jesus is present both in eternity and in history means that his brethren can live – in an anticipatory way, here and now – in the eternity of God. That is a great gift. To be worthy of it means to share it.

So we, the baptized, have also been commissioned. On the day of our baptism, each one of us was given a commission as a missionary disciple. Each of us heard (on our own, as adults, or through our parents and grandparents, if we were infants or children) the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19: “Go…and make disciples of all nations.” Everyone in the Church is a missionary; everywhere we go is mission territory.

To live that is to own the truth of our baptism in full.

COMING UP: After Cardinal Pell’s rightful acquittal 

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The unanimous decision by Australia’s High Court to quash Cardinal George Pell’s convictions on charges of “historic sexual abuse” and acquit him of those crimes was entirely welcome. Truth and justice were served. An innocent man was freed from imprisonment. The criminal justice system in the State of Victoria was informed by Australia’s supreme judicial authority that it had gotten things badly wrong. The anti-Pell haters in the Australian media were reminded that their power has limits.

Yet there remains a lot to be reckoned with in the aftermath of this case, which bore all the tawdry hallmarks of a witch hunt.

Did the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) collude with a corrupt Victoria police department in a sleazy attempt to dig up alleged crimes where none had been previously reported? Why did so weak a case ever come to trial, given compelling evidence that what was said to have happened simply could not have happened in the timeframe and circumstances alleged by the complainant? Why was the jury never informed that the complainant had a history of psychological problems? What effect did the lynch mob atmosphere in Victoria have on the hung jury in the cardinal’s first trial, and on the incomprehensible guilty verdict rendered by the jury in the retrial? Why was the cardinal forbidden to say Mass for over 400 days, even when in solitary confinement?

These are questions proper to Australia and should be examined by the public authorities there; a parliamentary inquiry into the behavior of ABC and the Victoria police seems the least that ought to be done. The Pell affair also has implications for other countries and for the world Church, as public officials and Catholic leaders continue to grapple with the societal-wide plague of the sexual abuse of the young.

Cardinal Pell had two jury trials because in the State of Victoria, a defendant in a criminal case cannot request a bench trial (i.e., a trial by a judge alone). Surely this policy needs to be re-examined in all jurisdictions in which it is in force, given the extreme difficulty of empaneling an unbiased jury in fevered public circumstances such as those surrounding the Pell affair (which resembled Salem in 1692 or France during the 1894 Dreyfus case).

In the State of Victoria, a criminal charge of sexual abuse can be brought to trial solely on the word of a complainant. No physical evidence of abuse having occurred is required; neither is any form of corroboration. This requires re-examination, and not just in Australia.

The Crown prosecutor’s case against Cardinal Pell rested on the credibility of the complainant and nothing else. The two judges whose appellate decision last summer upheld the cardinal’s conviction cited a similar credibility criterion as decisive. There is something seriously wrong here, though. Complainant credibility should be the beginning of a chain of legal reasoning, not the end of the matter. For if “credibility” is the only criterion to be considered, then no real defense is possible against a charge of sexual abuse (or any other charge, for that matter).

Raising one criterion of legal judgment, complainant credibility, to the sole criterion of judgment renders a defendant guilty prima facie – and that dismantles two of the pillars of a just criminal law: presumption of innocence, and the state’s obligation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The High Court decision strongly objected to this narrow focus of judgment, as did Justice Mark Weinberg in his brilliant dissent from last August’s mistaken appellate decision. Other jurists and legal practitioners throughout the world should pay close attention. Otherwise, sentiment will replace reason in adjudicating criminal cases, and that is effectively the end of the rule of law.

Media irresponsibility is not just a problem in Australia. ABC, however, has set a new standard for viciousness in its ongoing campaign of defamation against the Catholic Church and Cardinal Pell – a campaign that reached new depths of ugliness even as the High Court was considering its decision. And ABC is a public-funded, state-owned broadcast service. Some hard thinking about the public responsibility of public broadcasters is thus in order throughout the world. No one has a free speech or freedom-of-the-press right to engage in willful defamation of character, and certainly not at taxpayer expense.

Cardinal Pell has been vindicated, but others matters of consequence remain unsettled. It can only be hoped that the cardinal’s acquittal helps both Church and state think more clearly, and act more justly, when faced with the grave crime of sexual abuse.