22 December 2010

Baptismal Certificate - First Evidence of Christian Membership

             Having been raised Roman Catholic by parents who were children of immigrants from the "Catholic" countries of Ireland and Belgium; I am most familiar with Roman Catholic Certificates of Baptism.
There are twelve obvious pieces of information written on a typical Baptismal Certificate.  They include the church’s name and address, the name of the person being baptized, the mother and father of that person, the birth date of the person being baptized, the baptismal date, the name of the priest who performed the ceremony, the sponsors of the newly baptized also known as Godmother and Godfather, the date that the certificate was copied from the official church ledger and the signature of the current pastor of the church.  There is more information that’s not so obvious and questions that the document brings up.  I’ll try to highlight some of these hints and hopes for enlightenment.
The Certificate of Baptism’s primary function is written evidence of the sacrament performed.  In other words it gives primary evidence that this person, at this particular time, in this particular place, had water poured over their head or were immersed in water and words were spoken.
The Roman Catholic tradition as well as some other denominations, baptizes infants.  When I was growing up, I was taught that baptism was performed to remove “Original Sin” (aka the sin of Adam and Eve) that all human beings are born with.  Should a baby die without having been baptized, then that poor soul would be stuck in limbo until the end of the world when Christ would come again and rescue the poor souls in limbo and the ones in purgatory.  I don’t know if the concept of limbo is still taught but I believe the modern understanding is that the sacrament of baptism is a welcoming of the infant into the world and especially into the church community.
Receiving this sacrament, first and foremost tells the researcher that the baptized person is a Christian.  The event is often referred to as the Christening.  The name of the church can also tell the researcher the Christian denomination the person became a member of.   This information also hints at what religion the parents and the Godparents of the baptized were.  I say hint at because I consider most written information to be “hints” at facts until I have three hints that agree.  Another huge value of a Baptismal Certificate, like any primary source, is that the information was recorded very soon after the actual event occurred, thereby giving more weight to the facts of the event which in this case are only the name of the baptized, where and when.  All other information on the Baptismal Certificate is, in my opinion, a hint.
Some additional hints that the certificate can provide…  The Church may be their home church or at least in the neighborhood where the person lived.  The date of the baptism often was days or at most a couple of weeks after the birth because many believe that the child’s first outing should be to God’s house.  Godparents are often related to the child because the purpose of Godparents is generally to take on the responsibility of raising a child in the faith, should the child’s parents die.  It’s an honor and responsibility that you’d give to only a spiritually like-minded person.
In my father’s case for instance, his Godfather was his father’s cousin and his Godmother was his mother’s sister.  In my family, my parents continued a Belgian custom of naming the paternal grandfather and the maternal grandmother as Godparents of the firstborn son, and reversing the choices, the maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, for the firstborn daughter.  It also should be considered that since the Christening often happens closely following birth, the Godparents could be chosen because they are simply church members who lived close by, especially if the family were new immigrants.  This was the case for my mother’s Godfather who was my Grandfather’s first and only Catholic friend after having recently moved to Chicago.  Oddly enough however, a Godparent doesn’t necessarily need to be present at a Christening and sometimes a proxy stands in.  In this case, a proxy is not named in a Baptismal Certificate, only the actual Godparents are named. 
I hope that my musings have enlightened at least one new road, may it be religion, location, or relationship, you might take when examining a Baptismal Certificate.

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