Dear Father John, I like to ask you something. I am a protestant minister and I realized that sometimes when I have baptized a child they scream when I put a cross on their forehead and then calm down after they have been baptized. I just wonder what makes some babies cry when a cross touches their forehead?”
This is an interesting question, especially since you have identified what seems to be a pattern in your own experience of administering the sacrament of baptism. First of all, I think it would be wise to continue observing carefully in order to [see] whether this really is a steady pattern. You mention that this happens “sometimes” to “some babies”. This seems to indicate that maybe there really isn’t a pattern to this phenomenon at all. Many things can make babies cry. It may simply be coincidence that in some cases the babies are upset when you make the sign of the cross on their foreheads and then quiet down after the baptism is complete. Judging from my own experience, and the experience of a few priest colleagues whom I consulted briefly, I would say that this is probably a coincidence. I know of many babies who continue crying after being [baptized], for example, and some who don’t cry at all throughout the whole ritual.
Spirit and Matter
I will say, however, that symbols and sacramentals, like making the sign of the cross on one’s forehead, can truly have a spiritual impact when they are lived with faith. This is one reason why Catholics do things like mounting crucifixes on the walls of their homes, lighting candles in prayerful petition to God, kneeling during Mass, and praying in front of images of Our Lord and Our Lady. As human beings we are simultaneously body and spirit, so it makes sense that [we] express spiritual things through material realities. The sacrament of baptism is a powerful example of this. In it, physical water is used by God to issue forth a spiritual cleansing and renewal. In the Catholic Church, we actually have seven sacraments, all of which were instituted by Jesus himself, that work in a similar way, effecting a spatial benefit through material signs. You may want to look into these sacraments in order to understand more deeply the connection between spirit and matter that has always been such a fundamental aspect of our Christian experience.
I hope this helps. God bless you!
Sincerely in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC
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Art for this post on some babies crying when a cross touches their forehead at baptism: The Baptism, Pietro Longhi, 1755, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.