The day I started my second year at St-Raymond Elementary School in 1963, our lovely teacher, Mrs. Bérubé, walked through the rows and placed on the corner of our desks a strange little grey book with a rigid cover.
When she had finished distributing it, she spoke and reminded us that each of us had been baptized in the Roman Catholic faith and that we should, therefore, know this book by heart if we wanted to access the sacraments of forgiveness, of the Eucharist and later of Confirmation. The parish priest would be responsible for ensuring that this book entitled “The Little Catechism” of the Catholic faith was well understood and assimilated by each of the students. Otherwise, there was a risk of being refused or delayed access to the sacraments.
People of a certain age know that this little catechism was originally designed to better equip Catholics to defend themselves against the “Protestant” invader who seemed to be gaining more and more ground with his superior biblical knowledge and ways of evangelizing. Catholics who were born long before the last Vatican Council had virtually no access to Bible reading. Many bishops and priests of the time did not recommend the reading of Holy Scripture because they feared that once it became accessible to the common man, it would expose them to all sorts of false interpretations that would lead to the contamination of the authentic Catholic faith. So the reading of the holy gospels was not recommended. Only bishops and priests were allowed to read and interpret the Bible.
One of the first consequences that resulted from this fear of reading the Bible was that Catholics were often caught off guard and did not know what to say when Protestant brethren questioned many of their beliefs or habits. Let us consider, for example, the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception from the moment of her conception; her perpetual virginity; her divine maternity; her crowning in heaven. We also think of our faith in the communion of saints who have already reached heaven; or of the existence of the “vestibule” of purgatory where souls must continue their purification before entering heaven; or of the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament; and so on.
Few Christians were able to respond adequately to these exegetical or theological positions at the time. Therefore, a solution had to be found to enable them not to drown and to be able to rise to the surface quickly when confronted by these “enemies of our faith.” So the idea of designing a small catechism accessible to all Catholics and in which we would find all the essential “questions-answers” on the teaching of our faith, seemed most appropriate not only to help them better defend themselves against the attacks of the Protestants but also to allow them to be better informed on the rudiments of our faith. This in turn would enable them to evangelize with greater confidence.
It was a time of war between Catholics and Protestants! Between the English and the French as well, because the English were mostly from Protestant families and were seeking to extend their domination in the French-speaking territories.
Throughout the centuries, the two antagonists have had to learn to live side by side despite their differences in culture, language, and religion, be it willingly or unwillingly, and through such confrontations and struggles. Today, one must acknowledge that these tensions and rivalries have greatly diminished. And the secularization of our society has undoubtedly contributed to bringing the two old rivals closer. But at the religious level, the differences between Catholics and Protestants remain, despite the efforts to bring them closer in ecumenical meetings since the Second Vatican Council. Certainly, there have been some reconciliations and compromises at the level of scriptural interpretation, but many of the Catholic religious beliefs cited above differ radically from the interpretations of our Protestant brothers.
Here is a concrete example that illustrates these tensions and difficulties still present today between the two Christian clans.
In my fifth year of priestly ministry, I lived with two other religious confrères in the large rectory of the municipality of Mont-Louis in the Gaspé Peninsula. At suppertime, I received a phone call from a young man who asked me for hospitality, because he and his friend were passing through and had no place to stay and very little money at their disposal.
Unfortunately, the rooms were full at our house, and I couldn’t accommodate them at the rectory. I suggested that they stay at the Youth Hostel in the village where they stopped, and also enjoy a good breakfast the next day. We were at one of my three neighbouring parishes, which was a 15-minute drive from my rectory. I left for it immediately and headed towards the small village of Mont-St-Pierre.
When I arrived in the church parking lot, I looked all around me but saw no one in sight. Suddenly, two young men around 25 years of age burst into the distance and walked towards me. No doubt they were my two friends looking for accommodation. I noticed their long hair and long beards, dressed rather poorly, but smiling.
I welcomed them into my parish, shared a few words with them, and then gave them the necessary money and told them where the Youth Hostel was located. As I was about to leave, they both raised their arms in the air and cried out loud, “Hallelujah, the Lord is good! Blessed be the Lord!”
To tell you the truth, I wasn’t expecting this kind of reaction! But I smiled and said, “You are Protestant evangelicals!” Surprised, one of them replied, “How did you guess?” I smiled and said, “A little birdie told me!” After a heartfelt farewell, I returned to the rectory.
The next day promised to be extremely hot and humid. Not a cloud in sight, but what a scorching heat! At lunchtime, I was having breakfast with my two religious confrères and the bell rang. I opened the door, and guess who I saw in front of me? Yep, that’s right. Here were my two friends whom I hosted the night before in my neighbouring parish. Upon recognizing me, one of them said: “Ah, you are the priest who found us a place to sleep yesterday! Thank you very much for your hospitality. We slept very well.”
I explained to them that I was having lunch with my colleagues and asked them the purpose of their visit. The first one answered that they have undertaken together to evangelize the entire Gaspé Peninsula. I was a bit surprised because, in the Gaspé Peninsula, almost all the communities are Catholic. So I wished them good luck, but before I had finished my sentence, to my great surprise, the other companion asked me if I was baptized. “But what are you saying, my brother? Of course I’m baptized,” I said. “I am the pastor of several Catholic parishes in the area.”
And in a more daring tone, he asked me again, “But were you baptized in full, that is, by immersion, or simply by having water sprinkled on your head as most Catholics do?” I was so surprised by this unexpected question that I answered him spontaneously, “You know, friend, the Holy Spirit does not need a lake to enter into a person’s heart. He just needs a little water and the Trinitarian formula to enter into his heart. And perhaps even in the eyes of God, if a dying person who is not baptized sheds a single tear accompanied by sincere repentance for past sins, it might be enough to make him or her to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, and to enter into the new life that Christ has earned for us through His sufferings and the gift of His life on the Cross.”
And the thunderous voice of the young man sounded after hearing such a heresy coming out of my mouth! He was shocked and told me that my baptism was not valid and that I had to be baptized by total immersion, otherwise I would not be saved by Jesus. So instead of persisting until the day of the Parousia (the return in glory of Jesus foreseen at the end of time), I answered that unfortunately, I didn’t have time to argue with them, but that before we parted ways, I could bless them both in their mission of evangelization of the Gaspé Peninsula.
“Certainly not,” one of them scoffed at me! It is we who must bless you!” So I said to both of them, “All right. Let’s bless each other before the Lord.” And believe it or not, we blessed each other and my two friends went away, but not without muttering, to continue their mission of evangelization. I have no memory of them shaking the dust off their sandals as they left, but that would not have surprised me!
Two hours later, beneath the still scorching and hot sun, I left the rectory by car, as I had to go to work in my other parish further east. As soon as I passed the cove of the village where I resided, I could see the two young men in the distance, hitchhiking along the side of the road. They seem desperate as they continued to walk in the stifling heat. So I slowed down and stopped in front of them. As soon as they got into the car, I heard one of them say, “Thank you, thank you, dear sir. It’s so bloody hot outside!” And all of a sudden, when they sat down, one of them looked up at me and said, No way, no way! You again?” and I replied, “Yes, it is.” The young man in the back seat uttered an unexpected comment: “Well, well! You’re probably a good Christian after all!”
Then, a surprising thought came into my mind, and I replied, “Tell me, friends, do you agree to respond frankly and straightforwardly to the question I will ask you after I have told you a short testimony?” They answered yes. Then, I began to tell them the story of my conversion; how I had been raised Catholic from birth and had become an unbeliever from the age of fourteen; how I had become involved in the world of drugs and alcohol, following the whims of my sensualities and mocking religion and those who claimed to believe in God. Ten years without ever setting foot in a church!
And then, at the age of 24, my father became seriously ill. He was rushed to the hospital and had to spend the next month and a half waiting for surgery from which he had little chance of surviving. During this time, my life was turned upside down, and I began to wonder about the meaning and purpose of our existence on earth. And three times in three consecutive weeks, a voice spoke inside of me, while I was alone in my room. It suggested that I read my Bible to find the answers I was looking for. I resisted violently at first, but I finally surrendered the third and last time. And then, by dint of reading my Bible for a full hour every night, my life began to change slowly but surely. My father miraculously came out of his operation. A few months later, I decided to give up my addictions to drugs and alcohol, as well as my sensual inclinations. I turned to a life of prayer that I had never known before, despite my baptism and my Catholic environment. And later, I heard God’s call to become a priest, and I answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
“So, dear friends. Here’s my question. Answer me frankly and straightforwardly. Who made this change in me? Do you think it came from inside me? Did I have the brilliant idea of waking up one day and thinking, ‘What a wonderful opportunity today to undertake a radical conversion to the Lord and to abandon all my bad habits! And then again, I could even become a priest!’ So, tell me, friends, did this conversion process originate from inside me?”
But there was complete silence in the car. My friends weren’t talking anymore. So I continued, “Since you didn’t answer, here is my second question: Did this impulse or desire come from the devil? Did he decide one morning to urge me to read the Bible and become a good Catholic after so many years of unbelief? Maybe it was him again who said to me, ‘You should become a Catholic priest. After all, Catholic priests are all going to find me in hell because they are not in the right religion!’ So I ask you once again, my friends, please give me a straight answer: did the devil drive me to convert?”
But they remained silent, as they were stunned and dumbfounded by these two questions. So I conclude by telling them in a charitable way, “Your silence speaks for itself, my good friends. You know very well that only God can convert and transform a heart in a profound way, drawing it into his heart and showing it the path to follow until it reaches true inner freedom. Only God can give someone the courage to follow him in the priesthood, inviting him to renounce the pleasures of this world and desiring to give himself for his brothers and sisters. So let us now return to your affirmation at noon today, when you told me that I could not be saved if I was not baptized totally by immersion. Now you see and understand that the Holy Spirit does not need a lake to transform a person’s life. A few drops of water and accompanied by the words prescribed by Jesus are enough to let the life of the Holy Trinity enter within us.”
The rest of the journey was extremely quiet. It felt like we were in the middle of a silent retreat in a cloistered monastery. Twenty long and fruitful minutes no doubt for my fellow travellers whom Jesus had placed on my path since the previous day.
Now it is up to you to unravel the mystery: which of the two baptisms is valid or more effective? Baptism by immersion or baptism by sprinkling?