By colleen reiss vermeulen, M. Div



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15  

Antoine Coypel (1661-1722);  

The Baptism of Christdetail (ca. 1690); 

Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

Image courtesy of Public Domain  

High Resolution images (www.lacma.org)


 

AND THE SHAPE OF BAPTISM

BY COLLEEN REISS VERMEULEN, M.DIV.

The New Evangelization requires that each believer have the audacity, 

confidence, ardent desire, urgency, and, as Pope Francis emphasized in 

Evangelii Gaudium, the joy to share the Gospel. This formation for witness

however, will never be effective if it is limited to what we commonly 

think of as “religious education,” and disconnected from the abiding 

power of the sacraments of initiation. The bishops in the United States 

emphasize this power of initiation pointedly, asking:

Do we realize that our Baptism, Confirmation, and reception of the Eucharist 

bestow on us the grace we need to be disciples? … The answers to these 

questions underlie the evangelizing mission of the Church, especially in the 

call of the New Evangelization.

1



17  

REVISITING AIDAN KAVANAGH   /  COLEEN REISS VERMUELEN

The existence of a call to a New Evangelization that 

includes a focus on the baptized who have drifted from 

the Church and the immense efforts taken to spur 

practicing Catholics to evangelize certainly indicates 

that many (if not most) Catholics do 

not realize that the 

sacraments of initiation do indeed “bestow on us the 

grace we need to be disciples.” This is a critical problem

since without witnesses to go forth, the movement 

of the New Evangelization from concept to concrete 

action will be limited. Within our dioceses and parishes 

in the United States, much is being done to help adults 

come to the mature faith required of evangelists. This is 

truly important for the New Evangelization, but it is a 

retroactive response, a stopgap measure that is required 

because our initiation practices have not been bearing 

the fruit of mature Christians, ready to evangelize. 

As I reflect on the relationship between the sacraments 

of initiation and the New Evangelization, I cannot help 

but think of Aidan Kavanagh, a Benedictine monk 

and liturgical theologian. In the years following the 

release of the reformed Rite of Christian Initiation of 

Adults, Kavanagh asserted, “the structures and rites for 

becoming a Christian lie on the turbulent leading edge 

of the Church’s mission of ministry in the world.”

2

 In 



his 

The Shape of Baptism, Kavanagh challenges us to ask 

how we can continue in the Church’s long, historical 

tradition of ensuring the processes and practices 

of sacramental initiation “change in response to a 

changing world.”

3

Writing nearly four decades ago, Kavanagh recognized 



that the disintegration of Christendom demanded shifts 

in our understanding and practice of the sacraments 

of initiation—shifts that are congruent with our 

setting of the New Evangelization. Even though the 

United States has never had an official state religion 

(a true “Christendom” as Kavanagh describes it), for 

many years a correlation between an unspoken civic 

religion and Christianity did exist in a way that allowed 

evangelization and catechesis to occur within Catholic 

culture itself, through tight-knit ethnic parishes and 

social networks.

This is no longer the typical Catholic experience in the 

United States.

4

 Those who are baptized, receive first 



eucharistic communion, and are confirmed (usually 

in that order) are socially, economically, and culturally 

free to drift or deliberately walk away from the Church 

at any point in that sequence, never to return. Only 

18 percent of those “who were once Catholic” (a self-

identification that likely includes reception of Baptism 

in a Catholic Church) continue to attend Mass weekly, 

revealing the limited effect Baptism seems to have on 

personal appropriation of the life of discipleship.

5

 Thus, 



the answer the USCCB’s aforementioned question in 

Disciples Called to Witness—“Do we realize that our 

Baptism, Confirmation, and reception of the Eucharist 

bestow on us the grace we need to be disciples?”—seems 

to be a clear “No.” 

So where does this leave us? What do we need to do 

better? In Kavanagh’s thinking, 

memory is fundamental 

for initiation in a post-Christendom setting. Memory 

flows from both the vibrant use of signs and symbolic 

elements, and the experience of the person being 

initiated. Christians, Kavanagh argues, should possess

the strongest possible sense of their own 

Catholic identity, an identity not rooted 

primarily in their ethnic past or even in the 

religious rhythms of family and school, but an 



identity rooted in the living memory of their own Baptism 

into Christ in his Church.

6

Memory of conversion, memory of waiting and longing 



to be baptized, memory of the water and oil; all of 

these memories help to cement the paschal, baptismal 

experience in one’s life. This sounds like a description 

of the witnesses for the New Evangelization the 




18

THE INSTITUTE FOR CHURCH LIFE

bishops have called for, witnesses who realize that 

the sacraments of initiation “bestow on us the grace 

we need to be disciples.” When one has personally 

experienced a significant life event, it is more natural 

to share and proclaim in the most authentic, heartfelt 

way. Memory of the sacraments of initiation, and 

most fundamentally, of Baptism, then emboldens and 

invigorates the New Evangelization. 

One way we invigorate our memory of initiation is 

through the “regular participation in the Baptism of 

others,” something that has become more common, 

as parishes find ways to schedule Baptisms during 

Masses or plan baptismal liturgies for many children 

that include the wider parish community.

7

 The “better” 



way, however, is to remember one’s own Baptism—an 

option that Kavanagh suggests could become more 

common through the solemn enrollment of infants 

in the catechumenate (“begin[ning] the sequence of 

Baptism”) and the celebration of the stages of initiation 

“over a period of years according to the child’s growth 

in faith.”

8

 This has not yet become a typical option for 



parents in Catholic parishes, but the demands of the 

New Evangelization should lead us to reconsider the 

wider use of an infant catechumenate for the sake of 

forming Christians with the “strongest possible sense of 

their own Catholic identity” and most direct experience 

of the grace that Baptism, Confirmation, and the 

Eucharist provide for evangelization.

Writing in the 1970s, Kavanagh explained the logic 



behind the importance of memory of sacramental 

initiation:

In a culture trained largely by words and visual 

“messages” that try to develop intellectual 

conceptualization, it is even more crucial than 

it ever has been to give Christians more than 

concepts alone, important as these are.

10

Is this not even more true today? If concepts alone 



were important, there would be no need to introduce 

(or re-introduce) the Gospel of Jesus Christ to so many 

in the United States since nearly every person in our 

country has the ability to access the Bible, look up 

information about Catholic doctrine, or read Christian 

apologetics online. There is no shortage of information 

in our world, or even in our parishes. The call of the 

New Evangelization, however, reveals that we do have a 

shortage of witnesses able to share something more than 

mere concepts, more than just information about Jesus 

Christ and his Church. Kavanagh goes on to highlight 

the specifically 

experiential nature of the memory he 

believes is so important:  

Christians individually and corporately also 

need access to a radical experience and sense of 

rightness; of standing at an axial spot from which 

everything radiates out and to which everything 

falls home; of dwelling splendidly at the center 

of things. This experience and sense form the 

basic orientation that must undergird the whole 

of ecclesial life, going far beyond the audio-visual 

aids of the classroom or the devotional aids 

purveyed by ecclesiastical goods companies. … 

Perception fuses in space with time, and a thing 

is not just known but possessed with so indelible 

an intensity that it will never be forgotten. 

But it can never be put into words alone. No 

liturgical complex in the Church’s repertoire is so 

capable of attaining this sort of power as that of 

sacramental initiation.

11

This memory of our initiation is both personal and 



corporate. It is refreshed through witnessing the 

Baptism of others, but memory of 

our own Baptisms 

must be intensely possessed by continual recollection 

of its personal transformative power. And though 

robust celebration of initiation sacraments with easily 

understood sacramental signs is important, sacramental 



19  

REVISITING AIDAN KAVANAGH   /  COLEEN REISS VERMUELEN

initiation is more than simply the liturgical act—it is 

the before and after, the conversion and community 

that leads the initiand to the sacraments, and the 

mystagogy that extends into every aspect of parish life.

Revisiting 

The Shape of Baptism with an eye towards 

the New Evangelization gives us a powerful vision: a 

vivid memory of conversion and growth as a disciple of 

Jesus Christ, with the sacraments of initiation as hinge 

moments of wonder and awe that form evangelizers. 

We share most authentically and passionately when we 

are utterly convinced of the transforming power of a 

sacrament. When typical Catholics are freely sharing 

their stories of initiation, of conversion, of water and 

oil, of grace, and of the community that formed and 

welcomed them, then we will know that initiation is 

memorable—that we’re doing it right, allowing the 

graces of these sacraments to form witnesses for the 

New Evangelization. 



Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div. is a 

STEP facilitator, Master of Non-Profit 

Administration candidate in the University 

of Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business, 

Adjunct Professor in the Theological Studies 

Program at Siena Heights University, and 

writer for NewEvangelizers.com.



20

THE INSTITUTE FOR CHURCH LIFE

NOTES

1  United States Conference of Catholic 



Bishops, 

Disciples Called to Witness: The 

New Evangelization, (Washington, DC: 

2012), Preface.

2  Aidan Kavanagh. 

The Shape of Baptism: 

The Rite of Christian Initiation (Colleg-

eville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1978), 154. 

3  Ibid. 

4  Ibid., 179. 

5  Mark M. Gray. “A Micro-scoping 

View of U.S. Catholic Populations” in 

Nineteen Sixty-four, Center for Applied 

Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 11 

May 2012, nineteensixty-four.blogspot.

com/2012/05/microscoping-view-of-us-

catholic.html. 

6  Kavanagh, 

The Shape of Baptism, 176.

7  Ibid., 176. 

8  Ibid., 175–176. 

9  Ibid., 176. 

10  Ibid., 178. 

11  Ibid., 178–179. 





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