So it was with no small measure of dismay that I read about baptism rehearsals. I read this wondering just what there was to rehearse. Roman Catholics do not delay baptism; the earlier the baptism the better. We don’t like having children wandering around with the stain of original sin on their souls when we can get it washed away with holy water with bluing for extra whiteness. As the recipient of the sacrament is an infant, rehearsing is a bit onerous, as babies don’t often do what they are told and don’t like being held in uncomfortable positions for very long while the priest drones on and on about rejecting Satan, the prince of darkness and the father of lies. Rehearsing, therefore, is not something you want to spend a lot of time doing if you are a prospective godfather; you just want to get the whole thing over and done with before the kid decides to unload from either the front or the back on the suit you just had dry cleaned for the occasion. Just as a sidebar here, for those of you whose only experience with a Catholic baptism is that great intercut sequence of baptism and wholesale slaughter that occurs near the end of The Godfather, as a rule Catholics don’t usually assassinate each other at baptisms. There is often a party of some sort to mark the event, where there may or may not be a family fight, especially when your maiden aunt, who really should have gone into a convent, preferably one she couldn’t get out of on holidays, brings up that whole business about your cousin marrying that woman (she was a Methodist) outside the Church, but gunning, garroting, bombing, and otherwise doing away with your enemies in an operatic orgy of bloody violence is entirely optional.
Looking into the matter a little further, I find that baptism rehearsals are becoming quite common these days, now that American Catholics have picked up the habit of total baptismal immersion from our Protestant brethren. Catholics didn’t used to do this, you see. For centuries it was enough for the priest to pour some water over the child’s head and say the necessary prayers and that was it, the child was baptized. There was no need for immersions, total, partial, or otherwise, although the idea of total immersion for infants is not something I can go along with. I stood godfather to one kid in my entire life and if I knew then what I know now, and had total immersion been available, I would have held the kid’s head under the water for ten minutes or so. At the time he was a very cute baby; at least that’s what everyone, including my mother, said—I’m the wrong person to ask because all babies look more or less the same to me; and I wouldn’t know better until much later. Perhaps adult baptism is the best way, after all; that way you know that the stinker is getting what’s coming to him when you hold his head under.
But to return to the subject, things are much different now than they were when I went to parochial school, if what I read is anything to go by. Nowadays no child can become a baptized Roman Catholic without being able to do a backstroke over two hundred meters in the baptismal font. Infants who do not finish in the top ten positions in the competition get another chance when they reach their first birthday; if they fail to place again their parents are taken aside and advised that they really ought to consider becoming Presbyterians or Dutch Reformed, both of whom are notoriously bad swimmers. Something about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination prevents people from learning to swim properly. Why this should be so is a mystery to me, but the studies seem to indicate that this is in fact the case. Just when these changes came about I don’t really know, but I suspect it has something to do with the reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. I don’t remember there being a lot of gym equipment in church prior to the 1970’s, but afterwards you couldn’t get to a pew without stepping over a gaggle of bodybuilders doing crunches in the church nave. Maybe it’s just me, but those guys always seemed way out of place during the Easter Vigil. They were very nice guys, all in all, I don’t mean to criticize them here, but you never knew when they yelled, three more, just three more, if they were talking about weightlifting or making a theological point about the Trinity. I’m not theologically modern enough for the times we live in, I guess.