ROME, 10 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina
Q: I recently witnessed a baptism, and I am not certain if it
was valid. During the baptism, the deacon grabbed the baby's
father's hand and, while the deacon recited the baptismal
formula ("Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"), he and the father both poured
the water over the baby's head three times. I am the godmother
of this child. I became concerned about the baptism before it
took place, because when I and the parents participated in the
preparation class, the deacon told us that in order to get other
people involved in the baptism, he would have their baby's
grandfather pour the water while he (the deacon) recited the
baptismal formula. I was afraid that this change to the form of
the sacrament might invalidate the baptism, so a couple of weeks
before the baptism I asked the mother of the child to talk to
the deacon and request that he himself pour the water and recite
the words. The mother talked to the deacon a few days before the
baptism, and the deacon insisted that it is OK for someone else
to pour the water while he said the baptismal formula. The
mother told me about this conversation on the day of the
baptism. I, in turn, insisted that the deacon be the one to pour
the water and recite the formula. In the end, as a kind of
compromise, the deacon grabbed the child's father's hand and
they poured the water together, while the deacon said the
baptismal formula. I am wondering if the baptism of this child
was valid since the form was changed. As the godmother, I feel
like it is my obligation to ensure that this child was validly
baptized. Also, would a baptism be valid if, in ordinary
circumstances, a deacon/priest recited the formula while someone
else pours the water, or vice versa? Along the same lines, can a
person who has no arms or is unable to speak baptize a child? It
seems to me that, in order for a baptism to be valid, the person
administering the baptism must both pour the water three times
and recite the valid baptismal formula. —
E.R., San Clemente, California
A: This is a very grave situation and I recommend that our
reader inform the deacon's pastor and the local bishop as soon
as possible. In this particular case, the fact that the deacon
did pour the water upon the child's head while saying the words
makes it probable that the baby was effectively baptized; but
this is not absolutely certain and a conditional baptism might
Since, however, it would appear that the aforementioned deacon
frequently had someone else pour the water while he recited the
words of baptism, then there are certainly a number of children
who have been baptized invalidly, and it is necessary to do
everything possible to trace them and administer proper baptism.
For the rite of baptism to be valid it is necessary that the
person who performs the ablution be the same as the one saying
the Trinitarian formula. It makes no sense whatsoever to say, "I
baptize you" if in fact someone else is doing the baptism.
("Baptism" means to bathe or dip.)
Sadly, this is not the first time that the above erroneous
practice has occurred. In another country the Holy See ordered
that several years of baptisms be repeated, or, rather, carried
out for the first time.
The Church requires certainty with regard to the validity of the
sacraments, and it is never permitted to proceed on the basis of
probable validity of either matter or form of the sacrament.
Thus, on Feb. 8, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith addressed the related question of those ministers of
baptism who changed the precise terms of the Trinitarian form of
the sacrament. With the approval of the Holy Father it answered
the following questions:
"First question: Whether the Baptism conferred with the formulas
'I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the
Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier' and 'I baptize you in
the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the
Sustainer' is valid?
"Second question: Whether the persons baptized with those
formulas have to be baptized in forma absoluta?
"To the first question: Negative.
"To the second question: Affirmative."
The expression forma absoluta means that the baptism is
done without using any conditional phrases because there is no
doubt that the original baptismal ceremony was invalid.
* * *
Follow-up: Questionable Baptism [11-24-2009]
There were several reactions to our Nov. 10 piece regarding an
invalid procedure in carrying out a baptism. Readers desired to
know how far a minister can deviate from the approved rite
without invalidating the sacrament.
First of all, there should be no deviations from the approved
rite. The present rite of baptism was developed from a
pre-eminently pastoral standpoint. Likewise, national bishops'
conferences have been granted wide leeway to make further
adaptations in the light of each country's particular
traditions. Thus, there should be no need for further personal
embellishments by ministers in the name of pastoral efficacy but
rather an intelligent use of the rich pastoral instrument they
have at their disposal.
However, when such abuses do occur it is, thankfully, quite
difficult to invalidate the sacrament of baptism as its minimum
requirements are very basic.
These minimum requirements consist in the minister pouring water
over the person to be baptized while saying the Trinitarian
formula: "N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of
the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Deviations in the form which do not change the essential
meaning, such as: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son
and Holy Spirit," or additions such as "Amen" or "Alleluia" are
illicit but would not be sufficient to invalidate the sacrament.
Changes that modify the essential meaning of the Trinitarian
formula, such as those mentioned in our previous answer, do
invalidate the sacrament.
Deviations or errors in the matter such as failing to pour water
three times or failing to immerse at least part of the head
during a baptism by immersion would once again be illicit ritual
failures, but they would not in themselves make the sacrament