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Faulty Baptism at an Easter Vigil

Date: April 23, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: Last year at an Easter vigil Mass I witnessed a very odd liturgical practice and would like to inquire about its validity. An adult catechumen was baptized with the parish priest pouring water three times on his head, while a concelebrant pronounced the sacramental formula of baptism. I think that this way of practicing baptism was invented because the said concelebrant instructed the catechumen, but was elderly, sickly, and with a rather unsteady hand. Although I appreciate that it was thought fraternal to involve this elderly priest in some way, I remember the episode in the U.S. where those who were baptized by the deacon or priest who used the plural form “We” had to redo all the sacraments since the baptism was invalid. Here, the formula was in the singular person, but as a matter of fact, there were two celebrants of the sacraments, each taking an essential part of the act. What are we to make of such a situation? If it was in any way irregular, what remedy should now be given? -- F.J., Taiwan

Answer: Unfortunately, it is most likely that the baptism and subsequent confirmation were both invalid and will need to be repeated.

For a valid baptism, it is necessary that the same person who says the words also pour the water. Otherwise, the words “I baptize you” would have no meaning since another is actually baptizing.

A similar situation occurred in Quebec from 1991-to 1996, in which a lay pastoral agent who had been authorized to baptize allowed the parents to pour the water while the minister pronounced the formula. After this error came to light the baptisms were deemed invalid by Church authorities, and it became necessary to trace the children and celebrate anew 295 baptisms. There have been a few analogous cases in other countries.

Doctrinally, the Church’s position generally follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in Question 67 of the Third Part of his Summa Theologiae. In Article 6 he addresses several aspects of the question: “Whether several can baptize at the same time?” He puts the doctrinal basis in the body of the reply while addressing our specific question toward the end in replying to Objection 3. To wit:

“Objection 3. Further, Baptism is a sacrament of the greatest necessity. Now in certain cases it seems necessary for several to baptize one at the same time; for instance, suppose a child to be in danger of death, and two persons present, one of whom is dumb, and the other without hands or arms; for then the mutilated person would have to pronounce the words, and the dumb person would have to perform the act of baptizing. Therefore, it seems that several can baptize one at the same time.

“I answer that, The Sacrament of Baptism derives its power principally from its form, which the Apostle calls ‘the word of life’ (Ephesians 5:26). Consequently, if several were to baptize one at the same time, we must consider what form they would use. For were they to say: ‘We baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,’ some maintain that the sacrament of Baptism would not be conferred, because the form of the Church would not be observed, i.e. ‘I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’ But this reasoning is disproved by the form observed in the Greek Church. For they might say: ‘The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,’ under which form the Greeks receive the sacrament of Baptism: and yet this form differs far more from the form that we use, than does this: ‘We baptize thee.’

“The point to be observed, however, is this, that by this form, ‘We baptize thee,’ the intention expressed is that several concur in conferring one Baptism: and this seems contrary to the notion of a minister; for a man does not baptize save as a minister of Christ, and as standing in His place; wherefore just as there is one Christ, so should there be one minister to represent Christ. Hence the Apostle says pointedly (Ephesians 4:5): ‘one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.’ Consequently, an intention which is in opposition to this seems to annul the sacrament of Baptism.

“On the other hand, if each were to say: ‘I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,’ each would signify his intention as though he were conferring Baptism independently of the other. This might occur in the case where both were striving to baptize someone; and then it is clear that whichever pronounced the words first would confer the sacrament of Baptism; while the other, however great his right to baptize, if he presume to utter the words, would be liable to be punished as a rebaptizer. If, however, they were to pronounce the words absolutely at the same time, and dipped or sprinkled the man together, they should be punished for baptizing in an improper manner, but not for rebaptizing: because each would intend to baptize an unbaptized person, and each, so far as he is concerned, would baptize. Nor would they confer several sacraments: but the one Christ baptizing inwardly would confer one sacrament by means of both together.

“Reply to Objection 3. As stated above (III:66:1), the integrity of Baptism consists in the form of words and the use of the matter. Consequently, neither he who only pronounces the words, baptizes, nor he who dips. Wherefore if one pronounces the words and the other dips, no form of words can be fitting. For neither could he say: ‘I baptize thee’: since he dips not, and therefore baptizes not. Nor could they say: ‘We baptize thee’: since neither baptizes. For if of two men, one write one part of a book, and the other write the other, it would not be a proper form of speech to say: ‘We wrote this book,’ but the figure of synecdoche in which the whole is put for the part.”

Therefore, if, in the celebration proposed by our reader both celebrants pronounced the baptismal formula simultaneously, then, we would be before an unlawful but valid baptism. If, as seems to be the case, one said the formula while the other poured the water, the baptism is practically certain to have been invalid.

The local bishop should be informed and a new baptism and confirmation arranged as soon as possible.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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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