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‘I’ not ‘We’ – the importance of Baptism

Msgr 'Mike' de Verteuil baptises a baby. Photo courtesy: St Francis RC Parish, Sangre Grande

By Kaelanne Jordan

Arizona, USA-based Fr Andres Arango has voluntarily stepped down as parish priest after learning he botched thousands of baptisms with “one simple mistake”. “I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people in your parish and elsewhere,” Fr Arango wrote in his letter of resignation, shared on his parish’s website.

The gaffe came as Fr Arango used the pronoun ‘we’ where he should have said ‘I’ — as in, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Second Edition, “In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister’s words: ‘N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’”(§1240). The error also means that because Baptism is the first of the sacraments, some people will need to repeat other sacraments as they will be classified as invalid.

In an interview with Catholic News, Fr Roger Paponette, Judicial Vicar of the Eastern Antilles Inter-diocesan Tribunal asserted that Baptism is rightfully called the gateway to all other sacraments.

“In other words, unless you have received Baptism, you cannot validly receive other sacraments whether it be Communion, Confession, Marriage, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick. That’s how important Baptism is. It is that one sacrament that allows you to receive all the others,” Fr Paponette explained. “Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” “Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn,” (§CCC).

What constitutes a valid Baptism?

“We’re dealing with both intent and material,” Fr Paponette said. The material for Baptism is water. “And some people go into long discourses about what type of water, whether it be spring, pipe…” He asserted that the water should not be contaminated. No other type of liquid such as soft drink or milk can be used. The intention, according to Fr Paponette, is that “the person you intend were to receive what Baptism is. That is adoption by God, union with Christ, brothers and sisters as members of the Church…. that is the formula that is used.” Fr Paponette underscored that Baptism is not just valid within the Catholic Church. In fact, the Church considers and acknowledges all baptisms that follows these basic rules.

He highlighted the Anglican formula, Presbyterian, Methodist, Orthodox “and so forth” are the same. “They all agree that one formula that is valid, the formula and the material, so in a sense, all of them are fully, properly baptised and therefore you have received what God had intended. You are in a sense members of the Catholic Church but we will say not in full communion, but still, you are in a communion because we share baptism.” Fr Paponette commented that many persons consider themselves baptised Christians. He said for persons entering the Catholic Church, the priest would enquire “how were you baptised?”, “what was the formula used?”. “And so many people have their own interpretations, it has to be done by the sea, by the river, some would say.” CCC §1214 states, “This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to ‘plunge’ or ‘immerse’; the ‘plunge’ into the water.

“The essential rite of Baptism consists in immersing the candidate in water or pouring water on his head, while pronouncing the invocation of the Most Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, (§1278). Fr Paponette shared a story of one local Anglican priest who conducted Baptisms by sprinkling water on the candidates. “And so, a lot of the questions when we had to receive Anglicans into full communion we would ask ‘who baptised you’ and we would do the research. And if it was that priest, then your baptism would not have been recognised.”

How common is this?

Asked if he has heard of similar scenarios like Fr Andres’, Fr Paponette referred to Fr Matthew Hood of Detroit, a priest who discovered he was invalidly baptised and ordained. An August 2020 article reported, “It was only a few weeks ago that he discovered by chance that his baptism in 1990 was not valid, and therefore neither was his ordination in 2017 nor were many of the sacraments he presided over in the past three years, when he thought he was a priest but was not.’” The article mentioned that Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit issued a letter on August 22 informing his flock that in light of a recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fr Hood’s baptism and ordination had been invalid because the presiding deacon at his baptism in infancy had said, “We baptise you” rather than “I baptise you.” “Once that was discovered, the archbishop explained, Fr Hood had been properly baptised, confirmed and then ordained as a deacon and a priest.”

Responding to the question of how this innocuous mistake continued for all these years, Fr Paponette quipped, “I suppose in so many different ways.” He emphasised, “We would have been taught this. I remember we were taught this by Fr Mike [Msgr Michael de Verteuil, Chair of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission]. He would have been following the rules, the law pertaining to all of the sacraments, not just baptism. And then later on in canon law it would have been introduced. It’s not that it’s not introduced, its taught.” He continued, “A lot of these things become emphasised. The mistake like the priest [Fr Andres], because I suppose the assumption is you were told what is right and the basic assumption is everyone will do what’s right.”

Fr Paponette also raised the issue of monitoring in an effort to ensure that priests and deacons understand what is being said and the instructions that are being given. He observed that there is a presumption that they do.