ASK FATHER: Received into Church after strange Presbyterian baptism

From a reader…


I was Baptized in the Presbyterian Church and converted to the Catholic faith 9 years ago at the age of 9. Becoming very interested in my own baptism I watched a video of a Presbyterian ministerconferring baptism. He traced the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead whilst using the Trinitarian formula, [I suspect that that isn’t typical.] also I believe that it is common for Presbyterians to touch water to the head of the child without pouring it. Is this type of Baptism Valid? Also would it be prudent to try to contact the minister of my baptism and ask about the manner by which he administers the sacrament, to be sure of my Baptisms validity?

When I requested to be received into the Church my Parish Priest organized for me to prepare for the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist with my class at Catholic School with no ceremony of reception into the Church. Is this all that is necessary for reception in the Church?

It would be prudent to inquire of your church of baptism, ideally the very minister, about the method of your baptism.

Once upon a time, it could be assumed that major, mainstream denominations followed the Christian tradition and baptized validly, by pouring water with the Trinitarian formula. Now? Not so much. The Church still presumes the validity of baptisms conferred in most mainline Protestant ecclesial communities, but… many don’t even seem to follow their own rules.

When you were received into the Church, you should have been asked to make a formal profession of faith, been confirmed, and received Holy Eucharist.

Many of our own priests don’t follow our rules, either.

As I have written before, for baptism to be valid, water must be used along with the Trinitarian formula.  In baptism, conferred in the rites of the Latin Church, water must touch some part of the the head, even it it runs only on the hair.  Water touching the head for baptism is part of the most ancient of all Christian rites.  Some authors says that if, say in some emergency situation, water is poured on some other part of the body, the baptism is doubtful and, if possible, should be repeated conditionally as soon as possible.

Here is a message for priests:

If you are too thick to do immersion properly, just don’t do it.  Next time, throw yourself into the immersion pool, preferably wearing a millstone.

Here is a message for bishops:

You would do well either to quiz priests about how to baptize and to confer other sacraments or to send out occasional reminders.  Some might find this insulting, but I have heard some pretty crazy things.  It may be that men trained – this includes permanent deacons, by the way – in certain places in certain years cannot be assumed to know how to baptize properly.  Most dioceses have a letter that goes out from the chancery to priests every week, or at least regularly.  Perhaps that letter could include a brief “refresher” paragraph about important things like the matter and form of baptism, the obligation to use the proper formula of absolution and the like.  I have heard some strange things in confessionals and I have had to insist on the correct form (which is easier when you are a priest).

I’ll allow comments, but the moderation queue is ON.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. texsain says:

    I remember seeing a baptism class video from a generally OK company, like Liguori or OSV, where the deacon only dipped the baby’s feet in the water.

    I don’t understand why so many “liberals” and “progressives,” who talk so much about mercy, feel that it is OK to screw around with the ordinary means of God’s mercy.

  2. Terentia says:

    This brings up a question regarding the validity of baptisms in my diocese. I have witnessed many infant baptisms that consisted of the baby’s butt being dipped into the font but no water ever touched the head. Several of these baptisms were performed by the then bishop. Most priests also followed suit. Is it possible that for 25 plus years there were few if any valid baptisms and a entire generation believes themselves to be baptised Catholics when they are really not? What, if anything, can be done about this?

  3. TWF says:

    I can relate to the weird confessional experiences. I’ve come across “I forgive you…” and “God forgives you” in place of the proper formula of absolution. The last time I questioned it, the priest responded “forgive and absolve means the same thing”, shrugged, and moved on. Not very comforting.

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    If one is baptized as a baby one rarely remembers if the head, feet, backside, whatever, were immersed or had water poured over it. One has to go on the word of parents, if the baptism occurred, pre-video, or the priest and given some of the outright nuttiness in doing the sacraments, how many people have to really wonder if they were validly baptized? This is a serious matter. I suspect that invalid baptisms almost never happened before Vatican II. How is any baby baptized after 1970 supposed to know for certain that it was done rightly? Not that I want to create scruples in anyone, but, man, those priests who invalidly baptize are playing with fire of the most hellish kind.

    This, alone, is enough, if I were Pope, to suspend every implementation of something new in the practice of the Church until it were made absolutely clear that, no matter what, one does not mess around with baptism.

    I cannot say that this is evil fruit from Vatican II, but it surely is a parasite feeding off of the good bark.

    As for confessions, I’ve had to repeat at least one because the priest used an invalid formula of absolution. I was in shock when I left the confessional because there was a long line waiting and I could not be sure that he weren’t using the same invalid formula for them. This was one of the worst moral dilemmas of my life. I might have been the only one he said the invalid absolution for, so i couldn’t very well tell the rest of the line. I went to my regular confessor a few days later and he asked my permission to inform the bishop that some priest at church X was using the wrong formula.


    The Chicken

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I’ve never seen a butt baptism or foot baptism, thank goodness. But I suspect disregard of tradition is a secondary cause here, and that the primary problem is “fear of holding a baby.”

    People who aren’t used to holding a baby and who aren’t immediately overcome by the impulse to snuggle and say “Woogie woo” are often overcome by an opposite impulse – to keep or hold the baby as far away from one’s own body as possible. [I doubt it, but… who knows. Your planets yellow sun hasn’t given me psychic powers.] If one does this at a baptismal font, obviously the feet and butt are closest to the water and require the least handling of the baby. So a guy who’s unused to babies among his siblings and cousins and neighbors, and who has been taught at a bad seminary that any part of the body is pretty much the same for Baptism, might tend to follow his fear. Similarly, any priest or deacon uncomfortable with handling an adult baptizee’s body would be uncomfortable with immersing more than the feet or shoulders of the person (if they’re trying to use one of those immersion fonts for Baptism).

    Obviously this doesn’t make it right; but if discomfort is influencing this, maybe priest and deacon training should include more practice with dolls, mannequins, or actual people of all ages to practice on. If guys aren’t growing up playing practice Baptism, they may need to do it as serious students instead.

  6. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    I was not baptized as an infant, because in my mother’s church, the Disciples of Christ, infants were not baptized. I was raised in my father’s church, The Methodist Church (now The United Methodist Church) and baptized at 12 y.o. The clergyman put his hands into a bowl of water, and then, myself kneeling, he put his wet hands on my head, as if it were an ordination! He did use the Trinitarian Formula. I was assured, when I became a Catholic, that if water hit my head and the Formula was used, I was validly baptized.

    And the Formula was NOT “I baptize you in the Name of the Parent, the Child, and the Sanctifier”. I’ve heard of such garbage.

    Pedantic moment: the NT actually says in Greek “into [eis] the Name of the Father ” etc. But the Church, wise enough, is translating the Latin. Still, a good time to brush up on the Name Theology, or to drop into the Gesù in Rome.

  7. Hidden One says:

    This would seem to be a still more serious issue for convert seminarians whose Protestant baptisms seem valid in paper…. What then? [Let seminaries and bishops work that out.]

  8. texsain says:

    I think we could imagine all sorts of nightmarish scenarios where priests, bishops, or even a pope was never validly baptized, though I think the indefectibility of the Church would prevent us from having an invalidly baptized pope, and perhaps even bishop.

    This reminds me of something I read about Charlemagne. He was enraged, which led to his reforms, when he heard a priest baptizing someone…in nomine patria, et filiabus, et Spiritui Sancti…in the name of the fatherland, and of the daughter, and of the Holy Spirit… We survived those times; we’ll survive these.

  9. What is wrong with asking for a conditional baptism?

    Back in the day, all converts no matter from whence they came, were always conditionally baptized. This is not the same as ‘re-baptising’. The Church conditionally baptized to ensure that there was doubt whatsoever that the individual was baptized, because if the Church wasn’t there at the baptism, well you just can’t be sure. If we returned to this, any indignant fighting about ‘I have already been baptized’ would become moot.

    My own father, a nominal Congregationalist, was conditionally baptized back in the 50s. This was common practice.

    The requirement for valid baptism not only requires Form [in the name of the Trinity] and Matter [clean water poured, moving, across the skin] but also Intention [to intend what the Church intends]. Even in emergencies by lay people, these requirements have to be fulfilled.

    Our Lady of Good Success, in Quito, prophesied that after the mid-20th century, it would become very difficult to be baptized.

  10. paladin says:

    Texsain wrote:

    I don’t understand why so many “liberals” and “progressives,” who talk so much about mercy, feel that it is OK to screw around with the ordinary means of God’s mercy.

    This is just a guess, but: I suspect it has something to do with the idea that they want the “mercy” to come from THEM, and not from anywhere else (including God). Mercy from themselves can feel “empowering”, and it can be tweaked to suit one’s own tastes and conditions; mercy from God has this nasty habit of being packaged with things such as the call to conversion, belief in objective morality, and other things which might force the “giver” to examine his or her life for evil.

  11. edwardswyco says:

    I was baptized as a Presbyterian and my experience was that I knelt in front of the pastor as he read the prayers from their baptism service and if I remember correctly (I was 13), he dipped his finger or thumb into the baptismal font and traced the sign of the cross on my forehead/hair as he recited the Trinitarian formula. When I entered full communion in 2007 the diocese & parish received my old church’s record of my baptism, I proclaimed my faith, was confirmed, and received first Holy Eucharist. I’ve often thought back in wonder over my baptism because of the lack of pouring the water, but I’ve been told that since the Trinitarian formula was used, as well as running water, that it is assumed to be valid and I can relax.

  12. Correction
    The Church conditionally baptized to ensure that there was NO doubt whatsoever that the individual was baptized, because if the Church wasn’t there at the baptism, well you just can’t be sure

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