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These Waters Run Deep

Baptism by immersion, for centuries nearly unknown to Roman Catholics, is being revived.

April 07, 2002|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At an Easter Vigil service last week at St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church in Westlake Village, 30 converts sat in a pool of water and lay back under the surface. One at a time, their brown robes floating about them, they were blessed by the pastor, who baptized them "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Many of the friends and family members who crowded around the 10-foot-wide baptismal pool said they had never before seen a Catholic baptism by immersion. For centuries it has been far more common for priests to perform the sacrament by pouring holy water over a new member's forehead from a washbasin-size bowl.

In recent years, however, the Christian tradition that dates back to St. John the Baptist but rarely has been associated with Catholics is once again finding its place in Roman Catholic churches. No doubt the rite will become even more familiar in Los Angeles once the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is dedicated this summer. There, a baptismal font 12 feet wide, nearly three feet deep and very similar to the one at St. Maximilian Kolbe, will claim a prime space right at the entrance to the sanctuary.

The cathedral's model will set the standard for Catholic churches across the L.A. archdiocese, says Father Richard Vosko, liturgical design consultant for the building. "It's a font," he says. "If you call it a 'pool' people think of a Jacuzzi."

At present, fewer than a dozen such permanent structures can be found in the Los Angeles archdiocese, which includes Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties and has close to 300 parishes. Many Catholic churches set up temporary fonts at Easter and leave them in place for several months afterward, until the feast of Pentecost.

Vosko has worked on the interior design of worship spaces across the country, following guidelines established after the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago. The drama of all-encompassing baptism in a modern font makes tangible the life-changing experience of conversion, council leaders reasoned. They also decided that Easter, when Christians celebrate Christ's Resurrection, is the ideal season for converts to enter the church, although the sacrament can be administered at any time.

St. Maximilian Kolbe's sanctuary is barely 2 years old and was designed before there were parish members to consult about the details. Likewise, at the new cathedral, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and his advisors have had the luxury of making design decisions without a congregation. But in some parishes, members resist the insertion of a large font. Such has been the case at St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood.

"It's unnecessarily elaborate, extremely messy and it looks like a hot tub," says Joseph Gonzalez, chairman of the church's preservationist guild, a group that formed several weeks ago after the church pastor, Father Robert Gallagher, invited Father Vosko to give a slide show of church interiors including some of his own designs.

"A font should be large enough for adults to kneel in it," Gallagher says. For now he doesn't plan any changes, only more discussions, he says. And eventually, perhaps, a fund-raiser. A font costs at least $35,000, with plumbing and heating, purifiers and jets that stir the water for a flowing sensation.

Vosko is not a stranger to controversies such as the one at St. Charles Borromeo. Several years ago his plan for a redesign of the interior of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, which included a large font and other revisions, led to a face-off between resistant parishioners, a canon lawyer representing them and Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland. In the end, Weakland flew to Rome to meet with Cardinal Jorge Medina of the Vatican's Congregation of Divine Worship to discuss plans for the cathedral. The renovation was dedicated in February without further problems, Weakland said.

New churches, and those undergoing renovation, are supposed to include a large font, says Vosko, who refers to legislation by the bishops that also calls for moving the altar and the pulpit closer to the pews and creating a separate area for the tabernacle that holds consecrated Communion bread. The new cathedral includes all of these features.

"An immersion font is not a trend," he says.

Erica Wallian, 37 and a mother of four, was baptized at St. Maximilian Kolbe's Easter Vigil. Beforehand, given the choice, she would have opted for something more private. "I thought I'd feel embarrassed about getting into the water," she says. "I didn't want anyone watching me." But by the time she had completed a full immersion baptism, she had changed her mind about how things should be done. "I think adults have to go into the pool," she says. "You have to put yourself out there about your relationship with God."

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