June 26, 2016
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – Thirteenth Sunday Throughout the Year
I rejoiced when they said
Unto me: Let us go up
To the House of the Lord
And now our feet are standing
Within Thy Gates
- The Psalms, King David
We continue this week with our reflections on the Church Building as a Sacred Place – Beauty, transcendence and the Eternal.
I have written three articles on the place of the Most Blessed Sacrament within the Church. I have written one article on the placement of side niches in the nave of the Church building wherein the saints may stand with us in the great Communion of Saints. I have written one article on the place of precincts within the Church and their designation with rails. In this manner they have reflected the temple of Solomon built according to the design of God himself. Today I would like to reflect on the place of the baptismal font within the Church.
Soon after the freedom of the Church in the fourth century the Christians began to build Churches. They reflected the temple in Jerusalem and its gates as well as the unique form of Roman architecture called the basilica. In those early days of the faith the Roman Churches had a porch. One may still see the very ancient porches in the Churches of San Clemente, Santi Quattro Coronati, and Santa Maria in Domnica. Many of the other porches received baroque decoration during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Two groups of Christians generally remained on the porches outside the doors of the Church. The first were the public penitents. These were individuals who were doing public penance. We must remember that while confession of sin was always private, the doing of penance in the early Church was public. The penitents would stand on the porch wearing clothing made from rough material and tied at the waist with a rope. They would cover themselves in ashes and remain on the porch for the whole of Lent. On the morning of Holy Thursday, the Bishop and his attendants would process to the porch and he would lead the public penitents back into the Church, now fully reconciled to God. Again, it must be emphasized that although the sins committed were unknown, the penance was public. By the 8th century this practice had died out and soon everyone began the custom of being signed with the penitential ashes at the beginning of Lent, a practice followed even until our own day. The French philosopher Étienne Gilson once remarked that we see a vestige of the public penances today when the faithful stand in line near the confessional and kneel at the altar rail to say their penance. In a certain way they are doing public penance.
The other group who stood at the porch were the catechumens, those preparing to be baptized. They did not enter through the doors of the Church. The door was only for the faithful. By the 8th century the order of catechumens had largely disappeared since whole families were baptized at once and only infants then were being baptized. But nevertheless, the baptismal font was always located outside the Church. Frequently this led to the building of magnificent Baptisteries – buildings which housed the baptismal font. Perhaps the most famous and most beautiful baptistery is the one in Florence with its magnificent doors of gold plated bronze. The great poet Dante mentions this baptistery in his Divine Comedy and uses the frescos of the apse to describe the ninth circle of Hell. In fact, Dante mentions in the great epic how he once saved a child’s life in the Baptistery. The child had fallen and was in great danger of being crushed under a heavy weight and Dante rescued the child. Since only the Bishop baptized, the Baptisteries were only at the Cathedrals. There was only one Baptistery in each diocese.
In Rome the Baptistery is located at the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, the Basilica of the Most Holy Savior whose anniversary of dedication we keep every November 9th. The Church is also known as the Basilica of St. John Lateran or simply as the Lateran Basilica. In 1994 terrorists ignited a great bomb at the south door and in World War II it was the scene of a fierce gun battle, even in the Church, as British soldiers tried to enter German occupied Rome. The baptistery at the Lateran has a magnificent fresco of the most famous person ever to have been baptized there – Constantine, a saint and the first Christian Emperor.
As baptisms came to be administered by priests in every Church – and not solely by the Bishop in the Cathedral – baptismal areas of the parish Churches were built. Naturally each church could not have a separate building for baptisms. They were generally outside of the Church building itself – once again to demonstrate the Church as the gate of heaven into which only those illumined by the grace of Christ could be admitted. In our own Church the original baptistery was what is now the Children’s room. We still see all the symbolism of baptism in the stained glass there, the candle, the white garment, the baptismal oils.
Interestingly the baptismal font was relocated to the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. It is the least desirable place for the font because the unbaptized do not begin in the sanctuary. It is theologically unsound. Also there is no designated place for baptism. The font is just placed in an open area almost as an afterthought.
The baptismal font will be relocated to the pie near the St. Joseph Altar. It will not simply be a place where the font happened to have been put down, but it will be a place where baptism is naturally administered. Its proximity to the ambo will remind us of that truth written by our own patron, St. Paul, which I will now explain.
The rite of Baptism begins by the priest asking the one to be baptized, What do you seek? It is a question as old as the faith itself. It was the question posed by the angel to the Holy Women as they came to Our Lord’s tomb on the first Easter morning. The one to be baptized answers the question with a single word, Faith! Then the priest continues and asks yet another question, And what will faith give you? The one to be baptized answers, Eternal Life.
St. Paul reminds us that Faith comes by hearing. Then St. Paul asks, And how can they hear unless one preaches? Thus the font is near the ambo where the Word of God is preached. The natural response to preaching is conversion and baptism. There will finally be a baptismal area in our Church devoted exclusively to this sacrament which is the gateway to eternal life. The area will be designated by a rail on two sides, open,
spacious and beautiful. It will truly be the Gate of Heaven and the House of God. It will serve no other purpose save baptism.
Our devoted Parish/Administrative Assistant Mrs. Barbara Genna will be retiring from St. Paul’s on Thursday of this week. Barbara has worked at St. Paul’s for six years. She began as a part time secretary and at my arrival in 2013 I invited her to be full time Parish/Administrative Assistant. I will be forever grateful to Barbara for all she has done for St. Paul’s and for me personally. She has served our parish in a most dedicated and selfless way. She will be greatly missed by everyone, but, most especially, by me. We wish her many more years in health and happiness in her retirement. Our new Parish/Administrative Assistant who will also serve as Business Manager is Mrs. Deborah Cosentino. Deb comes to us with many years of experience in working for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in Parish Services. I know we will all come to know and love her as she dedicates herself to St. Paul’s. We extend a warm welcome to Deb in the charity of Christ.
Please take a look at the last pew in the “pie” section near Our Lady’s altar. It has recently been restored by the Keck Group. The Keck Group is the premiere company in the United States for pew restoration. They recently renovated all the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York. They also just completed the pew renovation at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre. The company is located in nearby Middletown, New York. Bob Keck, the owner of the company, and his son Terry have visited St. Paul’s twice.
The pews of the Church are made of exceptional quality oak. Sadly, in modern furniture making it is the custom to cut the trees while they are young, so as to turn a quick profit. This does not allow the trees to mature and thus show the fine grain that we associate with good quality. The wood of which the pews in our Church are made is old wood, with beautiful grain and of exceptionally good quality. Such pews would be irreplaceable today. That is why we are restoring them to their natural beauty.
Over the years there has naturally been wear and tear on the pews and kneelers. Because of deferred maintenance in some places, the material of the pews cannot even be recognized as wood. As can be seen in the restored pew, the wood now shows its natural beauty. It is smooth to the touch and very beautiful. The kneelers are covered in cloth, since, as we know, vinyl rips and wears very easily.
Please notice the pew and then it will be obvious how much more beautiful the Church will look when all the pews are restored to their natural beauty.
In Jesus and Mary,
Monsignor James F. Pereda