What Is Baptism?
Baptism serves as the first sacrament one receives when entering the Catholic Faith. It is a sacrament of initiation (which you can only receive one time), meaning once you received it, you officially enter into the body of Christ, the Catholic Church. The recipient receives justifying and sanctifying grace when baptized, and the Holy Spirit begins to dwell within them.
Form and Matter
Every sacrament requires two things, form and matter. The form of the sacrament is the words that are spoken and the matter is the physical substance used during the sacrament. For example, for baptism, the form is the baptismal formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The matter is the water poured over the head of the recipient. Traditionally, the one being baptized has water poured over them or is fully emerged in water three times. Additionally, the ceremony includes vows rejecting Satan, vows of the godparents, and the material symbols of the white gown and baptismal candle. These additional aspects are important, but not required for all baptisms, namely those in emergency situations (scroll down to learn more about emergency baptism).
Valid and Licit
Like any sacrament, baptisms must be both valid and licit to serve the individual as God intended. If a baptism is valid, then it is recognized as having been done using the correct form, matter, and structure that is needed for the sacrament. If a baptism is licit, meaning it’s legal, it is recognized as having been done in line with Canon Law.
It is impossible for a baptism to be invalid and licit, because all invalid baptisms are also illicit. However, a baptism can be valid and illicit. An example of this would be if a lay person baptized someone using the baptismal formula and pouring water over their head, but doing so without being in an emergency situation that requires such action. Another more specific example would be if the parents of the child being baptized said during the ceremony that they will raise the child in the Faith, but are lying and don’t actually intend to do so. It is very important for baptisms to be both valid and licit, making the form, matter, structure (baptismal promises, vows of the godparents, baptismal candle, etc.) and meaning (the “why” behind it all) of the sacrament of great significance.
What It Does
St. Paul describes baptism as the “first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14). According to aboutcatholic.com baptism does five things:
- It forgives all sins that were committed before baptism including original, mortal, and venial sin.
- It makes the baptized a new creature.
- It turns the baptized into a newly adopted son or daughter of God and a member of the Church.
- It brings them to share in the royal priesthood of Christ. (1 Peter 2:9)
- It leaves a spiritual mark (or character) of belonging to Christ on the soul of the baptized.
It serves as the foundation of communion within the Church, and the initiation into Christ’s Body the Church. With this initiation comes a sort of seal, St. Augustine calls it a “character.” This character, which is the fifth thing that baptism does in the list above, is “like a brand imprinted on a soldier that cannot be removed.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks upon this character as well, saying:
“No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation … The baptismal seal enables and commits Christians to serve God by a vital participation in the holy liturgy of the Church and to exercise their baptismal priesthood by the witness of holy lives and practical charity” (CCC, 1272 and 1273).
Now that you know what a Catholic baptism is, you might be asking yourself, “what does it all mean?” Everything that is done during a baptism has a purpose, even the material objects used during the ceremony. Here are just a couple of the biggest areas of symbolism in a Catholic baptism:
For more info on the meaning behind these and more objects in the Catholic Church, check out The Sacred That Surrounds Us at the link.
The baptismal font is the large bowl of holy water where most baptisms take place. The word “baptism” itself means “to be immersed.” For the first few hundred years of the Church’s history, baptisms would be done in large natural bodies of water, such as rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. The earliest baptismal fonts in the Western Church were found in the catacombs of Rome, where indoor baptisms would take place. Baptismal fonts were moved to churches in the fourth century A.D. Most are located at the front of the church, to signify the sacrament as being the “door to the Church.” In fact, we are reminded of our baptismal promises whenever we enter or exit a church. Small baptismal fonts are located at all doors within a church, which we dip our fingers in upon entering or exiting, blessing ourselves in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Water is the essential matter within a baptism. It is so to symbolize that Jesus is living water, and as we are cleansed during the sacrament, we are welcomed both into the Church and into eternal life. Water is also a symbol of divine life, grace, new birth, growth, deliverance, power, and the covenant God established with his people, first through Abraham.
A baptismal gown is the outfit worn by the one receiving baptism. Traditionally, the gown is white. This is to signify Christian dignity, and the act of becoming a new creature through the sacrament. The color white is also to symbolize being clothed with Christ, as we are cleansed from sin.
The baptismal candle that is lit during the ceremony is also used as the Easter candle. The lighting of the candle represents the flame of faith, which is to be kept burning throughout the life of the baptized. Additionally, the candle symbolizes the risen Christ, as he is the light of the world. The fact that the baptismal candle is also used for Easter is to remind us of Christ’s passion and rising which made the gift of baptism—a full cleansing of original sin, the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within us, and the invitation into eternal life—possible.
The Sacred Chrism and Oil of the Catechumens
Two of the three holy oils are used during a baptism. The first is the oil of catechumens. This oil is used to bless the child before the actual baptism takes place, in order to strengthen the recipient and prepare them for the sacrament. The second oil used is the Sacred Chrism, which is considered the most important of the three holy oils. The Chrism is not only used during the sacrament of baptism, but also during confirmation, holy orders, and at the consecration of a church.
Early on in Church history, this olive oil was used for several different functions, such as welcoming guests into a home, cooking, medicating the ill, preparing a body for burial, and many other practices. The earliest formula of blessing the oils for sacramental use was first found during the fourth century in the Prayer Book of Serapion. The use of the three oils comes from the instructions of Jesus himself, as we see him asking the apostles to anoint the sick (Mark 6:13). The apostles passed this custom on throughout the years (James 5:14-15), giving us the practice of using them still today.
Many of the Church fathers have written on the importance of blessing the newly baptized with sacred oils. The oils are held in vessels called stocks and are placed in an ambry (or cabinet) until they are needed. Chrism is used to consecrate persons, setting them apart for God, while the oil of catechumens is used for those seeking baptism, and the oil of the infirm is used while anointing the sick or dying.
Who Is Involved in a Baptism?
Baptisms are a family affair, not just for the individual but for the Church as well! The baptism is usually attended by the recipient’s close family and friends, as well as those chosen to be their godparents, whom play a role in the ceremony. Today, most people are baptized as infants by a priest or deacon, though this is not strictly necessary (see below). The parents present the child for baptism while the godparents are present as witnesses.
Ordinary Minister of the Sacrament (Priest or Deacon)
Although any lay person can baptize in certain emergency situations, it is preferred to have a priest administer the sacrament of baptism. In the Catholic Faith, priests act in persona Christi Capitis, which means “in the person of Christ the Head.” Pope Benedict XVI explains this in his letter, The Priest’s Three Duties, saying:
“The priest represents Christ. What is implied by ‘representing’ someone? In ordinary language it usually means being delegated by someone to be present in his place, to speak and act in his stead because the person he represents is absent from the practical action.”
This does not mean, however, that Christ is absent in the Church and in the roles of the priest. Instead, it infers that:
“The priest, who acts in persona Christi Capitis and representing the Lord, never acts in the name of someone who is absent but, rather, in the very Person of the Risen Christ, who makes himself present with his truly effective action … The Lord makes his own action present in the person who carries out these gestures.”
It is thus believed that the priest is the best member of the Church, given practical circumstances, to administer the sacrament of baptism. St. John the Baptist tells the people he is baptizing in Matthew 3:11:
“He who is coming … will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
It is because of Scripture and the role of the priest as persona Christi that we are baptized through priests. Through their hands, which are to represent the hands of Christ himself, we are brought into the body of the Catholic Church.
If a priest in unavailable to perform a baptism for whatever reason, it is permissible for a deacon to perform one in his absence. Because a deacon is not a priest, there are limits to what they can do in the celebration of our faith. However, baptism is a sacrament they can administer. This is because the deacon is considered a cleric and an ordinary minister of the sacrament of baptism, just as a priest or a bishop is. Baptism is an action proper to his role, and if he has the approval and knowledge of the priest at his parish, he may baptize both validly and licitly.
Parents or Guardians
Parents (or guardians) take on the responsibility for raising the child Catholic when they ask for baptism. They are the ones responding to the baptismal promises (click here to view the baptismal promises) on behalf of the child. When asking for a Catholic baptism, the parents or guardians must be able to say with confidence that the child will be brought up within the Faith. This includes taking the child to Mass, teaching them the Faith, praying with and for them, and making sure they receive the sacraments including reconciliation, first Communion, and confirmation. The role of the parents is a crucial aspect of any infant baptism, and must not be taken lightly. For more info, check out the FAQ below on whether you need to be Catholic to have your child baptized.
The role of the chosen godparents is twofold. First and foremost, they are to act as a source of prayer and example for the child being baptized. Secondly, they are expected to assist in the formation of the child’s faith throughout their life, and, if needed, are available to raise the child in the Faith if the parents cannot. This being said, the faith of the godparents is an extremely important factor in fulfilling the baptismal promise of being raised in the Catholic Faith. For more information on choosing godparents, check out Father Josh’s podcast here.
Emergency Catholic Baptisms
Although most baptisms are celebrated by a priest or deacon, there are extreme circumstances in which someone can be baptized by even an unbaptized individual. (see FAQs below) All that needs to be done for a valid baptism is the cleansing through water and the spoken blessing of the Trinitarian baptismal Formula:
“I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit.”
For more info check out About Catholic’s “A Guide to Catholic Baptism”
Why Do We Have Them?
The question of why we have baptisms in the Catholic Faith is easily answered: to gain eternal life. As Christians, we are blessed by baptism. It is the door to the Catholic Faith and the first step we take to pursue eternal life in heaven. This is backed up in Scripture, most notably in John 3 where it is written:
“Unless you’re born again in the water of the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
On these grounds, baptism is believed to be one of four things that are needed for salvation. This also plays into the reasoning of why we baptize our infants: it is to give them the gift of eternal life in heaven, and through our faith that we invite them into salvation (for more on baptizing infants, go to the FAQs below).
Article courtesy of Ascention Press