ROME, 5 APRIL 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our family is spread out, living across Canada and the United States. We would all be together in Florida (for the first time in three years) for a holiday and wanted to have our 3-month-old grandson baptized. In speaking with a parish in Orlando we were told that baptisms were not performed during Lent unless in case of pending death. While I appreciate the significance of Lent and the baptismal rite during Easter Vigil (usually adults), it would seem to me that since baptism is a sacrament it could be celebrated at any time other than Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is important for us to have all our family together for significant sacramental events such as weddings, baptisms, first Communions, etc. Is there a prohibition against having baptisms during Lent or is this a local initiative? — L.M., Edmonton, Alberta
A: The relevant universal norms come from the Code of Canon Law and the rite of infant baptism. The code says:
"Can. 856 Although baptism can be celebrated on any day, it is nevertheless recommended that it be celebrated ordinarily on Sunday or, if possible, at the Easter Vigil."
"Can. 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it."
The rite of infant baptism expands on the above principles when dealing with the time and place for baptism:
"8. As for the time of baptism, the first consideration is the welfare of the child, that it may not be deprived of the benefit of the sacrament; then the health of the mother must be considered, so that, if at all possible, she too may be present. Then, as long as they do not interfere with the greater good of the child, there are pastoral considerations, such as allowing sufficient time to prepare the parents and to plan the actual celebration in order to bring out its true character effectively.
"—1. If the child is in danger of death, it is to be baptized without delay, in the manner laid down in no. 21.
"—2. In other cases, as soon as possible — if need be, even before the child is born, the parents should be in touch with the parish priest (pastor) concerning the baptism, so that proper preparation may be made for the celebration.
"—3. An infant should be baptized within the first weeks after birth. The conference of bishops may, for sufficiently serious pastoral reasons, determine a longer interval of time between birth and baptism.
"—4. When the parents are not yet prepared to profess the faith or to undertake the duty of bringing up their children as Christians, it is for the parish priest (pastor), keeping in mind whatever regulations may have been laid down by the conference of bishops, to determine the time for the baptism of infants.
"9. To bring out the paschal character of baptism, it is recommended that the sacrament be celebrated during the Easter Vigil or on Sunday, when the Church commemorates the Lord's resurrection. On Sunday, baptism may be celebrated even during Mass, so that the entire community may be present and the relationship between baptism and eucharist may be clearly seen; but this should not be done too often. Regulations for the celebration of baptism during the Easter Vigil or at Mass on Sunday will be set out later."
Therefore, there is no universal rule that would forbid the practice of baptism during Lent. However, given that Lent is traditionally orientated toward the preparation for baptism, many parishes and even a few dioceses have policies that discourage it.
Another reason why several places discourage baptisms during Lent is that in some cultures they also give rise to festive social celebrations that might be inappropriate during a penitential season.
Since these regulations forbidding baptism during Lent are never absolute, pastors always retain the possibility of setting them aside for a good reason and so decide to perform a baptism.
Apart from the case of imminent danger of death an infant can and should be baptized if there is any reasonable health risk in the first weeks. Even the strong desire of practicing Catholic parents to offer baptism to their child at the earliest possible date after birth should be considered as sufficient to waive a rule of no baptism during Lent.
In the case presented by our reader, the baptism has already been delayed several months, so urgency cannot be called upon. At the same time, a pastor could weigh the special circumstances that a family reunion around the reception of the sacrament by its youngest member can also be a moment of grace for all.
Perhaps, if our reader could meet personally with the pastor so as to explain the situation, the priest might be able to make a better assessment and judge if the circumstances warranted an exception to the general parish policy. If a personal meeting is not feasible, it might help to write a courteous letter to the pastor, detailing the motivation behind the request for an exception to the parish policy.
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Follow-up: Infant Baptism in Lent [4-19-2011]
A reader commented on our April 5 column: "I think you missed a great point in your instruction about the infant baptism during Lent. There is the question of jurisdiction. It is to the parish priest that authority is given to baptize. I also question why grandparents are assuming the duties of arranging the baptism; what hope is there that the child will be raised in a Christian home if the parents do not even take initiative in the baptism of their child? While I would personally baptize the child, I would still require a statement of membership in a parish and permission to baptize another's subject. Salvation of souls is the greatest concern, but indiscriminate baptisms cause scandal to our Church and the sacrament itself by assuming it is merely a rite of birth or passage and not entrance into the Body of Christ with all the responsibilities and promises therein."
Although I am not aware why the grandparents were organizing the baptism, I presumed their good faith and assumed that they made the inquiries because they have a residence in the area were the family reunion was to take place. I also presumed that the necessary permissions had been sought and obtained. That is why I centered my attention on the question of baptism during Lent. In this sense, my answer would have been the same even if the parents had written regarding the policy of their own parish.
However, the point of jurisdiction is a valid one. As our reader points out, in former times being baptized in one's own parish by the pastor was a strict obligation. A 1907 article in The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: "It is to be noted that though every priest, in virtue of his ordination is the ordinary minister of baptism, yet by ecclesiastical decrees he can not use this power licitly unless he has jurisdiction. Hence the Roman Ritual declares: 'The legitimate minister of baptism is the parish priest, or any other priest delegated by the parish priest or the bishop of the place.' The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore adds: 'Priests are deserving of grave reprehension who rashly baptize infants of another parish or of another diocese.' St. Alphonsus […] says that parents who bring their children for baptism without necessity to a priest other than their own pastor, are guilty of sin because they violate the rights of the parish priest. He adds, however, that other priests may baptize such children, if they have the permission, whether express, or tacit, or even reasonably presumed, of the proper pastor. Those who have no settled place of abode may be baptized by the pastor of any church they choose."
Today, the law still holds a preference for baptism by one's own pastor in the parish church but allows for more flexibility in practice.
The 1973 introduction to the Rite of Baptism for Children affirms:
"10. So that baptism may clearly appear as the sacrament of the Church's faith and of incorporation into the people of God, it should normally be celebrated in the parish church, which must have a baptismal font.
"11. After consulting the local parish priest (pastor), the bishop may permit or direct that a baptismal font be placed in another church or public oratory within the parish boundaries. In these places, too, the right to celebrate baptism belongs ordinarily to the parish priest (pastor)."
The 1983 code enshrined this principle in canon law:
"Can. 857 §1. Apart from a case of necessity, the proper place of baptism is a church or oratory. §2. As a rule an adult is to be baptized in his or her parish church and an infant in the parish church of the parents unless a just cause suggests otherwise."
This general principle regarding the minister is further specified in the 1988 introduction to the rite of Christian initiation:
"11. The ordinary ministers of baptism are bishops, priests, and deacons ….
"11.3. Except in a case of necessity, these ministers are not to confer baptism outside their own territory, even on their own subjects, without the requisite permission.
"14. Other priests and deacons, since they are co-workers in the ministry of bishops and pastors, also prepare candidates for baptism and, by the invitation or consent of the bishop or pastor, celebrate the sacrament."
Thus, by positing a "just cause" rather than a "grave" one for baptizing outside of one's own parish, the code retains this as preferred but allows some degree of flexibility and adaptation to the realities of modern life.
Although the universal law, as such, would not absolutely require permission from the parent's pastor in order to for an infant to be legitimately baptized in another parish, this is often required by national and local Church law.
This permission is also prudently requested by a pastor whenever an unknown couple asks for baptism so as to ensure, as far as reasonably possible, that the child will be raised and formed as a Catholic.