Saint Paul, in writing to the Romans, was writing to a group of people who, in all likelihood, would have been baptized as adults. He was writing just a few years after Lord's ascension into heaven, and His command -- the last few words in Saint Matthew''s Gospel -- to "go forth, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."2 If nothing else, Christianity was sufficiently new that when Paul wrote to them in 57 or 58 AD, that a goodly number of them had been adults even before our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Baptism.
The early Church practiced infant Baptism on occasion. For example, we read that Saint Peter baptized the entire household of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, and some of his neighbors as well: "the Holy Ghost came upon all who were listening to [Peter's] message.... And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ."3 But this was probably an unusual situation. Christians remained a small percentage of the population of the civilized world. For hundreds of years, Christianity would be a persecuted religion, practiced only in secret, by those who firmly believed in the truths of the Faith -- by people who were unlikely to give up their strongly held belief in God's revelation when the soldiers came to knock at the door.
Even when Christianity became legal in the Empire, in the early fourth century, we were not immediately a large part of the population. Many pagan influences remained in society, and families were often enough divided by the differing religions of the parents. For example, if you have read Saint Augustine's Confessions, you know that he had a pagan father and a Catholic mother -- and you know that it was Saint Monica's constant concern and prayer that her husband and son would not die without receiving the saving waters of Baptism. (Her prayers were answered, for those of you who have not read the book.)
So, when Saint Paul wrote to this letter to the Romans, speaking of the "time when we first came to believe," he was reminding each of them of that time in their lives when, with great fervor and firm faith, they had made their baptismal promises and had been born again in the Sacrament of regeneration. We all need that sort of reminder once in a while. Even those of us who cannot remember the day of our Baptism, because we were then too young, can all remember a time in our lives when we were enthusiastic about the Catholic Faith. Perhaps when we were Confirmed or saw our own children baptized; perhaps when we attended a priestly ordination or took part in the building of a new church; perhaps when we discovered that the Modernists had not been completely successful in taking away the Mass and the Sacraments; or perhaps it was one of the other renewals of faith that God grants so generously to His people. We had the privilege, yesterday, of baptizing two young men who were old enough to recite their own baptismal promises -- certainly, that was a moment of enthusiasm for all of us who were here to witness their entry into the life of grace.
Saint Paul is asking us today to reflect back to those times of enthusiasm for God and the things of God. Things have not changed much in the almost two thousand years since he wrote. The vast majority of Catholics must live in the world -- even the most devout amongst us must earn his living, feed and clothe his family, raise his children, and deal with the society in which he lives. Only the privileged very few can have someone else worry about such things while they devote their full attention to the things of God. Paul, himself, was no exception. He lived a life of deep prayer, but it was often interrupted, he tells us, "by the constant anxiety for the care of all the churches," not to mention all of the hardships he endured in persecution by the Jews and the Romans: "five times I received forty lashes less one, three times I was scourged, once I was stoned, three times I suffered shipwreck...."4 He supported himself with the work of his own hands -- Paul was a tentmaker, and he practiced that trade, so as not to place a financial burden on those whom he brought to he Faith.5
That we must live in the world and be subject to its distractions suggests that we do need to reflect on our spiritual goals regularly. We need to re-establish some of that baptismal enthusiasm now and then. We have the opportunity, of course, to discuss these things with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and to receive Him in Holy Communion -- we ought to do so as frequently as circumstances will permit. We surely ought to set aside some part of our day for prayer and meditation, and for a daily examination of our consciences.
Today we begin the season of Advent, a sort of institutionalized recollection of our Christian Faith, in preparation for Christmas. We ought to spend these brief four weeks with a greater awareness of our vocation as Catholics -- to live in the world, but to be detached from the excesses of the world, drawing strength from those moments when we have been particularly close to God, and resolving to spend many more moments close to God in the time He allows for our stay here on earth.
Remember that the time grows short with each passing year; every year our futures will hold in store one less Advent, one less Christmas, one less Easter. "Our salvation is now nearer than when we first came to believe." Let's be sure that we make good use of the remaining time, to make our salvation a sure thing.