The God of Abraham Comes to a Baptism

About a year ago I wrote in this space about the challenge of interfaith marriages and families, and to my delight, I received several affirming letters from priests and lay people. They agreed that the church’s response to such unions will be among the defining issues of 21st-century Catholicism.

The other day I was privileged and moved to witness just how loving and sensitive that response can be. My anxious correspondents should know that the experience left me filled with optimism and faith.

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Friends of mine in a Jewish-Catholic marriage recently presented their school-age children for baptism. I gather that this decision, made after years of reflection, did not please some family members, who thought that the parents were turning their backs on half their children’s heritage. Anybody who is a partner in an interfaith marriage or knows people in one can imagine what some of these conversations were like.

Some of the tension had eased by the time we filed into church, on a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon, for the ceremony. Nevertheless, if I am fluent at all in reading body language, not everybody was comfortable with the decision or with the ceremony. I thought, as I watched from the back of the church (my young son prefers to watch events from afar—a career in journalism beckons, poor child!), that some visitors still were not reconciled. The ceremonial injunctions of the deacon who administered the sacrament seemed (at least from my vantage point) to inspire some shuffling of feet in the pews.

The time came for the blessing of the parents of the newly baptized children. The children’s mother, the Catholic half of the marriage, stepped forward to receive her blessing first. It was lovely and poetic, and, of course, the name of Jesus was invoked several times. Then the deacon called up the children’s father, who is Jewish. At this point, even I was a little tense, worried that the wrong word or reference might give unintentional offense and spoil what had been a moving ceremony.

Ah, me of little faith! The deacon read another lovely and poetic prayer, asking the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to bless my friend. Perhaps this loving gesture is commonplace today, but let me assure you, it was new to many people in the church that day. And more than a few people found themselves a little more emotional than they had expected to be.

Another friend, also Jewish, was visibly delighted to hear a Jewish prayer recited at a Catholic ceremony, but she added that had she been asked, she would have been happy to recite the prayer aloud in Hebrew. She was kidding, of course, but that gives you an idea of the genuine fellowship this seemingly simple and perhaps routine gesture inspired.

Stereotypes and suspicions, and worse, certainly will not be overcome in the few seconds it takes to recite a blessing in a church. But it seems fair to say that on that pleasant summer afternoon in New Jersey, the obstacles to true ecumenism became just a little less daunting. Jewish family members saw their faith and heritage affirmed; Catholics in the congregation, celebrating the christening of the two children, were reminded—to use the words of Pope Pius XI often quoted by the late Cardinal John O’Connor—that they are “spiritual Semites.”

For the parents of children born into two religious traditions, not every baptism and not every bar mitzvah will have the happy ending (or rather beginning) that I witnessed. My friends and hundreds of thousands like them will continue to face challenges through the years. The question I have, and I suspect others have, is whether our parishes have a support network in place for parents and children from interfaith families.

Because of my association with this distinguished journal and, I suppose, because I talk about religion from time to time, friends and acquaintances in interfaith marriages often discuss their challenges and problems with me. Sometimes they’re simply looking for basic information—do I know any organization, or a ministry, devoted to families like theirs? Sometimes they’re looking for more complex answers, and on such occasions, of course, I simply refer them to a nearby Jesuit.

Unfortunately, there seem to be few formal institutions at the parish level devoted to the concerns of interfaith families. I know of ministries reaching out to divorced and separated Catholics, and ministries devoted to gay Catholics. Both would have been unthinkable a quarter-century ago, but the former now is commonplace, and the latter is becoming more common in urban areas.

The next step in this admirable outreach ought to be ministries, formal or informal, to interfaith families. There can be little question that the number of such families will continue to grow in the decades to come. Ironically, of course, this is a consequence of the church’s fierce commitment to education. Young Catholics now go off to college and into careers that were out of their grandparents’ reach, and there they meet and fall in love with Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

We ignore this at our peril. The great immigration trends of the late 20th century ensure that young Catholics will grow up in a world even more diverse than today’s. The world in which intermarriage meant an Italian Catholic marrying an Irish Catholic is far, far removed from the realities of today and tomorrow.

It is a daunting prospect but, as I witnessed one fine summer afternoon, one not without the possibility of real beauty.

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