Baptismal Font Near the Altar

And More on Weddings

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ROME, APRIL 13, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In my new parish I noticed that both the baptismal font and the Easter candle are placed right in the center of the church, a few feet from the altar. Is this permissible, even during Lent? The pastor argues that he does not have another place to put the baptismal font. What do you think? — A.T., South Carolina

A: Although I have not seen any images of the actual setup of this church, I can transmit the guidelines offered by the U.S. bishops in their document «Built of Living Stones.» Regarding the baptistry, they say:

«66. The rites of baptism, the first of the sacraments of initiation, require a prominent place for celebration. Initiation into the Church is entrance into a eucharistic community united in Jesus Christ. 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 Christian’s 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.

«67. The location of the baptismal font, its design, and the materials used for its construction are important considerations in the planning and design of the building. It is customary to locate the baptismal font either in a special area within the main body of the church or in a separate baptistry. Through the waters of baptism the faithful enter the life of Christ. For this reason the font should be visible and accessible to all who enter the church building. While the baptistry is proportioned to the building itself and should be able to hold a good number of people, its actual size will be determined by the needs of the local community.

«68. Water is the key symbol of baptism and the focal point of the font. In this water believers die to sin and are reborn to new life in Christ. In designing the font and the iconography in the baptismal area, the parish will want to consider the traditional symbolism that has been the inspiration for the font’s design throughout history. The font is a symbol of both tomb and womb; its power is the power of the triumphant cross; and baptism sets the Christian on the path to the life that will never end, the ‘eighth day’ of eternity where Christ’s reign of peace and justice is celebrated.

«69. The following criteria can be helpful when choosing the design for the font:

«1. 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.

«2. 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.

«3. 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.

«4. The location of the baptistry will determine how, and how actively, the entire liturgical assembly can participate in the rite of baptism.

«5. Because of the essential relationship of baptism to the celebration of other sacraments and rituals, the parish will want to choose an area for the baptistry or the font that visually symbolizes that relationship. Some churches choose to place the baptistry and font near the entrance to the church. Confirmation and the Eucharist complete the initiation begun at baptism; marriage and ordination are ways of living the life of faith begun in baptism; the funeral of a Christian is the final journey of a life in Christ that began in baptism; and the sacrament of penance calls the faithful to conversion and to a renewal of their baptismal commitment. Placing the baptismal font in an area near the entrance or gathering space where the members pass regularly and setting it on an axis with the altar can symbolize the relationship between the various sacraments as well as the importance of the Eucharist within the life and faith development of the members.

«6. With the restoration of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults that culminates in baptism at the Easter Vigil, churches need private spaces where the newly baptized can go immediately after their baptism to be clothed in their white garments and to prepare for the completion of initiation in the Eucharist. In some instances, nearby sacristies can serve this purpose.»

No. 66 is the one most bearing on our question. The baptismal font should be placed in relation to the Eucharist, but the relationship also implies a clear distinction between the two spaces so as to express this journey through the waters to the altar. Having the two almost contingent weakens the image of the pilgrimage of faith.

As our reader points out, having the font contingent or within the sanctuary has the added disadvantage of the Easter candle’s year-round presence.

I suggest that our reader point out this document to his pastor. At the same time, it is best not to arrive empty-handed but accompanied by some viable solutions to the problem based on the suggestions found above.

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Follow-up: Weddings in Lent

Related to our reply about weddings in Lent (see March 23) was a question from a Michigan deacon: «Can a deacon witness the vows of two Catholics during the Rite for Celebrating Marriage during Mass? I was told that the rite would be valid but not licit. I have not found this addressed within the rite itself. Also, what about the nuptial blessing?»

Although this question has not been publicly addressed by the Holy See, I am aware of a 2007 official private reply on precisely this matter issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

In its reply, the congregation suggests the following canonical principles. First of all, the Code of Canon Law entrusts the pastor with the pre-eminent responsibility for the spiritual life of the parish and, by virtue of his office, the faculty to assist at marriages in his parish (canons 528.2, 530.4, 1108.1). Deacons, on the other hand, assist at marriages (provided that both parties are Latin rite) only by virtue of a delegation granted by the bishop or pastor.

Passing from the canonical argument to the liturgical, the Vatican congregation states that a change of presider in the course of the same celebration is not admissible. Hence, neither a deacon (whether permanent or transitional) nor a priest other than the principal celebrant can preside over a wedding liturgy.

The letter says that it is not correct to deprive the couple of a Nuptial Mass solely for the purpose of allowing a particular deacon to preside over the wedding.

The document then explains why apparent exceptions do not detract from the rule of no change in presiding celebrant. These apparent exceptions — such as a non-concelebrating bishop who presides over some moments of the Mass, or the newly ordained bishop who becomes the principal celebrant — arise from the nature of the bishop’s ministry.

The letter thus concludes that the priest who celebrates the Mass must be the one to preach, receive the vows and impart the nuptial blessing. At the discretion of the pastor, the deacon may preach the homily.

Admittedly, this letter is official but, as a private missive, has no force of law. It does, howe
ver, reflect the congregation’s thinking and is based on sound canonical and liturgical reasoning.

It does not address all possible issues and human circumstances, for example, when adult children of permanent deacons desire to be married by their father. In such exceptional cases, perhaps it would be possible to have the deacon preside the rite of a wedding outside of Mass followed immediately by a Mass of thanksgiving with the pastor.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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