10 January 2021
Her seven sacraments are the lifeblood of the Catholic Church. Without the sacraments there is no church. They define the Church and those who are part of it. Everything else about the Church grows out of and is secondary to her sacraments. Baptism is the first and definitive sacrament of the Catholic Church. It can never be repeated. It can never be undone. It can never be overturned or revoked. One can reject the graces of baptism. One can live in a way that attempts to deny it. But, once baptized, one remains baptized, indelibly marked as having died and risen in Christ.
Baptism is the door through which all must enter to partake fully of the Church’s life. Without baptism there is no spiritual life. Without baptism there is no light of Christ. Without baptism there is no partaking of the Eucharistic banquet. Without baptism there is no forgiveness of sin or reception of the Holy Spirit. Without baptism there is no hope. Baptism is not simply a naming ceremony complete with photo opportunities. Like all of the Church's sacraments it must be administered according to proper form, using proper matter for the sacrament, and with the proper intention on the part of the priest administering it and the one receiving it.
Form. Matter. Intention.
Each sacrament has a unique form consisting of words and ritual actions. The form combined with the necessary matter: water, bread, or sacred oils, are the visible signs of invisible grace. Baptism is the first and the sine qua non.
The defining moment of baptism is the pouring on of--or immersion in--water with the spoken formula: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." There can be no variation in the formula if the baptism is to be valid. There can be no variation in the formula if the stain of original sin is to be removed.
Recently the press was abuzz with the story of a young priest whose ordination was declared invalid because at his baptism the deacon--I am tempted to modify the word deacon by idiot--chose to baptize him using an invalid formula by saying, "WE baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" so as to create an artificial sense of community.
Further beneath contempt are those pervert the formula even more and baptize in the name of a creator, a redeemer, and a sanctifier so as to avoid nouns that suggest gender. Those baptisms are also invalid as the Boston Paulist Center and Boston's now defunct Jesuit Urban Center discovered a number of years ago.
One can only describe baptismal formulae along the lines of, 'the mother, the father, the godmother, the godfather, we all baptize you' as pathetic and bizarre, raising questions about both the motivations and sanity of the one administering the sacrament.
The sacraments are not to be trifled with. The sacramental formulae are never to be reworded or changed so as to be politically correct, 'gender sensitive' (whatever that may mean), or a reason to make everyone feel good about being there. One's presence witnessing a sacrament, baptism, marriage, or ordination, for example, is itself a grace, it need not be specifically acknowledged as in the introductions to some bad banquet speeches.
In response to reports of liturgical abuses in which children are baptized with formulae that are gender-free, all-inclusive, or other transgressions of the form of the sacrament, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled in August of 2020 that baptisms using a modified formula are, and were, invalid requiring that the sacrament be administered according to valid and proper form.
The document went on to explain that modifying the sacramental formula on one’s own initiative is both a severe liturgical abuse and a wound inflicted upon the communion of the Church.
Violating the integrity of baptism through rewording or reworking it represents the height of narcissistic arrogance in the one who chooses to do so. Jesus himself gave the formula for baptism in the final two verses of Matthew's gospel, important verses that include three commands and a promise:
The third is:
That Jesus was baptized is indisputable. All four Gospels give accounts. The importance of Jesus’ baptism is not how it was performed, or at what exact spot in the Jordan He was baptized. The importance of Jesus’ baptism is its significance for us. There are three understandings of baptism to explain that significance.
The most obvious is washing, which is the literal meaning of the Greek roots of baptism. For us, washing includes the remission of original sin. But sin was the only human trait. Jesus did not share with us. He united Himself with us sinners to redeem us from sin but He Himself was free of sin. Then why was He baptized?
Another New Testament understanding of baptism is dying and rising. The prayer for the blessing of the water in the ritual highlights this understanding: "We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the water of this font. May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with Him to newness of life." As Jesuit theologian Xavier Leon-Dufour explained, “Baptism kills the body in so far as it is an instrument of sin and confers a share in the life of God in Christ.”
A third understanding is that of birth in the Spirit, a very Pentecostal theme that is a homily in and of itself.
While it is possible to conduct a semester-long seminar on the sacrament of baptism, its meaning, significance, and ritual, there is one fact which unites all understandings of baptism, without which there is no share in the life of Christ.
Whether understood as cleansing from sin, dying and rising to new life, or new birth in the spirit, Jesus Christ is the agent. Jesus is present at that sacrament. In the only valid formula: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" the priest or deacon, is NOT acting in his own name, in the name of the Church, in the name of the parents, siblings, godparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, close friends, and the old lady down the street.
As the words of baptism are intoned it is Jesus who is present and welcoming the child or adult into His life. That is more than sufficient. No other presence need be recognized.
The photo is an example of right place, right time, and having the camera on one's person. It was taken in the late afternoon while I was wandering through the Jesuit Residence in Lyon, France the day I arrive. The chapel is to the viewer's left and a meeting room to the right. The light show lasted about five minutes. Given my miserable sense of direction it would have taken longer than that to find my room in the large and rambling former monastery (Visitation Nuns).