When I attended graduate school at the University of Notre
Dame, I had the good fortune to study The Awe-Inspiring Rites of
Initiation with Edward Yarnold, who was in his latter years of
teaching at Oxford. In nearly every class, Professor Yarnold
showed slides of historical baptismal fonts from the Holy Land or
Europe. In the corner of each of these slides could be seen see his
funny, old floppy hat. He placed it in the picture to keep the size
and depth of the fonts in perspective.
In a sense, this is our task today as we consider decorating
and maintaining baptismal fonts throughout the Easter season.
All must be read through the perspective of your churchs structure
and baptismal font.
When building or renovating a church, these are the guidelines:
The baptismal font, particularly one in a baptistry, should be
stationary, gracefully constructed out of suitable material, of
splendid beauty and spotless cleanliness; it should permit
baptism by immersion, whenever this is the usage. (Christian
Initiation, General Introduction, #25).
In order to enhance its force as a sign, the font should be
designed in such a way that it functions as a fountain of running
water; where the climate requires, provision should be
made for heating the water. (Ibid, #20)
And in Built of Living Stones, 69
||One font that will accommodate the baptism of both
infants and adults symbolizes the one faith and one
baptism that Christians share. The size and design of
the font can facilitate the dignified celebration for all
who are baptized at the one font, #69.
||The font should be large enough to supply ample water
for the baptism of both adults and infants. Since baptism
in Catholic churches may take place by immersion in
the water, or by infusion (pouring), fonts that permit all
forms of baptismal practice are encouraged.
||Baptism is a sacrament of the whole Church and, in
particular, of the local parish community. Therefore the
ability of the congregation to participate in baptisms is
an important consideration.
Liturgical theologians state their preferences but the reality
is that there are permanent and temporary fonts, those designed
for infusion or full immersion, and those located near the church
entrance or the sanctuary. Each of these options is nuanced by a
thousand church situations.
No matter the type of font a parish has, one must consider universal
factors and questions:
- How will the environment created last the entire Easter season?
- What other liturgical actions take place within this season? Consider church layout and walking patterns when planning
any environment and decor.
- Remember function. The baptismal font has an active purpose and is not just a piece of church furniture to be
decorated. The environment must in no way diminish the sacrament or inhibit the ritual actions of Baptism from taking place.
Does your place of worship have immersion Baptisms outside of
the RCIA, or do other Baptisms throughout the year consist of
infusion, or immersing a baby in the upper portion of a font? If
so, then this would give more leeway to the art and environment
crew in their choices for incorporating the baptismal font into
the Easter Season.
Coming to mind first are lilies and lights . . . and there is
nothing wrong with the tried and the true. It is easy to decorate
by putting flowers and a couple of candles along the fonts edges,
but this is not always practical. If the font is built up, this could
work well. But if the font is at ground level with steps going down
and up, plants and candles could be hazardous with young children
So what other options are there? I have seen fresh tulips or
cherry blossoms in a font when there is not a Baptism taking
place, but this type of thing can confuse the powerful symbols.
When I was researching this article, I went on the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops Web site, and was astounded to see this question
posed: Our church was recently renovated. Our pastor has
made certain changes, among them, fish have been placed in the
water of the baptismal font. Is it appropriate? I have never seen
this in any other parish.
Do not turn your font into an aquarium, a flower vase, a
wishing well, or any such thing. You are probably already dealing
with parishioners who liken this new font to a Jacuzzi. Do not
give them any food for the fire.
Living water, running water is the purest symbol of
Baptism, so I advocate having your font timed to pump through
the liturgy, or before the liturgies (depending on the noise factor),
so people can hear the trickles as they pray and come to peace
before and after Mass. Utilize the water as an aural decor.
Returning to the wisdom of the documents, BLS, 66, says:
Because the rites of initiation of the Church begin with baptism
and are completed by the reception of the Eucharist, the
baptismal font and its location reflect the Christians journey
through the waters of baptism to the altar. This integral relationship
between the baptismal font and the altar can be
demonstrated in a variety of ways, such as placing the font
and altar on the same architectural axis, using natural or
artificial lighting, using the same floor patterns, and using
common or similar materials and elements of design.
Might not we apply these principles to our seasonal
decor? Is there a way to tie the decor for the table to the decor
for the font? If not repeating the same design, is there a way
to use the journey motif and move with it from the baptismal
font to the sacred altar? This would also be practical
since most first Holy Communions take place within the
Easter season as well.
All the liturgical principles discussed so far in this article would
be just as appropriate to a permanent infusion font. Generally,
the top is removed and the priest, parents, and godparents stand
behind the font, so it is almost easier to incorporate the font into
the seasonal decor. It would be effortless to drape a decorative
cloth or tasteful banner in front of the font.
Note the word tasteful. Hangings should consist of a simple
image or colors so as not to compete with the baptismal symbols.
We already know Alleluia, Christ has risen! We do not need
to read it plastered on the side of the font. Do not confuse beauty
with busy. Some of the richest liturgical environments I have
experienced were also the subtlest ones.
Ideally, the church calls for a permanent font. Only one font
should be in a worship space, but sometimes churches that have
only a small infusion font create a temporary structure for the
purpose of RCIA and the Easter Vigil. This raises many questi ons.
With a portable font, do you remove it after the Easter
Vigil? What does this do to the integrity of the season? A permanent
font may intentionally be in the way, e.g., at the center of
the aisle aligned with the altar. Is it too easy to move a temporary
font for convenience?
The best examples of what not to do are taken from reallife
experiences. One year my father called to tell me about Easter
in my rural hometown. They were excited to have a member of
the elect and planned a full immersion Baptism, so they went to
the local farm and ranch supply store and got a great big galvanized
steel water trough to put in the sanctuary, and filled it with
water early in the morning on Saturday of the Easter Vigil.
It was an early Easter, and very chilly in northern Montana,
so that water was as cold as ice when the baptismal candidate
went under. He could not shake his chills all evening. The next
day, some parishioners showed up on my fathers doorstep. They
did not plan a way to remove the holy water after the Easter Vigil,
and that trough was so big there was no way it could stay in the
sanctuary for the entire Easter season. My dad was called on for a
solution. The moral of the story is, if you are using a temporary
font, think through the process well.
BLS shares these guidelines for Easter decor:
||These seasonal decorations are maintained throughout the entire liturgical season. . . . Since the Easter season lasts fifty days, planning will encompass ways to sustain the decor until the fiftieth day of Pentecost (#125).
It is easy to think that this guideline applies to banners and cloths and candles, or just the sanctuary area, and to forget that it applies to the font, too. Who would ever think that sustaining the decor could be such a difficult task?
is director of Liturgy and Music at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in West Bend, Wisconsin. She has an MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame. Her Web site is http://www.jillmaria.com.