A few weeks ago, I chanced upon a remarkable book: A Memory for Wonders, the memoir of Mother Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard. Born of socialist, anti-Catholic French parents, Lucette Le Goulard spent a wild and difficult childhood in French Morocco before becoming involved in the Communist Party — and yet, miraculously, ended by joining a Poor Clare monastery.
Despite her irreligious upbringing by worldly and unloving parents who forbade anyone even to mention God to their child, from the age of three years old Lucette had an unshakable conviction of God’s existence and a burning thirst to learn His Name. She went on to a life of faithful service to the Lord, founding two Poor Clare monasteries in Africa and writing her memoir only under strict obedience to her superior.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lucette — later Mother Veronica — credited her conversion not just to the extraordinary graces she received throughout her wayward youth, but, more simply, to her baptism.
She explains that her baptism was likely “uncanonical” or illicit, because her grandmother secretly arranged it against the explicit wishes of her “fiercely anticlerical” parents. “We would probably not approve of this procedure,” she writes, “but it was inspired, I believe, in its uncanonical way. I have always considered the other graces I received through the years, in spite of their sometimes exceptional character, as the mere development of this one, the greatest.”
When word of the secret baptism leaked out, her parents were so enraged that they moved with their tiny daughter to French Morocco, to be as far from the grandparents’ Christian influence as possible. But it was too late: the gates of grace had been opened to her by baptism. All other graces she received throughout her life — graces which included private revelations from God of His existence, knowledge of His Mother and the Eucharist, and revelation of her vocation — were in her eyes “the mere development” of her baptismal grace, which she considered “the greatest.”
Let that sink in. Baptism is the greatest grace. The grace by which a soul is washed clean of original sin, made a child of God, and a member of the Church forever.
Mother Veronica’s case was on my mind when recently a mother in my circle of acquaintances reached out for advice because she was having difficulty arranging her baby’s baptism. A first-time mom, she had suffered severe post-partum depression which kept her from Sunday Mass. Once she recovered, she began attending Mass regularly and sought baptism for her baby, who was by then several months old. However, the parish secretary insisted she could not have her baby baptized because she hadn’t attended every Sunday Mass for at least three months — and they knew it, because she hadn’t submitted the collection envelopes. When she tried again several months later, she and her husband faced paperwork obstacles: they needed a currently issued copy of their chosen godparents’ baptismal certificates, but one of them had been baptized as a baby in another country and couldn’t obtain a new copy of that baptismal record. Then, illness and holiday travel kept them away from their home parish, and the secretary told them they could not join the next baptismal class, once again, because of the lack of donation envelopes to prove their Mass attendance record.
I and others earnestly recommended that she circumvent this secretarial gatekeeper and speak directly with her priest about her desire to have her baby — now nearly a year old — baptized in the Church. And she reported that this was more successful and she had obtained permission for her baby to be baptized.
This mother’s story is, sadly, not uncommon. If a parent should ask, echoing the Ethiopian speaking to Philip in Acts, “What is to prevent my baby from being baptized?” the answer for American parents is: plenty. While stipulations vary by parish and diocese, postpartum parents frequently face significant paperwork, required classes, and length of parish membership rules in addition to envelope-counting secretaries.
Yet this trend runs contrary to the very commands we are given as parents by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments….” (CCC 1214)
“…The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.” (CCC 1250, emphasis added)
Despite this clear admonition, the parochial American church, wedded as it is to bureaucracy, throws up unnecessary obstacles for parents seeking this most necessary sacrament for their babies. Even parents presenting their second, third, or even sixth child — unless a close friendship with a priest wins them an exemption — are typically required to re-attend baptism classes, since the class certificates often arbitrarily “expire” after two to three years.
In an increasingly mobile society, many young parents can find themselves new in a parish and thus at a loss to find local godparents soon after their child is born. If they recruit friends or family from out of town, that complicates the required paperwork, which varies by parish and diocese; some require a signed letter from a pastor verifying that godparents are faithful Catholics, while others require copies of sacramental certificates or other proofs of faithful Mass attendance. And yet godparents are technically inessential to the valid administration of the sacrament; and in an emergency anyone can baptize.
Often, when I hear of the myriad prerequisites demanded in the average parish in the US for an infant baptism, I recall the Jesuit missionaries like Francis Xavier, Isaac Jogues, and Peter Claver. When these holy men administered baptisms by the thousand, they didn’t turn to those seeking baptism and say, “Well, I need you to attend two classes which are only offered once every three months, and then find two godparents and give me copies of all their sacramental certificates. Then submit donation envelopes for twelve consecutive Sundays so I know you’re attending Mass faithfully, and then we’ll talk about baptism.” After all, that would seem inconsistent with Jesus’s command to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19).
So permit me to be blunt: bureaucratic tape between babies and baptism is an unalloyed wrong and grave injustice. Let these infants be baptized, and stop making it so complicated. For other sacraments, like First Confession, it makes sense to catechize the children first. But for infant baptism, requiring catechesis of the often foggy-headed post-partum parents or chasing godparents down paperwork rabbit holes is missing the point of the sacrament entirely. The education of the parents is not the goal. The canonical status of the godparents is not actually essential to the sacrament. All that matters is the desire that the baby receive baptism. That’s why the priest asks, in the rite of baptism itself, what those bringing the baby want for the child. Baptism, they answer. Right then, at the baptism, they’ve cleared up the only question that counts.
Some may object, “What if they just say they want baptism because it’s a cultural custom, or they don’t intend to follow through and raise the child in the faith?”
To that, let the prolific and miraculous life of Mother Veronica be the answer. None of that is sufficient reason to bar the child from baptism. The most important thing—as Mother Veronica’s case makes clear—is to open that gate of grace to the child’s soul. Maybe the parents will fail in their fidelity to the gospel; maybe the godparents won’t take their promises seriously; maybe their main reason for asking for baptism is because Grandma expects it and they want a nice photo op in the church, anyway. In the end, that doesn’t matter.
What matters is that, through baptism, that tiny human being becomes a child of God and member of the Church.
Let the little children come to Him, and do not hinder them, for to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven.