Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 4

January 15th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Figure 1

The inclusion of cistern style fonts in new and renovated churches is, in my opinion, a positive development. Their prominent placement, just inside the doors of new churches (Fig. 1), symbolizes the gateway significance of Baptism to a life in Christ. They remind us, vividly, of the spiritual transformation brought about by the sacrament. In Catholic tradition prior to the Second Vatican Council, baptismal fonts were off to the side or in separate chapels, and used mostly for baptisms conducted privately. Holy water fonts at the doors were meant to remind us of our own Baptism for we seldom witnessed an actual Baptism. Private Baptism is still an option, of course, and should be. But now the congregation at Mass can sometimes experience its role as the Church bringing forth new life in Baptism. Can that be a bad thing? We should welcome the cistern fonts as powerful additional symbols of the importance of Baptism in the liturgical life of the Church.

Figure 2

As Baptism is the origin of a new life in Christ and the Eucharist is the nourishing of that life, I think the positioning of the font in direct line with the altar is most appropriate and full of potential for reflection on the part of the congregation.

Like any other art or furnishing used in the church some examples are effective, edifying and beautiful while others are less so. Perhaps you can think of some local examples at both ends of the spectrum. I would personally like to see a return to using architectural canopies (ciboria) over the fonts to stress their importance and to associate the font with the image of a tomb.  Beautifully sculpted fonts, railings and floors, could show images related to Baptism.

The shape of the cistern font is also important. The octagonal shape is symbolic of regeneration and resurrection as the universe as a whole began its existence on the eighth day of creation, and Christ rose from the dead on the eighth day after the commencement of his passion. Rectangular shapes and styles can express as well the idea of a tomb. In my opinion, fonts should always be obviously fashioned by human hands and designed with geometrical shapes and patterns that suggest human intelligence or reasoning. Secondary, organic motifs are appropriate but a sentimental presentation of contrived natural settings is totally out of line (Fig. 3). But, that is a whole other issue.

Figure 3 In my opinion this kind of font (if that is what it is) is NOT appropriate.

Most cistern style fonts I have seen incorporate in the design a pedestal font of equal visual weight (Fig. 2). When I see a cistern font without a pedestal font incorporated I suspect that the people in charge are of a tyrannical frame of mind and are willing to jettison a whole tradition of pedestal fonts in favor of their own preferences.

The cistern fonts have appeared because Baptism by immersion has made a comeback in the ritual life of the Church since the Council. Immersion or partial immersion is not required, of course, but it is now chosen by some catechumens who want to experience the fuller meaning of Baptism by immersion. As long as it is not forced on candidates, partial immersion (by standing, kneeling or sitting in the font while water is poured over the head and body) should be highly recommended. Parents, also, should be encouraged to choose immersion for their children, not because it is any more effective than pouring, but, because they, family, friends, and the congregation will benefit from the more vivid ‘sign value’ of immersion.

Well, I hope I have been able to articulate a point of view that I know is probably not popular among my fellow orthodox Catholic friends. It is an issue I have thought about as a result of researching for another project. It occurred to me that I have not heard the topic of cistern fonts seriously discussed even though people express strong reactions to them. I hope you have found this brief series at least interesting even though you may not agree with my views.

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Picture Sources:

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3  Bernie

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15 Responses to “Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 4”

  1. avatar Nerina says:

    Bernie, I think your thoughts have been both interesting and compelling. Figures 1 and 2 present beautiful examples of the combined cistern and pedestal font, but my church uses the inappropriate Figure 3 for baptism during the Easter vigil. It is placed at the front of the church, is quite distracting and makes a running water noise through out the Easter season.

    I was talking to someone (who will remain nameless :)) at choir practice the other night about your series of posts. His comment was (and I’m paraphrasing here), that we what we really need is a better understanding of the current sign (meaning baptism by the pouring of water over the head), not necessarily a different expression of the sign. I agree that many times the people in the pews are not fully aware of the nature of the Sacrament nor of its centrality to the Christian life. I can count on one hand the number of people who can articulate that Christ “claims us” in baptism or that baptism is singularly responsible for erasing “original sin” and turning the person back to God (CCC 405). Most will articulate the effect as “welcoming a new Christian into the community” or more rarely, as incorporating a person into the “Body of Christ.” I believe this lack of understanding is a post-Vatican II consequence of minimizing the existence of sin.

    But, I think you’ve made a good argument that a fuller expression of the sign could be instrumental in developing a better understanding of the Sacrament. As always, a worthwhile post. Thank you.

  2. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    I hope you have found this brief series at least interesting

    indeed! one more question – can full immersion be done in the old rite?

    also, I always laugh at the messages on the St. Cleansing Fire e-community sign. Nice work to DrK, I assume?

  3. avatar Eliza10 says:

    Thank you, Bernie. It was very interesting and thoughtful and you gave compelling support for your advocacy. Nernia’s choir peer expressed my very thoughts – that the most compelling need is not that the Sacrament be expressed differently but that the people need to understand the Sacrament! However, we are Catholic and there is no reason why we can’t have both/and, particularly if the change is made for reasons such as the ones you give. But my heart is very much on the poverty of people not understanding the vast richness they possess in the Sacrament, and I am anxiously, hopefully, and trustingly waiting for the new leadership that will right this wrong.

    You wrote: “Figure 3 In my opinion this kind of font (if that is what it is) is NOT appropriate.” — Yes, but it would look awesome in my garden!

  4. avatar Bernie says:

    Ben,

    I don’t know about possible immersion Baptism using the old rite.

    I assume you saw the comment by “John” in the last post about the full immersion of infants/children in the Eastern rite Church? Pinch the nose, cover the mouth and under you go! I realy admire that kind of approach to life.

    Ditto on the church sign. There have been some real side busters on there!

    Nerina,

    Thank you for the comment and feedback.

  5. avatar Choirloft says:

    Nerina – That’s a pretty sharp choir member you know. I’d like to meet that person, I think we might have a lot in common.

    The series was terrific, Bernie. Again, it points up an extreme lack of very, very basic knowledge of our Catholic faith. I’ll bet most people don’t know that Baptism takes away original sin (what’s that, they ask), or the prefiguring of Baptism was circumcision in the Old Testament (oops…sorry, the liberal scripture police hate the use of “Old Testament”…we are suppose to refer to the OT as the Hebrew Scriptures).

    The chief catechist of the diocese is the bishop. He is ultimately responsible for what is taught. Heck, I knew what Baptism and original sin were in 1st or 2nd grade, Sister Hubert made darn sure of that.

    Through no fault of their own, Catholics today look at you like the RCA Victorla dog when you ask them a question about their faith.

  6. avatar Anonymous says:

    pinch the nose, cover the mouth…thats what i do before entering the Cathedral. Close the eyes, too.

  7. avatar Bernie says:

    Eliza10 says,

    I think I know the fellow who makes those. He had a display at the Park Avenue Fest one year. We almost bought an arrangement for our back garden but decided at the last moment we shouldn’t spend the money right then. His studio is in Victor but I don’t remember the name. The stone is real and he drills out the tops to hold water. He also shapes them a little here and a little there and then plays with different stacking arrangements. He’ll make a set for you or you can pick from those already sculpted and arranged. He delivers them and sets them in place. They all come with the pump and hoses. He gets in all running for you.

  8. avatar Eliza10 says:

    Choirloft wrote, “…The chief catechist of the diocese is the bishop. He is ultimately responsible for what is taught….”

    That is the truth!

    “…Through no fault of their own, Catholics today look at you like the RCA Victorla dog when you ask them a question about their faith.”

    ROTFL! Yes, that’s true! And just as you say, its no fault of their own.

  9. avatar Eliza10 says:

    Its great, Bernie. He may have made my neighbor’s. Its gorgeous, real stone, and I enjoy admiring hers.

  10. avatar Dr. K says:

    also, I always laugh at the messages on the St. Cleansing Fire e-community sign. Nice work to DrK, I assume?

    Indeed.

  11. avatar Augustine Hippo says:

    Excellent post.

    One clarification: The post states that “Private Baptism is still an option, of course, and should be.”

    According to the Rite of Baptism: “It should be conferred in a communal celebration in the presence of the faithful, or at least of relatives, friends, and neighbors, who are all to take an active part in the rite.”

    It might be better to say that “Baptism outside of Mass is still an option.”

    The ritual suggests that Baptism ideally takes place during Sunday Mass. This form of celebration emphasizes the close connection between Baptism and Eucharist: Baptism is the beginning of the initiation process leading to the table of the Lord.

    Celebrating the Rite of Baptism at a Sunday Mass better emphasizes the communal nature of the celebration, the importance of music at a liturgical celebration, and the incorporation of the catechumen into the Body of Christ, the community of faith.

  12. avatar Ink says:

    I know I re-designed the font in Sacred Heart one day… Honestly, I don’t mind immersion fonts, I just wish they looked less like Jacuzzis. And if they’re heated, that just adds to it. If you’re going to do an immersion font, set it into the ground–that way, you completely get the “death-and-rebirth” effect of baptism, like entering and emerging from a tomb.

  13. avatar The Egyptian says:

    The only thing that bothers me is when an over zealous pastor rips out pews in an already overcrowded Romanesque or Gothic church that was never designed for a hot tub, dropping it right in front of the doors so everyone has to step around it and use it for the holy water font so it is over waist high, plus the bubbler and heater, agh. I mean groovy man. so in the spirit of vat 2 ya know. :>)

  14. avatar Bernie says:

    Egyptian,
    Churches do need to exercise common sense and there is nothing wrong with staying with a pedestal font in its present location, in my opinion. Some of those are very beautiful! In fact, if the present font is old and nice I would keep it and integrate the cistern with it, if there is room. Like anything else people make crazy decisions. Even I have made one -maybe two- over the years!

  15. avatar John says:

    The font, pre-VII, used to be in the back, whether in a separate bapistry or in a corner. The significance? Baptism is our entrance into the Church. Even many old cathedrals in Europe where there was/is a separate baptistry building, had it in front of the entrance to the cathedral or off to the side, again underscoring that baptism begins our Christian life. Fast forward to post-VII…the font is moved to the front (of the church) to form a triumvirate with the altar and the lectern/ambo/pulpit. Probably underscoring the significance of it as important to the life of a Christian as the Eucharist, and probably also so “the people could see” the rite. The fact that the font is now being moved back to the entrance of the church is IMHO, good as it re-emphasizes the connection of coming into the Church when you come into the church (building). I don’t see how anyone can argue with that.


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