ROME, 13 APRIL 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina
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
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
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.
ability of the congregation to participate in baptisms is an
"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
In some instances, nearby sacristies can serve
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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
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