An anguished woman sent her question to “Ask a Franciscan,” a monthly feature in St. Anthony Messenger magazine. She had three grandsons living with women who were not their wives but were the mothers of their children. These parents had not had the little ones baptized. “I have several friends who share the same heartache,” she wrote. “They tell me they have sprinkled each baby and baptized them. Can I do this?” the grandmother inquired.
Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., understood her good intentions. Yet, he advised against baptizing her grandchildren without their parents’ consent. The parents must be willing to raise their children as Catholics. He affirmed the Church’s teaching that the unbaptized can be saved.
“Please do not underestimate the power of your good example,” Father Pat advised. “Children are sometimes more influenced by the faith of their grand-parents (or great-grandparents) than by the apparent lack of faith of their parents.”
If we have never walked in that grandmother’s shoes, we might smile indulgently at the prospect of a wild-eyed elder in orthopedic shoes sneaking off with an infant for a baptismal rite over the kitchen sink or at the neighborhood Laundromat. However, if we too have unbaptized grandchildren, our hearts will accommodate her sorrow.
Like many older Catholics today, this great-grandmother was probably unaware of recent refinements to the Church’s teachings on the salvation of the unbaptized. She was still operating with the theory of limbo, “a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin” (The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, opening paragraphs).
New insights on salvation
I well remember when our granddaughter was born. Her parents did not seem intent on having her baptized. As young adults, our son and his wife had not so much left the Church as drifted off to its fringes. I was torn between a compulsion to nag them into baptizing their baby and a less willful desire to pray them fondly toward the font.
I, like the anguished woman, had been raised with the theory that unbaptized infants who died went to limbo. As a grandmother, however, I couldn’t take this “teaching” to heart. Could God be less merciful than grandparents tempted to baptize without consent? Those innocents had come “trailing clouds of glory” from their heavenly home (“Ode: Intima-tions of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” William Wordsworth). Surely they would return there.
Within a few months, our family did celebrate our granddaughter’s Baptism. The grace of the sacrament splashed elation over my head as Kirsten Ann sailed through “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1213).
For parents (and grandparents) of grown children who have yet to choose Baptism for their children, there is strong consolation in the April 2007 findings of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. Their conclusion, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, is that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision” (The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, #102).
While stopping short of calling the findings “sure knowledge,” the Commission noted that the teaching reflects its confident faith in the “universality of the saving will of God” (#46). The theologians agreed that limbo reflects “an unduly restrictive view of salvation” (#2).
If there were an International Grandparents’ Award for Theologians Who Are on the Right Track, we would surely present it to the Pontifical Commission posthaste.
Encouraging words for grandparents
• Entrust grandchildren to God’s mercy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (see #1261) reminds us of Jesus’ tenderness toward children of whom he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them” (Matthew 19:14). Relying on the example of Jesus and on God’s maternal heart, we persevere in praying for the salvation of our unbaptized little ones.
• Maintain a loving relationship. The U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter Follow the Way of Love observes that there are no perfect families. It asks us, “What if your adult child leaves the Church or makes other choices that cause you pain? Is it still possible to maintain a loving relationship without approving the child’s behavior?” Like the forgiving father of the prodigal son, we eagerly embrace the child without demanding that he or she first fulfills religious obligations.
• Give a powerful example. Remember how Grandma prayed her way to the super-market on the rosary’s Joyful Mysteries? how Grandpa set up tables at the parish suppers? how Mass was always Sunday’s main event? Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim assures us, “The question for the child is not, ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Whom do I want to be like?’”
• Share Spirit-fed stories. Few activities bind us more closely to our grandchildren than sharing family stories and reading aloud intergenerational tales. Our granddaughter loves to hear about how, when I was a girl, my family got all bundled up in parkas and felt-lined boots and trudged four blocks through a Christmas Eve blizzard that blew us straight through St. Peter’s Church doors into our reserved seats for midnight Mass. When Kirsten was small, we explored the Catholic childhood stories of Tomie de Paola whose two Nanas (grand and great-grand) plus Grampa Bob were indispensable in the family circle. Those simple stories knit us together.