When someone is seriously ill and is in danger of death, the normal process for Christian initiation is dispensed with and any priest can Baptise, Confirm and receive someone into the Catholic Church. Yesterday evening I had the great privilege of doing exactly this for my step-grandfather, Ian. He is sadly, extremely unwell and we are not sure how long he has left. He was very emotional yet a deep joy and peace settled over the three of us (My grandmother, Ian and I) as we began the sacramental celebration.
It was a strange going back to Peterborough hospital. Just over eight years ago, I rushed to the hospital from Norwich to be at the death bed of my paternal grandfather. One of the most beautiful and powerful moments of my priesthood was experienced that night as I anointed him and, gathered with my grandmother, father, auntie and uncle, we prayed my grandfather through his final journey to God. The parallels were not lost on me: I was heading to the same hospital, rushing across the diocese to see another grandfather and to minister to him, this time, however, was also different. Apart from not driving through a snowstorm, I knew that Ian’s situation was slightly different. Ian and I had talked at various points over the years about his desire to become a Catholic. In recent years Ian, however, had suffered from dementia and struggled with deafness so it was difficult to envisage how he could join a traditional RCIA programme and prepare for baptism. Not being his parish priest, and not sure how to proceed, I confess to not being overly proactive in doing anything about it. Partly because I wasn’t sure how serious he was and partly because, as a busy parish priest, I live away from family and I don’t see them as much as I should.
It is with great joy and relief that God granted me the grace to baptise Ian. As he resolutely and enthusiastically professed his faith in Jesus and his Church he seemed to gain strength and peace. God works with what he’s got! Through the faith of my grandmother, mother, and I, God has reached Ian, and for that I am truly thankful.
Reflecting on this experience, one is struck by both the ordinariness and extraordinariness of God’s grace in the sacraments. If you were an onlooker looking in, the whole affair would seem very mundane if not a bit archaic: a few words were said, water was poured, hands were laid in prayer, oil was used for anointing and what looked like bread was consumed. Yet what occurred in these ancient gestures, handed on and administered by the Church in the name of Christ was anything but mundane. New and divine life poured through Ian, yesterday as he was regenerated in the waters in baptism. He was strengthened and sealed with the Holy Spirit and nourished by the Bread of Life as Jesus entered him in Holy Communion. Yesterday evening my step-grandfather became part of the Catholic Church, he was grafted onto the Body of Christ and became a member of the People of God. He enjoys a relationship that cannot be destroyed by death, indeed our prayer is that as he died in with Christ in the waters of Baptism, he will share with Christ in the joy of his resurrection.
The sacraments are not simple rituals or gestures but privileged moments of grace. The transformation that took part in Ian was tangible and the atmosphere at the end of our visit significantly different to that at the beginning. Sometimes I think, even for a priest, it takes moments like this to remind ourselves of the power of sacraments and the great gift of the priesthood.
Yet we shouldn’t be surprised that God works through the apparent ordinariness of the sacraments. It’s basically his M.O! Two thousand years ago God became Man as Jesus Christ. People then, as they do now, failed to recognise the glory and power of God, they could not see past the sublime humanity of Jesus. If people passed the stable in Bethlehem, what did they see? The God who keeps all thing in being or a teenage mother and a newborn baby? In fact, for thirty years or so of Jesus, by all accounts, lived an ordinary life. Even during the three years of his earthly ministry, few if any people truly recognised that Jesus was God made man. Few people knew then as now that when they saw Jesus they saw the fullness of God, who loved them, created them, and sustained them. Jesus’ very earthly life was one that combined the ordinary with the extraordinary. Only with eyes of faith does the ‘veil lift’ and we see the glory of God. The word become flesh and dwelt amongst us (Jn 1:14) Eternity and time, Word and Spirit, Glory and Flesh coincide in the person of Jesus Christ. The incarnation – the en-fleshment of God, is God’s way of working, and the sacraments are a continuation of this profound and beautiful truth.
Today is the 7th August 2019, Ian has been a Catholic for a day now, please pray for him, my grandmother and my family as he continues his journey in this life in the joyful hope of being with God in the next.