Questionable Baptism

And More on Swine Flu

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ROME, NOV. 10, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
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 be warranted.
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.
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Follow-up: Guarding Against Swine Flu
Coinciding with our Oct. 27 piece on swine flu and the Mass, the Archdiocese of Boston published a series of directives, excerpts of which we report below. They may serve as models for other diocese facing similar situations:
«The Archdiocese of Boston Office of Worship, in consultation with local health authorities and the Archdiocesan Office of Risk Management, continues to encourage the clergy and faithful to observe necessary standard precautions to protect the health of others during this flu season, and especially with the risks related to H1N1 influenza. The best way to prevent the spread of contagious disease is to practice good hygiene.
«Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, Co-Director of the Office of Worship and Spiritual Life, said, ‘Given the extraordinary precautions being taken across the nation to prevent the spread of the H1N1 influenza, the Archdiocese has instituted a series of steps to be followed for the time being during the celebration of the Mass. We thank our priests, deacons, religious and parishioners for their understanding and support of these directives, which aim to protect the health of our people.’ […] 
«In addition to practicing good hygiene, the Cardinal directs the following for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy and for flu prevention:
«– The Holy Water fonts are to be drained, cleaned with a disinfecting soap, and re-filled with holy water on a regular basis. Please note that old holy water should be disposed of in the sacrarium.
«– The distribution of the Precious Blood for the faithful is suspended, with the exception of those who must receive from the cup due to medical reasons. The faith of the Church teaches that Christ, whole and entire, is received even under only one species.
«– The exchange of the Sign of Peace is to be offered without any physical contact. If the priest celebrant chooses to extend the invitation for the sign of peace, the faithful, instead of a handshake, may bow to the persons nearby.
«– While the faithful retain the option of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand, all ministers of Holy Communion are advised to distribute the consecrated hosts with care, being cautious not to touch the tongue or the hand of the communicant.
«– Parishioners should be reminded that if they are ill or suspect they are ill with a contagious illness, they are not bound by the Sunday Mass obligation. They should remain at home and return to church when they are well.
«These directives are effective Saturday, October 31, 2009 and remain in effect until the cold and flu season has come to an end.»
It is noteworthy that the archdiocese did not ban the reception of Communion on the tongue. Since these directives were made in consultation with local health authorities, it would appear that this usage is no more likely to spread infection than hand contact.
Some other readers asked if it was correct for the priest and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to disinfect their hands immediately before distributing Communion.
While such a practice is well meant, it is probably unnecessary and might be counterproductive by making some susceptible people queasy about approaching th
e altar. If such a precaution is deemed worthwhile, it is probably sufficient to do so in the sacristy just before Mass, especially if the above-mentioned measures outlined for the Boston Archdiocese are also carried out.
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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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