1. A LONG HISTORY OF COMMON UNDERSTANDING
It says something about my seminary training that I never baptized a baby during my deacon year when, presumably, you are supposed to learn how to do this at the baptistry; however, I officiated at hundreds of baptisms in my years in the ministry through the year 1992, and it never occurred to me to change the baptismal formula in the official Roman Catholic Baptismal Rite, for I had already been taught it in grammar school! In truth, every child in my Catholic elementary school, St. Mary Magdalene in Buffalo, N.Y., and presumably everywhere on the planet, learned how to baptize, and exactly which words to say: “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Catholic school children of my generation were given this instruction precisely because, according to Church Law [then and now], we were all extraordinary ministers of the Church in the unusual but thinkable circumstance that someone of any age might be unbaptized and dying, desiring baptism but without the prospect of a priest coming upon the scene. [Think of battlefields and natal units in hospitals.] It was our duty to baptize. That was drilled into us.
The Baptismal catechetics of my 1950’s school years had a long history behind it, and it has carried through into the era of Vatican II. Para. 1256 of the Catechism states that “the ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.” Let me reword this for emphasis: an unbaptized person can, in case of necessity, baptize another unbaptized person so long as there is an intention to do what the Catholic Church would wish. We kids were educated to a generous understanding of the ministry of baptism, which I trust has been passed down to the present day.
Further, we were taught as children that there were extraordinary circumstances where the saving grace of baptism is given by God in actions other than the use of the Trinitarian formula and the pouring of the water. We were taught of the instances of “baptism of blood,” when someone is martyred for the name of Jesus before being baptized, and “baptism of desire,” where someone dies without the opportunity of experiencing the Church but who responds to the inner calling of God. In the Catechism [para. 1281] we read that “Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, can be saved even if they have not been baptized.”
I would bet that these elementary principles are embedded as deeply in Catholics as any sacramental principles, including Real Presence. Which is why what has followed in the past two years has created such a public uproar, being counterintuitive to our sense of baptism and grace.
Given that we grew up with such clear parameters of baptismal action, how did the ritual get so “messed up” years later by people who should know better? It is a long story, but bear with me, because I remember it well.
2. A TIME OF CHANGE AND EXPERIMENTATION…AND WELL-INTENTIONED MISTAKES 1962-?
After the Council Vatican II [1962-1965] the Church embarked on a generation or two of reforming its rites of worship. The Council Documents called for both a return to ancient practices [such as the extended RCIA for catechumens, the restoration of the permanent diaconate, communion of both the bread and the cup, etc.] and incorporation of new rites and practices for greater congregational understanding and participation [Mass in the native language, architectural redesign of churches, varieties of music, etc.] I came to adulthood in this era and was ordained at the height of it in 1974 and ministered in its immediate aftermath for twenty years.
Looking back, I can say that for the Catholicism I experienced in my little corners of the world, including five years in Washington, D.C., these were the best of times and the worst of times. For many of us who had grown up in the older “Latin” era, Vatican II felt like the gateway to a glorious new era of Church and societal reform. The principles of obedience and common order were questioned as themselves being repressive and alien to a new constructive spirit of freedom. Recall that the Council and its aftermath coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, the growing anti-Viet Nam War movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, school desegregation, etc. Every major institution was questioning its charter and modus vivendi. When I arrived in Washington as a student, many of my classmates at Catholic University were protesting the firing of a popular moral theologian who publicly stated that the Catholic Church had erred in restating its teaching that artificial contraception was sinful, in the 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae. [He was reinstated by CU for another decade and granted tenure.]
Seminaries were hardly exempt from the currents of the times. As major seminarians of this era of changing emphases, we were taught that our primary responsibility in leading sacraments was the full engagement of the people of God into the rite, whether it be the Mass, Baptism, or any of the other sacraments. Our daily and Sunday seminary Masses modeled this value. Moreover, our seminary training taught us to be compassionate listeners and to do whatever it took to extend the mercy of Christ—whether that be in the pulpit, the confessional, or the counseling office. I took a concentrated elective in graduate school on “ministry to the divorced and remarried”—somewhat cutting edge then--which instructed me on the procedures for filing for annulments and administering pastoral advice in the confessional to those who could not obtain annulments but wished to receive the Eucharist. It is sad that when Pope Francis, many years later, adopted some of what I had learned into his public teaching  on family life, Amoris Laetitia, he was accused vehemently by some critics of violating Divine Law.
Like most of my fellow young priests of that era, I made my mistakes. The biggest one was not getting my bearings in an extremely complicated church world around me. My seminary formation was weak, almost nonexistent, on matters of meditation, prayer, and spiritual direction. Contemplation took a back seat to action. As exciting as the post-Council years were, they were also terrifying in many respects. We were trying to do too much; our superiors and our seniors, as it turned out, were feeling very insecure themselves, as they had not had the benefit of formation in post-Council theology. My classmate and I were assigned to campus ministry after ordination and told to create it from the bottom up.
Consequently, one of the lasting impacts of the immediate years after the Council was the sense that many priests graduated from them with a stronger sense of ownership of the liturgies they were celebrating. We did not feel as bound to the Roman Missal as the priests of my youth. In fact, today’s Mass Missal itself offers the celebrant several options for the various parts of the liturgy, such as the penitential rites and the Eucharistic Acclamation. The phrase “in these or similar words” appears in several places in the official sacramental rites—though not at the Consecration, for example. As one might expect, the personal piety and emphases of a priest may drift into territory that is off the established liturgical reservation, even with the best of intentions. This may in part account for the personal adaptations of the baptismal rite, though there are other factors in play, as we will see on Thursday.
I should add, too, that most of us who were formed and educated after the Council did not feel the weight of Church Law, or Canon Law, as the generations before us had. My schooling took place with the 1917 Code still in effect; the Council had called for a reform of the Code, which was completed in 1983. [Personal confession: I failed the “Canon Law” question in my final ordination examination; fortunately, I passed three other areas on the exam.] There was a provisional sense of Church law and authority among many in the Church through much of my priesthood. A true story: when I applied for laicization during the papacy of Pope John Paul II in 1998, I was told by my canon lawyer that the story was going around Rome how priests ordained before 1978—my cohort—had a better chance of success than those ordained after 1978. It seems that Pope John Paul II felt my generation had been led to believe that there would be a change in the celibacy requirement, and he was inclined to be more forgiving toward us. When John Paul II was elected to the papacy in 1978, he was firm that no such change would be happening, and supposedly he expected greater obedience and dedication from the ordination classes of his era.
The highs and the lows of this era of the Church continue to influence us today. What I hope I have accomplished in this segment was provide the background of how deacons and priests might feel free to improvise in worship, including the Baptismal formula. As we will see in Thursday’s post, some of the variations on the baptismal formula were the product of present-day theological thinking as well.
3. WHAT HAPPENED RECENTLY?
In 2019 a young priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit, Father Matthew Hood, was watching an old videotape of his baptism in 1990 with his father when something troubled him. As a National Catholic Reporter story of February 21, 2022, summarizes, “Indeed, an error by a deacon who said, ‘We baptize’ instead of ‘I baptize’ spoiled Hood's baptism in the eyes of the Catholic Church — and, in domino-like fashion, erased his other sacraments and meant that he wasn't really a priest.” Consequently, every sacrament Father Hood ever celebrated—every baptism, every Mass, every confession—was invalid in the eyes of the Church. The most serious consequence dealt with baptism. The errant deacon baptized about eight hundred candidates before he retired. The Archdiocese of Detroit then began a rigorous campaign of public information to alert all the impacted Catholics that they would need to be rebaptized and, in most cases, remarried.
To date, again quoting from NCR, “That sent people at St. Anastasia [parish] scrambling to find videos of their children's baptism, the official entry into the church and a gateway sacrament to other Catholic rites, such as Holy Communion and even marriage. About two hundred baptisms were found to be valid, while seventy-one people stepped forward to go through baptism and other initiation sacraments again, archdiocese spokesperson Holly Fournier told The Associated Press. Another forty-seven people are making new arrangements, she added, but 455 still have not responded. Ten declined to participate.
‘We reached out directly, mailing letters to everyone impacted using the most recent records we had on each individual. ... We're eager to accompany anyone who comes forward,’ Fournier said. She declined to make clergy available for interviews to discuss why they believe so many people haven't responded over the past 18 months.”
Interestingly, while this baptismal fiasco was churning in Detroit, it did not immediately catch media fire until other cases began to pile up.
In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, another priest in 2020, Father Zachary Bozeman, learned he had been baptized with an irregular form, i.e., the “we” instead of “I”. The priest had been ordained one year. He approached his superior, Archbishop Paul Coakley, to inform him. Archbishop Coakley made this public, and the priest was quickly baptized and ordained. Curiously, Archbishop Coakley adopted a much more tranquil general remedy. He did not require that the children baptized by the priest be rebaptized, explaining according to the Catholic News Agency, “as baptisms can be validly performed by anyone using the correct formula (wording) and the right intention.” About marriages performed by the priest, Archbishop Coakley sanated, or validated, the marriages witnessed by Father Boazman prior to his valid ordination. See Canon #1161 #1. The term is an established principle, an executive order by the bishop that validates a defectively performed marriage from the time of the vows. [When I studied years ago, a sanation application needed approval by the Vatican.] Given that no baptisms or marriages were repeated, the Oklahoma Archbishop chose a less intrusive solution within Church law, and this case did not receive significant news coverage.
It is the third case that consumed social media and has proved to have the most widespread implications. Several weeks ago, in the Diocese of Phoenix Father Andres Arango was discovered to have used the “We” baptismal formula after the Diocese investigated a complaint possibly prompted by the Detroit news story of the previous year. The difficulty here is that Father Arango has been a priest for twenty years. Prior to his pastoring in the Phoenix Diocese, he had served the Church in Brazil and then in the Diocese of San Diego. There is an interesting link here to the San Diego Diocese’s publication of Bishop Robert McElroy’s letter. The bishop states that the baptism question is “a pastoral dilemma rather than solely a matter of church law.” He reminds his readers that “the bounty of God’s grace powerfully suggests that any men and women who were possibly baptized so long ago have received from the Lord the graces of baptism and all that goes with them in their lives. And thus, they should be at ease.” This is sound theology and sound pastoral practice.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, where this third case became known, has adopted the Detroit legal approach of attempting to track down everyone who was baptized by Father Arango. See the letter of introduction to pastors outside the Phoenix Diocese linked here which provides some idea of the staff work and paper involved. Father Arango remains in good standing and is actively helping to assist in the process. But this is the case that made the national evening news—thousands of people denied baptismal salvation because of a pronoun. As a blogger I subscribe to multiple Catholic social media sites, and not since the abuse crisis in 2002 have I seen such anger and ridicule vented by the Catholic public against a Church policy.
The public announcement of a third clerical baptismal irregularity is probably as welcome to bishops in the United States as a new variant of Covid, for this practice of the inclusive “we” in the baptismal formula is more widespread than we know. If nothing else, the appearance of other such irregularities will highlight a division within the Church between an emphasis upon form and an emphasis upon spirit. Two bishops cited above chose to address the issue in a formal and legal way, and two did so with discretion and theological prudence. Not surprisingly, the two cases which doggedly adhered to the letter of the law were the two that garnered what almost amounts to a public scandal. The discrete, prudent resolutions have received little or no attention.
NEXT:  We decipher three distinct Vatican directives on the Baptismal formula issued in the past two decades, which seem to be the sources of the confusion.  We will consider what can be learned from this liturgical fiasco.