From a reader…
Trying to get an annulment. Can’t find his baptismal record. Why is it so important?
Well! That was pithy.
There is a Latin adage from ancient Rome: Verba volant, scripta manent… Words merely spoken fly away, but words written down remain.
Baptismal records are wonderful things. When they are properly tended, they record all of the sacraments we receive in life. These written records are to be kept at the parish of our baptism. When a baptismal record is issued, it will have notations on the back listing the dates and places of all the sacraments we received. These records are our sacramental biography. And they supplement memories which can be inexact… for one reason or another.
With regards to a declaration of nullity, the tribunal needs the baptismal certificates for the parties for a number of reasons. Baptismal certificates establish whether the parties were baptized Catholics (and therefore bound by law to observe the Catholic form of marriage). They indicates the ritual Church to which the party is ascribed. For example, if one party is, say, a Maronite and she marries a Presbyterian in the Catholic Church, that marriage might be invalid because of a lack of jurisdiction.
The marriage which is being challenged ought to be noted on the baptismal certificate, if the records were properly kept. When there is a church wedding, the pastor or person in charge of that church is obliged by law to notify the parish of baptism of both parties so that the pastor of that parish can duly make the notations in their baptismal records. If it is not noted in the baptismal record, there may be a case of a lack of canonical form. There may also be other issues discovered in the baptismal record, such as a prior marriage, religious profession, or ordination. If these are noted on the certificate they will impact the decision of the Tribunal.
Most parishes, often through the diligent work of attentive parish secretaries, keep good records. Some, sadly, do not. Fie on them!
Every Catholic ought know where his baptismal certificate is. That said, these days there are lots of mergers and closures. If the parish one was baptized in has closed or merged, the records ought to have gone to the new parish, or they may be in the safe keeping of the diocesan chancery. If one was baptized in a hospital, or orphanage, or private residence, the records may be with that institution or they may be in the keeping of the territorial parish. If one was baptized in a non-Catholic church and then converted to Catholicism, one’s record will be kept at the Church where one made one’s profession of faith. That is what happened in my case, since I am a convert. When I was ordained, I had to produce, among the many documents required, a sacramental record from my parishes Baptism Registry. My record is in the Baptismorum Registrum Ecclesiae Sanctae Agnetis, Urbe Sancti Pauli, Minnesota, Vol. XIV, p. 31. It has the dates and place of my baptism, the names of my parents, sponsors, minister, an indication of my reception into the Catholic Church, when, where and by whom, the date, place and minister of Confirmation… and to that was added diaconate and priesthood. It’s all written down.
These records are to be kept in a secure place, even a fire-proof vault. Some places make sure there are backup copies, perhaps at the chancery archive. After all, Jesus saves, and so should we!
Sometimes it is impossible to obtain a baptismal certificate. In that case living memory of witnesses can substitute to an extent. However, I have written about that in other places.