The media in Montreal recently reported that the Diocese of St. Jerome disclosed that 295 baptisms of children in the parish of Pointe-Calumet had been declared invalid. Beginning in 1991, a layperson was officiating baptisms.
She would allow the parents to pour holy water on their child' s forehead, as she pronounced blessings. Apparently, no one noticed the problem until 1996 when a grandmother, who was strong in her faith and knowledgeable, recognized the error and reported it to the bishop. Since that time, the diocese has been contacting the families privately, offering to baptize the children who were invalidly baptized.
Given this sad state of affairs, every Catholic ought to know how to baptize a child: The essential rite of the sacrament, as detailed in the Catechism, is as follows: “Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times, it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate's head. In the Latin Church, this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister' s words: ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
In the Eastern liturgies, the catechumen turns toward the East and the priest says, ‘The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ At the invocation of each person of the Most Holy Trinity, the priest immerses the candidate in the water and raises him up again” (nos. 1239, 1240). (These directives are found in the Introduction to the Rite of Infant Baptism, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, 1969.) Any deviation from this formula invalidates the sacrament.
The ordinary ministers of the sacrament of baptism are the bishop and the priest, and in the Latin Church, also a deacon (no. 1256). Only they can perform the full ritual comprising the sacrament of baptism.
Nevertheless, any person in an emergency can baptize by immersing the person in water three times or pouring water over the person's head three times while invoking the Holy Trinity. For example, one would say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father (pour), and of the Son (pour), and of the Holy Spirit (pour). This is the essential rite of the sacrament. Of course, the person performing the baptism must have the proper intention, namely “to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes” (no. 1256). Again, any deviation from this formula invalidates the sacrament.
In certain circumstances, such as a parish that does not have a resident priest, the bishop may delegate a lay person to baptize on a regular basis: “When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons … can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of law” (Code of Canon Law, 230.3).
Now back to the story: The layperson in question did not baptize because she violated the essential rite of the sacrament. Having the parents pour holy water over the child's head while she said blessings, incantations, or whatever, does not constitute the sacrament. For this reason, the diocese now has to baptize the 295 children in question. Sadly, she was not qualified to assume this serious responsibility in the parish, and the diocese was negligent in training and supervising her.
Even more sadly, the situation continued for years until a grandmother recognized the error. Obviously, many people did not know their Faith well enough to have recognized the error. The story underscores the need for every Catholic to know the Faith, and to know how to baptize in case of an emergency.
If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.