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Decor and the Baptismal Font  
Jill Maria Murdy  

When I attended graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, I had the good fortune to study The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation with Edward Yarnold, who was in his latter years of teaching at Oxford. In nearly every class, Professor Yarnold showed slides of historical baptismal fonts from the Holy Land or Europe. In the corner of each of these slides could be seen see his funny, old floppy hat. He placed it in the picture to keep the size and depth of the fonts in perspective.

In a sense, this is our task today as we consider decorating and maintaining baptismal fonts throughout the Easter season. All must be read through the perspective of your church’s structure and baptismal font.

Font Type and Location
When building or renovating a church, these are the guidelines:

The baptismal font, particularly one in a baptistry, should be stationary, gracefully constructed out of suitable material, of splendid beauty and spotless cleanliness; it should permit baptism by immersion, whenever this is the usage. (Christian Initiation, General Introduction, #25).

In order to enhance its force as a sign, the font should be designed in such a way that it functions as a fountain of running water; where the climate requires, provision should be made for heating the water. (Ibid, #20)

And in Built of Living Stones, 69

1. One font that will accommodate the baptism of both infants and adults symbolizes the one faith and one baptism that Christians share. The size and design of the font can facilitate the dignified celebration for all who are baptized at the one font, #69.
2. The font should be large enough to supply ample water for the baptism of both adults and infants. Since baptism in Catholic churches may take place by immersion in the water, or by infusion (pouring), fonts that permit all forms of baptismal practice are encouraged.
3. Baptism is a sacrament of the whole Church and, in particular, of the local parish community. Therefore the ability of the congregation to participate in baptisms is an important consideration.

Liturgical theologians state their preferences but the reality is that there are permanent and temporary fonts, those designed for infusion or full immersion, and those located near the church entrance or the sanctuary. Each of these options is nuanced by a thousand church situations.

General Principles
No matter the type of font a parish has, one must consider universal factors and questions:

  • How will the environment created last the entire Easter season?
  • What other liturgical actions take place within this season? Consider church layout and walking patterns when planning any environment and decor.
  • Remember function. The baptismal font has an active purpose and is not just a piece of church furniture to be decorated. The environment must in no way diminish the sacrament or inhibit the ritual actions of Baptism from taking place.

Permanent Immersion Fonts
Does your place of worship have immersion Baptisms outside of the RCIA, or do other Baptisms throughout the year consist of infusion, or immersing a baby in the upper portion of a font? If so, then this would give more leeway to the art and environment crew in their choices for incorporating the baptismal font into the Easter Season.

Coming to mind first are lilies and lights . . . and there is nothing wrong with the tried and the true. It is easy to decorate by putting flowers and a couple of candles along the font’s edges, but this is not always practical. If the font is built up, this could work well. But if the font is at ground level with steps going down and up, plants and candles could be hazardous with young children around.

So what other options are there? I have seen fresh tulips or cherry blossoms in a font when there is not a Baptism taking place, but this type of thing can confuse the powerful symbols. When I was researching this article, I went on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site, and was astounded to see this question posed: “Our church was recently renovated. Our pastor has made certain changes, among them, fish have been placed in the water of the baptismal font. Is it appropriate? I have never seen this in any other parish.”

Do not turn your font into an aquarium, a flower vase, a wishing well, or any such thing. You are probably already dealing with parishioners who liken this new font to a Jacuzzi. Do not give them any food for the fire.

Living water, running water is the purest symbol of Baptism, so I advocate having your font timed to pump through the liturgy, or before the liturgies (depending on the noise factor), so people can hear the trickles as they pray and come to peace before and after Mass. Utilize the water as an aural decor.

Returning to the wisdom of the documents, BLS, 66, says:

Because the rites of initiation of the Church begin with baptism and are completed by the reception of the Eucharist, the baptismal font and its location reflect the Christian’s journey through the waters of baptism to the altar. This integral relationship between the baptismal font and the altar can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, such as placing the font and altar on the same architectural axis, using natural or artificial lighting, using the same floor patterns, and using common or similar materials and elements of design.

Might not we apply these principles to our seasonal decor? Is there a way to tie the decor for the table to the decor for the font? If not repeating the same design, is there a way to use the journey motif and move with it from the baptismal font to the sacred altar? This would also be practical since most first Holy Communions take place within the Easter season as well.

Permanent Infusion Fonts
All the liturgical principles discussed so far in this article would be just as appropriate to a permanent infusion font. Generally, the top is removed and the priest, parents, and godparents stand behind the font, so it is almost easier to incorporate the font into the seasonal decor. It would be effortless to drape a decorative cloth or tasteful banner in front of the font.

Note the word “tasteful.” Hangings should consist of a simple image or colors so as not to compete with the baptismal symbols. We already know “Alleluia, Christ has risen!” We do not need to read it plastered on the side of the font. Do not confuse beauty with busy. Some of the richest liturgical environments I have experienced were also the subtlest ones.

Temporary Fonts
Ideally, the church calls for a permanent font. Only one font should be in a worship space, but sometimes churches that have only a small infusion font create a temporary structure for the purpose of RCIA and the Easter Vigil. This raises many questi ons.

With a portable font, do you remove it after the Easter Vigil? What does this do to the integrity of the season? A permanent font may intentionally be “in the way,” e.g., at the center of the aisle aligned with the altar. Is it too easy to move a temporary font for convenience?

The best examples of what not to do are taken from reallife experiences. One year my father called to tell me about Easter in my rural hometown. They were excited to have a member of the elect and planned a full immersion Baptism, so they went to the local farm and ranch supply store and got a great big galvanized steel water trough to put in the sanctuary, and filled it with water early in the morning on Saturday of the Easter Vigil.

It was an early Easter, and very chilly in northern Montana, so that water was as cold as ice when the baptismal candidate went under. He could not shake his chills all evening. The next day, some parishioners showed up on my father’s doorstep. They did not plan a way to remove the holy water after the Easter Vigil, and that trough was so big there was no way it could stay in the sanctuary for the entire Easter season. My dad was called on for a solution. The moral of the story is, if you are using a temporary font, think through the process well.

BLS shares these guidelines for Easter decor:

These seasonal decorations are maintained throughout the entire liturgical season. . . . Since the Easter season lasts fifty days, planning will encompass ways to sustain the decor until the fiftieth day of Pentecost (#125).

It is easy to think that this guideline applies to banners and cloths and candles, or just the sanctuary area, and to forget that it applies to the font, too. Who would ever think that “sustaining the decor” could be such a difficult task?

Jill Maria Murdy
is director of Liturgy and Music at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in West Bend, Wisconsin. She has an MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame. Her Web site is http://www.jillmaria.com.
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