Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I always hear about the “40 days of Lent,” but the math never seems to work out. When does it start, when does it end, and how do you arrive at 40 days? (Cherry Hill, N.J.)

A. As often happens, a short and simple question requires a complicated answer. Technically, the Sundays of Lent are not part of this penitential season. Since it is always a “mini-celebration” of Christ’s resurrection, a Sunday can never be a day of fast and abstinence.

So when the church decided to set aside a season of prayer and penance in preparation for Easter — and decided to make it 40 days, to mirror Christ’s fast in the desert before his public ministry — it calculated this way: six full weeks, Monday through Saturday, plus Ash Wednesday and the three days that follow it, for a total of 40 days.

Here’s the complication: Although Good Friday and Holy Saturday are clearly part of the penitential season, liturgically they are not a part of Lent. In the church’s liturgical calendar, Lent ends just prior to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, and then the Easter Triduum begins.

Q. A friend of ours who is a Baptist recently invited us to his church for a service. During the service, they had a baptism, and the minister made the following announcement: “This boy is now 9 years old, and after inquiring about his faith, he has decided to become a Christian.”

On the way home, my friend and his family kept stressing the importance of being baptized at an age when one is mature enough to understand the basics of the faith and to make one’s own choice — unlike the Catholic practice, they pointed out, where infants are baptized while they have no capability of understanding.

I tried to explain that faith is passed on from parents to their children and that all children need parental guidance on their journey of faith — even when they’ve reached the age of 9. Is there anything else I should have said? (Greenville, S.C.)

A. Most Christians belong to denominations that practice infant baptism including: Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Reformed.

Baptists are among those who do not, joined by most Pentecostals and evangelicals generally. These latter groups reserve baptism for those who have reached an age when they are capable of making a conscious decision to accept Jesus as their lord and savior.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 1250 states that “children also have need of the new birth in baptism to be freed from the power of darkness” and in No. 1252 that “the practice of infant baptism is an immemorial tradition of the church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century, and it is quite possible that from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole ‘households’ received baptism, infants may also have been baptized.”

Baptism marks the child’s entrance into the life of the sacraments and signifies the desire of the parents to pass on to their child their most precious possession: the gift of their faith. I agree with you that their formative influence on their child’s faith will last far beyond the age of 9 and often into adulthood.

In the first few centuries of the church’s existence, when adult converts were entering in great numbers, the sacrament of baptism was thought of principally as a rite of initiation, the beginning of the Christian life.

Toward the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine — seeking to explain the presence of evil in the world — decided that evil reached us from the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. Baptism then assumed a new importance, as removing this inherited sin, and that is the understanding of baptism which most of us grew up with.

Over the last half-century, there’s been some refinement in the church’s perception, and baptism and original sin are seen in a new light — which is actually a return to something more traditional.

There is no “stain” on the infant’s soul that defiles it; the little baby — as you can tell by looking — is innocent and pure. If that baby were to die before being baptized, I feel safe in believing that God would find a way to bring the child to heaven.

Every person is born into an imperfect world, a world where sin and selfishness are and have been real forces. That’s a more refined view of what we mean by original sin. That child will very much need the grace of God and the help of the Christian community to resist selfishness and to advance in holiness.

Baptism begins that life, opens a channel of grace through the sacraments — which explains why the catechism in No. 1250 feels compelled to point out that “the church and the parents would deny the child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth.”


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.