How Does Pope Francis Baptize?

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.


  1. Thank you for articulating all of this Rita, some of which was on my mind. In particular, given my line of work where I work with so many families approaching the church to seek baptism, I am often faced with requests for “private baptism.” *sigh* We do incorporate the baptism with our Sunday liturgies for reasons that are obvious to us. I try to use this as an invitation to these families, typically young and away from church since their wedding, as a form of welcome and gathering.

    Anyway, grateful for the post.

  2. The private Baptism may have been due to time constraints as the father had to get back to work in Buenos Aires by Monday….and I think they had just gotten to Rome on Friday. I would need to check the article to verify that. It is easily a 24 hour flight to get to Rome or going back. Saturday may have been the only available time with the pope’s schedule. As for the reporting, it is a first hand account as the author and his wife, Elisabetta Pique, were present for the event.

  3. The notion of a “private baptism” is raised here. It is perhaps helpful to point out that we have developed a liturgical myth that baptism must always be celebrated at Mass. Perhaps it would be helpful to refer back to #9 in the Introduction to the Rite of Baptism:

    9. To bring out the paschal character of baptism, it is recommended that the sacrament be celebrated during the Easter Vigil or on Sunday, when the Church commemorates the Lord’s resurrection. On Sunday, baptism may be celebrated even during Mass, so that the entire community may be present and the relationship between baptism and eucharist may be clearly seen; but this is not to be done too often.

    Notice the language used: “recommended” / “may” / “even” / “is not”

    1. @Francis Xavier Kelly:
      Just to clarify… Baptism at Sunday Mass is not the only alternative to “private baptism.” An assembly can gather for baptism as a stand-alone liturgy. That is what I meant by the analogy with the small assembly at daily Mass.

      The term “private baptism” smacks of something specially arranged to keep out the hoi poloi, or for “special treatment” by clergy to service families personally aside from the Christian community.

      The ONLY place the ritual text recommends “private” treatment is… guess what? … conditional baptism, which should be administered with minimal rites and not in the public eye, so as to avoid casting doubt on the legitimacy of baptisms that may well be valid, in other separated churches.

  4. When baptisms are celebrated outside of Mass (at least in American custom) the family is free to invite any and all they want to be there. I hardly think of that as “private”.
    Let’s face it: aside from liturgists, the average Jane/Joe Catholic really is not interested coming for the monthly or bi-monthly celebration of baptism at the local parish church unless it’s a family member or friend. The other consideration is that is often forgotten is that those who are parents are often shy, and if they aren’t regular Sunday worshipers or in complex living situations they often feel rather sheepish about being “paraded” at the time of baptism, especially at Sunday Mass.

  5. Francis Xavier Kelly : When baptisms are celebrated outside of Mass (at least in American custom) the family is free to invite any and all they want to be there. I hardly think of that as “private”. Let’s face it: aside from liturgists, the average Jane/Joe Catholic really is not interested coming for the monthly or bi-monthly celebration of baptism at the local parish church unless it’s a family member or friend. The other consideration is that is often forgotten is that those who are parents are often shy, and if they aren’t regular Sunday worshipers or in complex living situations they often feel rather sheepish about being “paraded” at the time of baptism, especially at Sunday Mass.

    That is exactly the reason for having a monthly baptism outside of Mass — in the church on Sunday. If, say, six families are scheduled on a given Sunday afternoon for the celebration of infant baptism, and you include assorted grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, older siblings, friends, and neighbors, you have a sizable but not overwhelming assembly that is both communal and intimate. I know this works because that’s how we celebrated baptisms at the first parish I worked at. We actually did it quarterly since the parish, at that time, didn’t have a lot of young families.

  6. At the parish I worked, we had baptisms on Sunday afternoon 3 times a month (it was a huge parish). As Nick says, it makes for a nice size group. To make it work, a parish baptism team was assigned to welcome people, show them to their places, and generally make them feel comfortable. When I did the baptism catechesis, generally a few weeks before the baptism, the young parents got to see that almost everyone there was just as uncertain as they were about what to do; it made for a very easy atmosphere at the Sunday afternoon when the presider was able to acknowledge and accept that feeling. It works, in most cases better than baptism at Sunday Mass.

  7. Although I understand Pope Francis’s motivation for the blessing of the hands, I would sincerely hope he would promote chrismation for infants and children as well as adult converts. I hope that the Holy Father would offer priests blanket authority to baptise and confirm infants and children in one ritual. If priests are permitted to chrismate adult converts, then priests should be permitted to perform the conjoined rites at every opportunity.

    The celebration of baptism and confirmation together is especially imperative if a newborn is ill or weak. In fact, I would say that even if there is the slightest possibility of severe infirmity or death, a baptism and confirmation should be performed.

    I am fully convinced that “private” baptism should remain the norm. It is unwise to wait until an infant is a month or two old to baptise. An infant should be baptized as soon as the priest is available to do so, regardless if a Mass can be said. Salvation cannot wait.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      In support of my comment at #8, please consider the following notice from the tribunal of the Diocese of Dallas:

      Margaret Gillett. “Emergency baptismconfirmation”. (Memorandum, Dallas TX, February 20, 2007.)

      Here Margaret Gillett explains why a priest must confer confirmation in an emergency and therefore complete the sacraments of initiation. For this reason, Gillett states that a priest should be called for when an emergency arises, and not a deacon simply for baptism. The relevant sections of canon law are listed and stated in the memo.

      This memo lends support to my convictions. However, I wonder if there is still some question as to what constitutes an emergency. My eagerness to confer the sacraments even at the slightest sign of infirmity might not be in keeping with the intentions of the Church.

  8. The anointing of the hands surely is an adaptation, but inasmuch as the one being baptized was the child of a union official and presumably an advocate of workers’ rights, there is a certain fittingness to Francis’s explanation regarding the hands as a symbol of the dignity of work.

    I’d have neither the imagination nor the nerve to come up with that sort of adaptation :-).

  9. There are countless millions of catholics baptized as infants who were never taught about its inseparable link to celebrating the Eucharist. We often call them lapsed or fallen away, but in truth many of them never actually practiced the faith that comes to us from the apostles. I don’t believe infant baptisms need to be celebrated during Sunday Mass, but I do believe they should be scheduled, whenever possible, in close proximity to it. We normally schedule baptisms immediately following a weekend Mass and make it clear that the family is expected to participate in those Masses to underscore the connection between these sacraments of initiation. Are we not baptized to be made members of the priestly people who are able to worship God in spirit and truth? Have we not long since abandoned the notion that baptisms are celebrated to rescue children from limbo? And, as Jordan should know, every priest chrismates individuals immediately following baptism in water. If they are 7 years or older we call that chrismation “confirmation”. Shouldn’t we call it confirmation no matter the age? This could deliver us from the legal fiction of calling the confirmation of teens a sacrament of “Christian maturity”.

  10. Might it not be a possibility that the postbaptismal chrismation was performed using the formula for Confirmation?
    So many of the recent immigrants to our diocese from Mexico & Central & South America present their children for First Communion and inform PCLs (and sometimes even have the proper documentation) that their child was confirmed at baptism or shortly thereafter,

  11. My current parish in the Diocese of Arlington has two spanish Masses every Sunday, and five English Masses. In addition, there are two anticpated Masses in English on Saturdays. And, there is one EF form early AM on Sundays.

    We seem to have between 6-8 children from the hispanic community baptized every week, and about 6-8 children from the english speaking community baptized every week.

    They used to try to have a spanish service and an english service each week, but there literally wasn’t time between Masses, and the people remained segregated.

    The Pastor seemed to put the parochial vicar in charge of baptisms, and he threw out the old order, and initially established the following:

    1. First Sunday of the Month, Baptisms in English.
    2. Second Sunday of the Month Baptisms in Spanish
    3. Third Sunday of the Month Baptisms in Latin (New Rite)
    4. Fourth Sunday of the Month, Baptisms in Latin (Old Rite)
    5. If there is one, Fifth Sunday of the Month, Baptisms in English or Spanish alternating by months in which there is a 5th Sunday.

    Well, the response was fairly unexpected.

    The result by simply what people chose has morphed into the following by popularity.

    1. First Sunday of the Month, Baptisms in English, followed by Spanish.
    2. Second Sunday of the Month Baptisms in Latin (Old Rite)
    3. Third Sunday of the Month Baptisms in Latin (New Rite)
    4. Fourth Sunday of the Month, Baptisms in Latin (Old Rite)
    5. Fifth Sunday of the Month, Baptisms in Latin (Old Rite)
    6. Baptisms on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays in Latin (Old Rite)

    Of course, the Old Rite is longer, and more complex, so that’s probably why they had to add weekdays. However, it is startling, because 60% of the Parishoners chose the Old Rite last year, about 10% chose the New Rite in Latin, with the remaining 30% choosing either English or Spanish.

    It startled me, as the EF form of the Mass is not heavily attended. No more that 175 people appear for it on any given Sunday, and it is primarily just large families. But the…

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