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Baptism is more than just a simple rite of the Church

Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has previously stated the minister does not 'have the authority to modify the sacramental formula'

Baptism isn’t just some formal ritual — it profoundly changes people, giving them unwavering hope and the strength to forgive and love others, Pope Francis said in 2014, emphasizing the importance of the sacrament.

“With baptism, we are immersed in that inexhaustible source of life that is Jesus’ death, the greatest act of love in all of history,” he said.

Baptism isn’t merely “a simple rite, a formal act of the Church,” he said. “It is an act that profoundly touches our existence” and radically changes the person.

“A baptized baby is not the same as a baby who’s not baptized. A baptized person is not the same as a person who’s not baptized,” he said.

By being immersed in the living waters of Christ’s salvation, he said, “we can live a new life, no longer at the mercy of evil, sin and death, but in communion with God and our brothers and sisters,” embarking on a whole new life.

“If we are able to follow Jesus and remain in the Church, even with our limits, frailties and our sins, it is precisely because of the sacrament in which we became new beings and were vested in Christ.”

The power of baptism frees people from original sin, grafts them to God and makes them bearers of “a new hope” that nothing and nobody can destroy, he said.

The fact that baptism is ordinarily conferred by a priest or deacon in the Lord’s name shows it is a gift that is passed on from person to person — “a chain of grace,” he said. It is “an act of fraternity” and becoming a child of the Church, who, like a mother, generates new children in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Matter and form

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister’s words: ‘N., I baptize you 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.” (CCC 1240)

In 2020, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to questions about the validity of baptisms if any words were changed from the prescribed. They stated authoritatively that baptisms using the formula “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are invalid.

The CDF document states: “When celebrating a Sacrament, the Church in fact functions as the Body that acts inseparably from its Head, since it is Christ the Head who acts in the ecclesial Body generated by Him in the Paschal mystery …

“Therefore, in the specific case of the Sacrament of Baptism, not only does the minister not have the authority to modify the sacramental formula to his own liking, for the reasons of a christological and ecclesiological nature already articulated, but neither can he even declare that he is acting on behalf of the parents, godparents, relatives or friends, nor in the name of the assembly gathered for the celebration, because he acts insofar as he is the sign-presence of the same Christ that is enacted in the ritual gesture of the Church. When the minister says ‘I baptize you …’ he does not speak as a functionary who carries out a role entrusted to him, but he enacts ministerially the sign-presence of Christ, who acts in His Body to give His grace and to make the concrete liturgical assembly a manifestation of ‘the real nature of the true Church.’”

In January, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix announced that a priest of that diocese, Father Andres Arong, had used a formula different from the one prescribed in baptisms he celebrated. Bishop Olmsted said diocesan officials learned from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the baptisms were invalid because of the form used during the ritual.

“Specifically, it was reported to me that Father Andres used the formula ‘We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The key phrase in question is the use of ‘We baptize’ in place of ‘I baptize,’” Bishop Olmsted wrote in a letter to the diocese Jan. 14.

“The issue with using ‘We’ is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Him alone, who presides at all of the sacrament, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes,” the bishop’s letter said.

The use of the improper form led Father Arango to resign as pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Phoenix. Bishop Olmsted said Father Arango remains a priest in good standing in the diocese and that he would be helping the diocese identify and contact people whose baptisms are invalid.

An ‘indelible mark’

Lawrence Feingold, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury, said baptism and confirmation are sacraments of Christian initiation, and “both of them imprint an indelible mark, or seal, on us which is the mark of Christ.”

People still have free will, he said, and may not follow Christ but they are stamped with His image and call.

“Throughout our Christian life, that stamp of baptism is the source of graces to live the calling of baptism, which is everything, to be a member of Christ and therefore to live Christ-like and share in His mission,” he said in a 2020 interview with the St. Louis Review.

Father Phil Sosa, provincial superior of the North American Province of the Missionaries of the Holy Family, said that through the baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, “Jesus expresses His solidarity with all of humanity in their longing for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. Through our baptism, we are called to follow Jesus Christ and continue to show the gift of His humanity to the world.”

Photo Credits: Illustration by Abigail Witte
Father Sosa called baptism “the gateway to life in the Holy Spirit and a door that gives access to the other sacraments.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that baptism calls people to participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the people of God and to the witness of holy lives and practical charity.

Jennifer Brinker and Stephen Kempf contributed to this story.

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