by Michelle Arnold
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
“Grandma, have you ever been baptized?”
My grandmother looked up from her magazine, and gave me a puzzled look. “I don’t know. Why?”
I persisted. “You mentioned once that you were raised Methodist but sent your kids to a Baptist church for Sunday school because they could walk there on their own. I just wondered if you’d gone to church yourself.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” Grandma repeated.
I was starting to become excited. If Grandma didn’t know if she’d ever been baptized or been to church—apparently, had only been a cultural Methodist—then perhaps she could be baptized now. She was closing in on ninety and had become increasingly frail in recent years.
When I was in the process of conversion to Catholicism in 1996, I knew I’d never been baptized. Mom had been raised Seventh-Day Adventist. Dad, having no feelings of attachment to his Baptist heritage, readily agreed to become a Seventh-Day Adventist when they married. Both denominations emphasize that baptism should only be given when the believer is old enough to consciously choose to be baptized, so my parents didn’t baptize their babies.
By the time I was old enough to be thinking about baptism, Mom and Dad had long since lapsed in their practice of religion. I was raised in a largely secular, culturally Christian home. (Dad may have converted to Mom’s religion, but it was his family’s religious indifference that eventually won the day in our house.)
I told all this to the pastor of the local Catholic parish when I decided I wanted to be Catholic. I hadn’t had any overwhelming epiphanies or come to this decision after diligent study. For me, Catholicism was appealing because Seventh-Day Adventism bundles a lot of anti-Catholicism into its understanding of the End Times. Becoming Catholic was a rebellion against my upbringing, even if my parents were largely indifferent to their own denomination’s teachings on Catholicism.
And I could start eating bacon. I was looking forward to that.
The pastor seemed rather indifferent himself when I told him my story. He murmured something to himself about me being a “catechumen” (whatever that was), jotted down a note on his pad of paper to remind him to ask one of the parishioners he had in mind to be my “godmother” (still puzzled here, Father), and told me to call the Director of Religious Education to sign up for RCIA.
In RCIA, I found out what being a catechumen meant. Not having been baptized meant that I didn’t have to go to confession before being received into the Church. I didn’t have to spill a lifetime’s worth of sins in the confessional to a priest. My sins would be forgiven in baptism and I’d have the spiritual equivalent of a clean slate. After that, I’d only have to confess sins that I committed after baptism.
Frankly, I was thrilled. When I thought about some of the sins of my youth, I shuddered at the prospect of naming them aloud to another human being—even if he was forbidden from ever revealing my confession. I don’t know if I’d have persevered in becoming Catholic if confession had been my gateway into the Church instead of baptism.
Which was why I was so excited at the prospect of adult baptism for Grandma. If she’d never been baptized, then entry into the Church could be as simple for her as it was for me.
She listened tolerantly as I did my best to explain the procedure. At one point, I even told her that if she wasn’t up to going to classes, I could help her learn what she needed to know. A priest or deacon could come to her house to baptize her if she wasn’t feeling able to go to a church. And if she had a health emergency while she was preparing for baptism, I could baptize her.
When I finally finished talking, she looked me squarely in the eyes, said flatly, “I don’t want to,” and went back to her magazine.
I was deeply disappointed, but I shut up about it, and never again mentioned baptism to her. Looking back now, I’m rather surprised that my much-younger, over-zealous, baby-Catholic self was able to let the idea drop. I think I ended up comforting myself with the thought that if Grandma was ever unconscious and I was the only one around, I could baptize her whether she wanted to be baptized or not.
Let’s just say that I’ve come a long way since then.
Nonetheless, for many years I puzzled over why Grandma wasn’t willing to be baptized when it would have been so easy. She wasn’t an atheist; so far as I knew, she wasn’t even agnostic. While she didn’t care which church her kids went to, sending them to some kind of church mattered—even if she had no inclination to go herself.
So, why wasn’t she willing to be baptized at the very end of a long life when it was all but offered up to her on a platter?
This Sunday, we celebrate Pentecost. It also happens to be the twenty-third anniversary of my grandmother’s death. She died on June 5, 1999, a couple of months after her ninetieth birthday. When going through the Scripture readings for Pentecost, I came across a rather puzzling assertion St. Paul made to the Corinthians.
“No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’” Paul insisted, “except by the Holy Spirit.” What on earth does that mean? They’re simple words anyone can say, right?
As I thought about it, I kept remembering Grandma looking at me over her magazine. She wasn’t angry at my impertinence. She wasn’t hostile toward Christianity in general, or toward Jesus in particular. No, she was merely firm. “I don’t want to” was her response to an invitation she didn’t feel any need to accept.
The Church teaches that grace is necessary for belief. “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC 1996). With belief comes desire for baptism, for union with Christ. And with that union comes the ability to acknowledge that Jesus is not just a good man who taught people to love each other but is Lord of one’s own life.
This grace that leads to baptism is what the Holy Spirit brought on Pentecost Sunday. The first thing the apostles did after being filled with the Spirit was to head outside and start preaching to the crowds in multiple languages. By the end of that day, according to St. Luke, three thousand had been baptized.
Grandma wasn’t baptized, so far as I know. Even in my over-zealous days though, I didn’t worry about her eternal salvation. On some level, despite my disappointment at her response to the offer of baptism, I knew Grandma wasn’t hostile toward the idea of faith. She did her best to live a good life, to love her husband, to raise her kids as best she could, to make a good life for her family. And she was, without a doubt, a wonderful grandmother.
If not even the sparrows fall to the earth without God taking notice (Matt. 10:29), I know he didn’t abandon my grandmother at the end. She may not have been given the grace to desire baptism when I offered her a chance to be baptized, but I trust she didn’t refuse the chance to be reunited with family and friends at the moment of her death.
After all, for months beforehand, as she slowly descended into dementia, the one person she consistently called for was her Daddy.
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.