Nicodemus is puzzled. “How,” he asks, “can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” (Jn 3:4).
Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus is critical for understanding what it means to be “born again”: “I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5; emphasis added). The event described here is not, as some Christians insist, an initial profession of faith in Christ, Rather, it refers to the sacrament of Baptism, when the person is washed with water and receives the Spirit. Later, preaching on Pentecost, St. Peter confirms that those who are baptized receive the Spirit (see Acts 2:38).
The new birth, which is the beginning of the new life in Christ, must come about after the death of the “old self” (Rom 6:6) — that is, the unredeemed nature burdened by original sin (see “What Is Original Sin?” and “Why Does the Church Baptize Infants?”). The person who thus “dies,” says St. Paul, is “absolved from sin” (Rom 6:7).
How does this death, leading to new life, come about? Through the absolution (remission) of sins in Baptism. “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).
To be “born again” or “born anew,” then, is to be baptized. In this sacrament, through “water and Spirit,” the soul is washed clean, the “old self” is buried, and the new life in Christ begins. Since every Catholic has been baptized, every Catholic has indeed been “born again” — and is called to grow in grace with the help of the Holy Spirit.
RELATED SCRIPTURE — Texts cited: Lk 3:21-22; Jn 3:3-5; Rom 6:3-4, 6-7; Acts 2:38; 1 Pt 1:23. General: Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 2:12-13.
CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH — 1213-1284; 1425-1429; 2813.