Though he could star in commercials for products that promise a perfect, healthy baby, I believe Finian was born flawed. Though his sleeping face suggests cherubic innocence, I believe he entered the world stained with Original Sin. I believe his soul was in jeopardy. So we flew East — Deirdre, Fin, and I — to have him baptized into the Catholic Church.
We could have done it here, but I wanted my family present to welcome him into the faith. And though baptism is far more than a sentimental, customary ritual, there was a pleasant sentiment in having him baptized in the same church that saw me washed clean, 24 years earlier. St. Mary's Church in Cortland, New York, is a large gem in a small setting, a miniature Gothic cathedral in a city of 20,000. Few of the churches I have seen this side of Europe are as beautiful. The cool gray marble of the altars and the statues, the warm, dark wood of the pews and confessional, the pale yellow and blue of the soaring ceiling and walls, all of it ornate but not overdone, have helped to make St. Mary's my standard, the measure of a church.
The church is big: my family is small. Guests brought our number to about 20, but there was still the feeling of huddled intimacy that comes from occupying a tiny part of a great empty space. The Sunday afternoon sun shone through the stained glass. Father John Fenlon, a trim, energetic ma with graying curly hair and a manner that alternated between friendly-casual ad weighty-solemn, administered the sacrament.
After asking us if we knew what we were undertaking in having Finian baptized, he spoke to Finian. "Finian Thomas Lickona, I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of His cross, which I trace on your forehead."
Father then read from that Sunday's Gospel and also from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 5. "The love of Christ impels us who have reached the conviction that since one died for all, all die. Christ died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for Him who for their sakes died and was raised up." He commented that Finian was about to die to everything that was not of God and be born again into a new life.
Somewhere around this point, I had what someone has called a moment of clarity. A moment when words resume their original force and meaning. (Amazing that we can use words like God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell, Sin, Grace, the Incarnation, and all the rest of it with such casual tones, but we can, because they have been softened by use. What does "born again" signify anymore?) These words were, for a moment, clear. "Live no longer for ourselves, but for Him...." We are here to please God. Nothing else matters as much. Nothing else comes close. Everything else will pass away, but God will remain, and we will remain, and the question, "Did you love Me?" upon which everything will hang.
That kind of moment resists being dragged out of time by memory; it fades and becomes awkward in the recounting, and even in the recalling. The words become familiar again — the mind says. "Yes, yes, I know that," but can't quite swallow the idea. I can't recall the force of that moment; I can only remember that it happened and that when Father asked if anyone had anything to add, I said I was looking forward to trying to raise a saint.
Father John invoked the aid of the saints (St. Finian — pray for us), anointed my son with oil to indicate his being incorporated into God's kingdom, called on us to profess our faith, and invited us to approach the baptismal font. The font, a carved marble bowl on a pedestal, was situated between the main altar and a side altar dedicated to St. Joseph. A statue of the saint stood on the altar, holding in his arms the infant Christ. Father then baptized Finian, pouring water over his head three times while saying, "Finian Thomas Lickona. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." With words and water, a new Christian was born, and the promise of eternal life was extended to another soul.
The moment wasn't lost on me, but, as is often the case with meaningful events, meaningless details fought for my attention. Every baby I have ever seen baptized has been held by their mother — and here I was, holding my son under Father's hands and wondering if my wife was bothered by that. (She wasn't.)
Finian was wearing the same baptismal gown that Deirdre and her mother had been baptized in. The gown was very old, very fine, very fragile, and very long. We were taping the event for Deirdre's mom, and as I held Finian out over the font, I became aware that much of the gown was bunched up in my left hand. Since that hand was supporting Fin's body, I couldn't fix it without interrupting the ceremony. This gorgeous gown that had been passed down through three generations would appear short, bunched, and unremarkable in the video. I fretted about this almost up the instant of baptism. Such is the tyranny of material things.
I said that I was looking forward to raising a saint. It's a good thing that I am, because as Father reminded me four times during the ceremony, getting that moment of clarity across to Fin, and getting him to hold onto it, is my greatest parental responsibility. Finan's absorption and retention of the faith will define, to a large extent, my success as a father. The culture he will grow up in will tell him that the fulfillment of the self is the summit of human existence. I have to convince him that the fulfillment comes by emptying the self, by living entirely for another, whatever pain that might entail. For that matter, I have to convince myself. There is a French saying, "The child is the father of the man." I might add that the father is the father of the child, and from here on in, I'm being watched.