Baptismal Font Near the Altar

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Baptismal Font Near the Altar


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: Baptismal Font Near the Altar [4-27-2010]

Related to the questions on the baptismal fonts (see April 13), a Minnesota reader had asked: "In my parish we have a large baptismal font (sufficient to perform immersion baptisms) in a baptistry which is at the main entrance to the sanctuary. We also have a different set of doors where about half of the congregation exits the sanctuary. My question is: Can you have separate holy water fonts at the exit doors of the church or does that conflict with the theology of having only one font because there is only one baptism and we can only have one baptismal font?"

The question implies that in this parish the baptismal font doubles as a holy water stoup. This procedure is not ideal, since they are normally two distinct elements in church architecture.

In fact, except for Eastertide, the rite of baptism foresees the blessing of the baptismal holy water. It follows that, if the baptismal font habitually contains water, as occasionally occurs in new fonts, it is not necessarily blessed holy water as usually understood.

The tradition of placing holy water stoups at the entrance of the church probably originated with the custom of early Christians of washing their hands before entering the basilica in a fountain opportunely located in the atrium and called a cantharus or phiala. The custom was not just for practical purposes, as can be seen in St. John Chrysostom's admonition to those who "enter church washing their hands but not their hearts" (Homily LXXI on St. John).

When in time the atrium of most churches was reduced to a porch or narthex, the cantharus gave way to smaller stoups placed just inside the entrance of the church.

This change also led to the disappearance of any practical usage of water, leaving only the religious meaning as a symbol of baptism and purification. Although the practice already existed in some places, it was Pope Leo IV (847-855) who ordered priests to bless and sprinkle the people with holy water every Sunday before Mass. In some places this was done by the priest as the people entered the church. The present custom of crossing oneself is apparently of later origin.

There are relatively few extant examples of stoups from before the 11th century, although there are some probable examples going back several centuries earlier. There are no universally established rules regarding the size, shape and design of stoups, and many forms are found.

The diocesan norms issued for Milan by St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) greatly influenced subsequent usages. He wrote: "The vessel intended for holy water … shall be of marble or of solid stone, neither porous nor with cracks. It shall rest upon a handsomely wrought column and shall not be placed outside of the church but within it and, insofar as possible, to the right of those who enter. There shall be one at the door by which the men enter and one at the women's door. They shall not be fastened to the wall but removed from it as far as convenient. A column or a base will support them and it must represent nothing profane."

In conclusion, the baptismal font is distinct from the holy water stoup, and there can be additional stoups at secondary church entrances so that the faithful can make use of this venerable sacramental.


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