As America reports, Pope Francis on Saturday baptized the son of Sergio Sanchez, the leader of the “waste-pickers” cooperative in Buenos Aires who was present at his inauguration as Bishop of Rome. The story is cast as an instance of the Pope’s warm relationship with this family, but it contains an account of the baptism, which will interest Pray Tell readers as well.

Unfortunately, the account is quite puzzling for anyone familiar with the rites. The reporter seems to have gotten some facts mixed up. Here’s what the report says:

Following the baptismal book, Francis had earlier anointed the child on the forehead and on the chest with the oil of chrism that he had blessed on Holy Thursday, but then he added to that tradition by anointing the child’s hands too. He explained this last anointing: “I like to do this because a person not only shows his dignity with his forehead when he looks at you, the person also expresses that dignity with his hands through his work.”

Here’s a fact check.

(1) First of all, the anointing on the breast is with the oil of catechumens, not with chrism.

(2) Second, the child is not anointed on the forehead in the rite of Baptism — at all. Neither the oil of catechumens NOR the oil of chrism used after the water bath is supposed to be administered on the forehead, so it is doubtful that he was “following the book” by anointing the forehead. The chrism is used for an anointing on the CROWN of the head. This distinction is actually important, and I doubt the Pope would get this wrong.

(3) Third, the post-baptismal anointing (the Christic anointing) can’t possibly be offered “earlier” but the exorcistic anointing (with the oil of catechumens) may be.

(4) In the adult rite, the anointing with the oil of catechumens is done on the breast, hands, and possibly other parts of the body as well (an acknowledgement of the ancient precedent, now extremely rare, of full body anointing). I could imagine the Pope taking the model for adults, i.e. the fuller practice, and adapting it for a child. This would account for “earlier” anointing of chest, head, hands. But it won’t square with the use of chrism.

(5) Finally, chrism isn’t blessed. It’s consecrated.

Then, of course, there are questions of interpretation.

(A) Does the pope “add to the tradition” by anointing hands? Not really. If it’s the oil of catechumens (see above, #4), he’s just applying a more liberal use of oil. That is very traditional indeed. I would see this as a pastoral adaptation that enhances the sign, rather than an attempt to “add to the tradition.”

(B) Second, does anointing with the oil of catechumens have anything to do with the dignity of the person and how that dignity is expressed? Remembering that we are given a secondhand account, and none of us were there, the most we can do is speculate about “What might this have meant” in this setting, if the report is accurate.

Anointing with the oil of catechumens is about the struggle against Satan. It is an oil for strengthening. So, one reasonable theological reading of the comment would be: yes, when the Christian is strengthened to resist evil, he becomes capable of showing forth the dignity for which he was created. And yes, he shows this dignity through the work of his hands as well as through his thoughts and the imagination.

On the other hand, it’s a stretch. Dignity and honor are much more clearly associated with the Christic anointing after Baptism than with the prebaptismal anointing. The anointing on the crown of the head with chrism is the consecratory anointing, evoking the royal, prophetic, and priestly identity of Christ, into which the child has entered by means of baptism. One wonders whether the purposes of the two (different) anointings are being conflated here, either by the Pope or by the reporter. (I’m betting it’s the reporter, but, having worked with pastors I know that anything is possible!)

That said, the pastoral appropriateness of stressing dignity in this setting – given that the family is drawn from one of the lowliest and most despised classes of society – is crystal clear, and I applaud the pastoral sensitivity that may have been at work here.

Finally, what are we to make of the fact that this was a “private” baptism? Baptism is normally and normatively a public celebration, to the joy of the whole church, even when “public” means a small assembly. It’s clearly not a clinical or emergency situation here. So, one can only speculate on the practical circumstances that may have influenced this decision. Schedule conflicts? The desire not to overwhelm the family? Is the “usual” for a papal baptism so elaborate that it becomes difficult? Pope Francis really does seem to enjoy the intimacy and simplicity of his daily liturgy with a congregation; a baptism in a communal setting of this kind would not seem hard to imagine. If they settled on a “private” celebration to avoid the press, it seems the press got in anyway.

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