Ask Father Tom: What’s so important about the words of baptism?

On one of those perfect summer afternoons,  the residents of Heritage House in Kimball gathered for the anointing of the sick. As I placed my hands on the heads of each of them as part of that sacrament, the question suddenly came to my mind: How would Jesus touch these sisters and brothers of his, beloved children of his Father? What would he want them to experience at his hands? How does the touch of the Lord feel? That made me think.

By Father Tom Knoblach

I have anointed hundreds of people. I have healed not a single one of them. But Jesus always has, in soul and often in body.

I have offered something well over 12,000 Masses. I have not once given my body or blood. Jesus has never failed to do so.

I have prayed the words of absolution in many confessionals. I have not shared the fruits of my own death and resurrection with a single penitent. But I have spoken forgiveness, not instead of Jesus, but precisely through and because of Jesus.

In the same way, I have been privileged to be the minister of hundreds of baptisms. I myself have never baptized a child.

Every so often, a controversy erupts around the words of the baptismal formula. Most recently, it involved Father Andres Arango, a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix. For over 15 years, Father Andres altered the words of baptism to say, “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” rather than following the sacramental formula of “I baptize you …”

In other cases, different words have been used, expanding on the “we” (“your parents and grandparents, your sponsors, your parish family, baptize you …”) or substituting functional terms for the Trinity (such as “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier”).

By all accounts, Father Andres is a pastorally warm, compassionate and humble servant of the Church. He acknowledged his responsibility and apologized sincerely. However, the Church determined that those baptisms, like others that changed the words, are invalid. More than just illicit actions (contrary to the Church’s law), they actually failed to bestow the sacrament.

Predictably, this seems to some to be ridiculous, almost like a magical incantation that must be pronounced just so, or supernatural forces will not bend to human will. Others find it an alarm without a fire, a trivial point of discipline that ends up punishing where there is no offense. How might we understand this?

People form communities around many centers: schools, sports teams, workplaces, shared hobbies, virtual communities online. The Church, too, is indeed a community of disciples. But we are something much more: The Church is a communion formed by the love and grace of God. This is a bond rooted in more than human choice; it is born of God’s election and saving work.

In St. Paul’s words, Jesus is our Head, and we are his Body, a status we do not create but receive. Thus the fundamental and true “I” of the Church is Jesus Christ.

The “I” of God is all over Scripture, with two most notable and related instances. God reveals the divine name to Moses (Exodus 3:14) as “I am who I am;” in transliterated Hebrew, “Yahweh.” Our post-Lenten “Alleluia” captures this: “hallelu Yah” means to praise God or more literally, to praise the “I” that is God.

Jesus invokes this “I” at key moments. Walking on the Sea of Galilee, he reassures his frightened disciples: “It is I; do not be afraid.” When the woman at the well says she knows a Messiah is coming, Jesus says: “I am.” And at his trial, asked if he is really the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One, Jesus answers simply: “I am.” Indeed, our “Jesus” is Hebrew’s “Yeshua,” for “God saves.” As the Second Person of the Triune God, the “I” of Jesus is the “I” of Exodus.

Consequently, the Church teaches that Jesus is the true celebrant of every sacrament, the One who shares Trinitarian divine life in visible signs that bring about what they signify. He communicates the fruits of his own Paschal Mystery, his dying and rising, the saving work of the one God.

Regardless of motivation or sincerity, purposely changing the formula of baptism manifests at some level an intention to do something different, even if only slightly, from what Christ intends through his Church. In the case of Father Andres’ substitution of “we,” it is true that the community is enriched by and intrinsically involved in the Christian life of each baptized person. But that relationship in the Body that is the Catholic community is initiated by Jesus, not the community. Our belonging to one another in this sacramental bond is something we receive from him, not something we bring about.

So it is always Jesus himself who baptizes. The person pouring the water and saying the human words is only a minister of that true baptist and acts validly only with Christ’s intention. It is the “I” of Jesus speaking and acting in every sacrament.

This is not just a sentiment of piety or a dictate of discipline; it is a hope-filled truth of theology. As we approach the mysteries of Holy Week by which we are set free, it is an unfailing consolation to know that we belong to him who says “This is my body,” “I absolve you,” “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” and still speaks in the storms of our lives: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Top photo: Dianne Towalski / The Central Minnesota Catholic

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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