By Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M
People ask me all kinds of questions as Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton. Some also address complaints to me about things they experience, usually something that happened in their parish. Frequently enough, these complaints arise either from some misunderstanding about specific aspects of Church law/policy or specific misunderstandings with those responsible for implementing Church law/policy, often regarding the sacraments. As Bishop, I would like to begin a series of catechetical instructions to help clarify some of the issues, expectations and misunderstandings presented to me most often. I would like to begin with the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
The Sacraments are not simply religious ceremonies or occasions to gather family and friends together in Church. They are encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ, “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace,” as the Baltimore Catechism noted. Sacraments follow us through life’s significant moments — birth, coming of age, regular nourishment, failure, sickness, marriage and commitment — to intensify our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. Yes, they are celebrated in religious ceremonies and, yes, they are celebrated with family and friends present — good things in themselves — but the seven sacraments are much, much more. Their reception requires our prayerful reflection and careful preparation so that we can receive them fruitfully. In order that those receiving them or participating in their reception as well as Catholics and members of other faiths present when they are given can understand and appreciate their true meaning, sacraments are celebrated in rituals created, administered and carefully observed by the Church.
The Catholic Church is a community of faith and doctrine; of sacraments and worship; and of structure and law. Elements of our doctrine, worship and law are unique to the Catholic Church and serve to distinguish it from all other religious denominations. The meaning and understanding of the Church’s seven sacraments are uniquely ours as Catholics as is the manner of their administration and the laws that govern them.
Let’s consider Baptism which, with Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist, is one of the “Sacraments of Initiation.”
Baptism is the first of the seven sacraments given to and received by those “initiated” into the Catholic Church, most frequently to infants or very young people. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has taught that baptism is “necessary for salvation (canon 849)” and “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to other sacraments (CCC 1213).” Baptism by a validly ordained Catholic bishop, priest or deacon with water “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” washes away original sin, begins a life of grace, and introduces the baptized into the Catholic Church. Other Christian religions practice baptism as well, but, the administration of the sacrament of baptism in the Catholic Church and the description of its effects are uniquely governed by specific Church laws (Canon Law).
Recently, Pope Francis began a catechesis or series of teachings about the sacraments during his Wednesday audiences. About baptism, our Holy Father noted:
… it gives us new birth in Christ, makes us sharers in the mystery of his death and resurrection, grants the forgiveness of sin and brings us new freedom as God’s children and members of his Church … Our baptism has changed us, given us a new and glorious hope, and empowered us to bring God’s redeeming love to all, particularly the poor, in whom we see the face of Christ. Our baptism has also given us a share in the Church’s mission of evangelization (Pope Francis, Audience Catechesis, February 5, 2014).
Much more can be said about baptism, so much so that the Catholic Church requires parents and godparents or “sponsors” to receive instruction in its meaning and purpose before the sacrament is conferred upon their children and godchildren. People in parishes often resist this required instruction for any number of reasons but the Catholic Church sees great value in its proper presentation to them.
Adults or those who are not children may also present themselves for baptism later in life. Its meaning and effects are not different for them but the manner of their instruction and reception are conducted in a different way called “the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.” It should also be noted that infants and others not baptized who are in danger of death may receive this sacrament from any person who uses water and the correct formula with the intention of baptizing him/her. Obviously, in such cases, instruction is not possible but the effects of the sacrament are the same.
1. In the ordinary and most commonly practiced case of infant baptism, what is required for the proper administration of the sacrament of baptism in the Catholic Church? The answers are found in the Church’s law. They also apply to those receiving baptism as adults as well.
Baptism should be administered according to the rite found in liturgical books approved by the Church (canon 850);
2. Parents and godparents should be properly instructed and prepared, as noted above (canon 851, para. 2);
3. The water used in baptism should be blessed either during the rite itself or at the Easter Vigil, except in urgent cases (canon 853); it is poured over the candidate’s forehead or he/she may be immersed in it (canon 854);
4. Baptism should ordinarily be administered on Sunday in one’s parish Church, outside of urgent cases (canon 857) but never in a home or a secular place; in urgent cases, it may be celebrated in a hospital or other place where its administration is deemed an emergency;
5. The name given to the one baptized should not be “foreign to a Christian mentality (canon 855);” the name of the child need not be that of a canonized saint but only one that is not offensive to Christians;
6. Except in urgent cases as described above, the ordinary minister of the sacrament of baptism is a validly ordained bishop, priest or deacon (canon 861);
7. Children should be baptized as soon as possible after they are born and parents should make these arrangements with their pastor (canon 867); at least one of the parents should give consent for the baptism of their child (canon 868, para. 1, art. 1);
8. For the eligible child to be baptized, “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion;” otherwise the sacrament may be delayed (canon 868, para. 1, art. 2). This is a very important provision. If the meaning and purpose of the sacrament will not be fulfilled in a home where this “founded hope” does not exist, it should be delayed until it is somehow present. In other words, if the child is not going to be raised Catholic, why go through the motions? Baptism is not merely “something you do” unless those involved in the sacrament and ceremony truly mean it.
There should be an authentic Catholic atmosphere and environment in the home of the one to be baptized. If the parents do not practice their Catholic faith or are opposed to it, it is not only reasonable but also probable that the child will not practice it either. “Founded hope” means that the Catholic faith will have a chance to grow in the life and experience of the one to be baptized. Otherwise, what is the point? This is a difficult requirement for some parents to accept. Parents are, after all, the first and most important teachers of the Catholic faith.
9. Another neuralgic area concerns the selection of godparents or sponsors, probably the most often cited difficulty for parents. While being a godparent or sponsor is certainly an honor, it is not only or merely an honor. To be a baptismal sponsor, as required by Church law (canon 872), carries with it very important and necessary obligations that cannot or will not be fulfilled if it is simply nominal or only honorific. A godparent or sponsor assists the parents by helping “the baptized to lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism,” fulfilling “faithfully the obligations connected with it (canon 872);”
10. The Church’s law presents other requirements for the selection of sponsors:
a. There may be only one godfather and one godmother, not two sponsors of the same gender (canon 873); technically, only one Catholic sponsor is required if it is not possible to employ two;
b. The sponsor(s) should be selected “who have the qualifications and intentions of performing this role (canon 874, para. 1, art. 1);”
c. The sponsor(s) should be at least 16 years of age unless there is a “just cause” to make an exception (canon 874, para. 1, art. 2);
d. The sponsor(s) should be baptized as Catholic and should have also received the sacraments of confirmation and the Holy Eucharist and should lead “a life in harmony with the faith and the role to be undertaken (canon 874, para. 1, art. 3);”
e. A sponsor may not be someone who has incurred an ecclesiastical penalty (e.g., excommunication) nor the mother or father of the one to be baptized (canon 874, para. 1, art. 5);
f. A non-Catholic, baptized Christian may be a witness along with a baptized Catholic sponsor but only as a witness not as a sponsor (canon 874, para. 2); a member of a non-Christian religion may not be a sponsor. The point here is not to offend or simply to exclude those who belong to other faith traditions but, rather, to ensure that the sponsor believes in, supports and lives according to the Catholic faith that their role as baptismal sponsor indicates and requires. That is the point of a sponsor.
11. The baptism should be recorded in the appropriate register of the parish of the person receiving baptism (canons 875 -878). Once the baptism has taken place, the name person(s) serving as sponsor(s) are not changed or altered in the register of the parish, even if their personal relationship to the one baptized has changed.
It is the responsibility of the pastor of the parish to see to it that all preparations for baptism (and other sacraments) are appropriately made for their valid administration. He and those who collaborate with him in a parish should exercise good pastoral judgment in accordance with the requirements of the Church’s law. They should not make the laws say “more” than they say; at the same time, they should not reduce its requirements.
Hopefully these comments will help clarify some of the questions raised about the sacrament of Baptism and will also help diminish some of the misunderstandings that occur before they become neuralgic.