St John the Baptist and recent devotions – Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1882

“… a sign of danger, secret pride, or coldness of charity.”

Murillo, Wiki Commons. Some line breaks added below, with some headings taken from the original Table of Contents.

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The following extract from Fr Coleridge’s book on the ministry of St John the Baptist sheds an interesting light on more “recent” devotions adopted by the Church, such as the Corpus Christi devotions, and devotion to the Sacred Heart. It may shed light on why devotion to St Joseph has developed over the centuries to the point of eclipsing devotion to St John the Baptist himself.

It may also explain why Heaven has placed so much emphasis on devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to the Holy Rosary. In 1957, Sister Lucie (one of the three seers of Fatima) said to Fr Fuentes:

“The Most Holy Virgin, in these last times in which we live, has given a new efficacy to the recitation of the Rosary.

“She has given this efficacy to such an extent that there is no problem, no matter how difficult it is, whether temporal or above all spiritual, in the personal life of each one of us, of our families, of the families of the world or of the religious communities, or even of the life of peoples and nations, that cannot be solved by the Rosary.

“There is no problem I tell you, no matter how difficult it is, that we cannot resolve by the prayer of the Holy Rosary. With the Holy Rosary we will save ourselves. We will sanctify ourselves. We will console Our Lord and obtain the salvation of many souls.”

To some, this idea may seem surprising, “random”, or even incredible. Why would the Rosary take on a new efficacy in the twentieth century?

It is not unknown for some enthusiasts of the Eastern Rites to look down on the Rosary and other Latin devotions, as if they were merely parochial matters of little relevance to them.

We hope that this extract may explain how and why such devotions and practices appear and develop in the life of the Church – and the danger of treating them of little account, once their credibility has been established.

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The Ministry of St John the Baptist
Fr Henry James Coleridge

Burns and Oates, London

[St John the Baptist’s] general exhortations to penance, enforced by the authority which the great sanctity and austerity of the speaker gave to them, and brought home to each man’s conscience by the abundant grace which attended on his mission, produced the fruits of compunction and contrition of heart, evidenced, as we are told by the Evangelists, in two ways: by the confession of sins, and by the reception of baptism at the hands of St. John.

The confession of sins

It would appear that the particular confession of sins was not in practice among the Jews before this time. They probably accused themselves as sinners in a general form, such as that used by the Publican in our Lord’s parable (Luke 18.13). Nor, of course, had the priests any power to absolve them, and the confession which they made was not made to the priests, either in general or in particular.

The words, however, in which the practice introduced by St. John is described, seem to point to the particular confession of sins. And although Christian baptism remits all sin, original or actual, whether confessed or not, it seems to have been customary for adults in the early ages of the Church to make particular confessions before receiving it.[1]

And some have gathered that the confession made to St. John was particular, from the directions which he gives as to the duties of the states of the several classes who applied to him.

This confession, then, was an act of great self-humiliation, and, in a great number of cases, would be blessed and rewarded by God by the gift of contrition, on which the perfect absolution of the penitent would depend, the baptism of John having no sacramental efficacy of that kind.

The ceremony of baptism

The ceremony of baptism was not, however, a mere empty rite, for it was at the least an act of religion, in which all the penitent’s interior sorrow for sin and resolutions of amendment would be gathered up and solemnly expressed, and this would in most cases imply a special gift of grace.

Moreover, the reception of baptism, as administered by St. John, was a distinct profession of faith in his mission, and, as St. Paul says in the Acts (19.6), of belief in ‘Him Who was to come after him,’ and this could not but be fruitful of grace.

The rite of baptism was by no means unknown to the Jews, and seems to have been a rite used on a great many different occasions. The spiritual meaning of each was special in each, much as the ‘imposition of hands’ is a general rite with various particular effects under the Gospel law.[2]

Baptism was particularly used on the admission of a proselyte, after circumcision, and in this case had a special significance as implying the profession of a new religion, the entering into a covenant with God[3]: and it was supposed that it would be used for this purpose when the Messias came, according to the prophecies of Ezechiel and Zacharias.[4]

On this account the administration of the rite by St. John was made a subject of question by the authorities at Jerusalem, as if it implied — as it was meant to imply — that his taking on himself to confer baptism was to assume some office belonging either to a prophet or to some one connected with the new kingdom of the Messias (John 1.25).

Not a mere ceremony

Thus, although the language used by St. Peter of Christian baptism,[5] which implies its sacramental effect in the remission of sins, could not be used of St. John’s baptism, it was still something more than a mere ceremony, and placed those who received it in a new relation to God as prepared to receive that teaching and to enter into that new covenant for which St. John was preparing the way.

And thus, again, the Evangelist speaks of the Pharisees and lawyers as ‘despising the council of God in their own regard,’ because they did not submit to this baptism. Thus, at the very outset of the preaching of the new kingdom, while as yet our Lord Himself was still keeping in the background, and living the hidden life by which He had been glorifying God for eighteen years since His first public appearance in the Temple at Jerusalem, the thoughts of men were being revealed, and men themselves divided into two camps.

The humble, the penitent, those who were ready to embrace with grateful hearts the offer of better things made to them in the baptism of St. John, were ranging themselves on one side, and on the other were already found many of the men who were afterwards to become the bitter opponents and persecutors of our Lord Himself.

Danger for those who despised it

The baptism of St. John was not obligatory as a condition to salvation, but it was the appointed symbol of that spirit of penance and contrition which was absolutely necessary in all those who were to benefit by the Gospel preaching.

It was the issue and fruit of a special time of grace and visitation, a means of preparation arranged by God’s Providence which could not be deliberately neglected without danger, indeed, the deliberate neglect and rejection of which showed pride and hardness of heart.

There are many seasons of grace, devotions given by God at various times to the Church, calls to repentance, or preparation for death, or greater strictness of life, or particular methods of honouring Him in regard to this or that mystery, and the like, which seem to come to her children from time to time with some special mark of appropriateness or some special sanction.

As to these, any singularity or isolation from the feeling which is breathed as by a heavenly instinct over the Christian community in general, is a sign of danger, secret pride, or coldness of charity.

Those who hold aloof may not suffer immediately the forfeiture of any Christian grace, but the issue may show that it cannot be without great peril to their souls that they turn away from what may be as the baptism of John was, the good counsel of God in their regard.

From Fr Henry James Coleridge, The Ministry of St John the Baptist, published 1882, Burns and Oates, London, 19-23

Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ

What are the warnings that the final storm approaches?
The Church in the Last Days – Part I: How will we see her?
The Church in the Last Days – Part II: How will we know her?
One of the greatest pains of Purgatory and how to avoid it
What might Jairus’s Daughter tell us about the pains of Purgatory?
Our Lady, the Rosary and the Holy Souls
The Cleansing of the Temple – How Our Lord will come and purge our souls
The price of delay in relieving the souls in Purgatory
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part I
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part II
The Presentation of Christ – Candlemas, Passover and the buying-back of the firstborn
Persecution – What are its effects?
St Joseph – do the Gospels tell us more about him than we realise?


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[1] S. Chrysost. Hom. in Matt. x. 5; Cyrill. Hierosolym. (ad Catech.) Cat. i. § I, 2, 5; S. Gregory Nazianzen, Orat. 40 in S. Bapt.; and Tertullian, de Baptistmo. c. 20, speak of this confession before baptism as representing the baptism of John. See Patrizi, in Evang. t. iii. p. 470.

[2] The places in which the rite is mentioned, are Lev. xiv. 8, 9 ; XV. 5,  ; xvi. 24, 26, 28; xvii. 15, 16; xxii. 6; Numb. xix. 7, 8, seq.; Deut. xxiii. 11; Ecclus. xxxiv. 30; Exod. xxix. 4; xl. 12, &c. There were other ‘baptisms’ of the Pharisees. St. Mark vii. 10 ; St. Luke xi. 48.

[3] Cf. in the Old Testament, Gen. xxxv. 2, Exod. xix. 10, where something of the kind is implied.

[4] Ezech. Xxxvi. 26; Zach. Xiii. I.

[5] Acts ii. 38. Cf. also the words of Ananias to St. Paul, as related by the latter, Acts xxii. 16.

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