From September 19 – 22, 1996, St. John Paul II made his sixth pastoral visit to France, a nation that was certainly dear to the heart of this son of Poland. Besides Poland that John Paul visited nine times, France seconds the list with eight pastoral visits from John Paul II. The occasion of this 1996 visit was the commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of the Baptism of Clovis, King of France, which is historically regarded as the baptism of France.
The Franks, as the French were then known, had remained pagan in their long history of conflicts with other Germanic tribes of what is now Europe. Clovis’ marriage to Clotilda, a Burgundian princess, was destined to change that, especially when the god of this fervent Catholic princess supposedly granted Clovis victory over the Alemanni tribe. Clovis was baptized in the cathedral of Reims, on December 25, 496 AD.
John Paul II felt the opportunity of the 1500th anniversary of Clovis’ baptism provided an ideal opportunity to pose the most existential question to secular France.
Standing from the window of the apostolic palace in Rome, John Paul had watched how the Eldest Daughter of the Church had almost suddenly found herself in a state of spiritual Alzheimer. France, to the Polish Pope, had forgotten the history that marked her cathedrals, basilicas, monasteries, schools, hospitals, in fact, the cultural identity that shaped her, to the extent that she could unarguably be the country in the West with the most streets names after saints and other religious figures! The land of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had not attained all what was promised by the Philosophers and the Revolutionaries. The earthly paradise remained a distant utopia, especially as the sense of hopelessness and despair became more and more tangible in French airs. Given this context, John Paul II posed one question to the Eldest Daughter of the Church: France, what have you done with the promises of your baptism?
As one reflects on the systematic advancement of ideologies, such the gender theory and radical individualism, amongst others, that are anti-God, and have been fashioned in the developed Western world and are aggressively being exported to Africa and other non-Western cultures, the centrality of the sacrament of Baptism as an antidote to Godless secularism becomes all the more acute. It is insufficient to throw stones at Western atheistic systems only, which now understand secularism to mean the complete exclusion of God from the moral, political and economic fabric of society. What is more crucial is a life lived in fidelity to the promises of Baptism, to the extent that I consciously live out a different kind of life to that proposed by the spirit of the Age.
Joseph Ratzinger once said that the greatest apologists the Church has are her saints and her works of art. If I am conscious that by Baptism my life is on a different path; if I am conscious that Baptism opens me into the communion of name with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that such a communion necessarily entails a different kind of life, a life lived from God and for God, then the false attractiveness of Godless materialism, gender theory, unbridled capitalism, the worship of the failed gods of liberty, fraternity and equality, will begin collapsing like a house of cards.
Certainly, to live the life of the baptized is no mean achievement. On the part of the Christian, it demands that capacity for openness, that displacement of the self, of the ego, ceding place to the primacy of God. In other words, it is in the nature of the Christian to be passive, in that we do not baptize ourselves. We are always being baptized, since we cannot make ourselves sons and daughters of God. It is God who makes us sons and daughters. In Baptism, we let go of the self and embrace the life of the “we,” of the new ones, born, “not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself” (John 1:13). It is important to therefore see the Christian life as a gift, above all else. This calls forth a sense of appreciation and wonder.
Catholics in Africa cannot afford a distant attitude towards the Church, since the gift of Baptism is always received within the community of the Church. Today, perhaps more than ever, the Church in Africa, looking at what is happening in the Western world, should invest more energies and resources in developing and cultivating in Catholics, the mission of God for the world that comes from Baptism. We should be concern about the growth of the Church’s mission. We should foster a deeper sense of the missionary mandate of our Baptism. Our Baptism should reflect in the values that we propose and uphold in society as Catholics. Our Baptism should make us active agents to secure the freedom of the Church in proposing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a freedom that should not be restricted to worship, but to practice our faith freely in the public sphere. We should not take the freedom of the faith for granted, looking at the Western world today. And Baptism is that basis for such an active work for religious freedom and the spread of the Gospel.