ASK FATHER: Priest only baptizes babies by full immersion and without clothes (… on the baby)

baptismFrom a reader…

My daughter and son-in-law (a Lutheran, and a good man finding his way home) are taking classes in preparation for the baptism our granddaughter who will be born in April. She has been told that all baptisms are done during Mass with no exceptions. Not her preference but she’s fine with that. They also have been told that all babies will be baptized by total immersion in the baptismal font (large pool) in the narthex. The babies (in the past as many as 12 or more at a time) will be completely disrobed. My daughter and her husband were taken aback by this and they do not feel at all comfortable placing their newborn in this situation. I’ve told them that while I believe it is certainly licit, I’ve never seen this done before. I believe it to be part of the Orthodox tradition but I do not understand it to be a Roman Catholic tradition, at least in this country. So for me this situation does beg the question, why? Why the pastor would think this necessary, even against the wishes of the parents? Your comments and suggestions please Father.

P.S. Went to confession today!  Thank you for your constant reminder of God’s Mercy encountered in this sacrament. Would that all priests be as vigilant in this regard.

Naked baptism, and baptism by immersion are certainly valid, but not required. I question the authority of the pastor to impose either on the faithful.  I think a discussion is in order with the pastor about possible options. If he’s unwilling to bend, a call to the diocesan chancery (after Holy Week, thank you) might produce some reasonable alternatives.

Once again, the question arises: Why are certain persons in the Church (generally of a liberal stripe) intent on making certain options mandatory (e.g., doing baptisms a certain way) while, at the same time, they seem eager to turn certain mandatory obligations into mere options (e.g., claiming that it’s still an option to stand during the Canon while it’s clearly not permitted any longer)?

Thanks for the mention of confession.  Everyone…


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Christophe says:

    Father, I got a chuckle from your headline — “without clothes (… on the baby)”

  2. Volanges says:

    In our parish we offer Baptism both by pouring and by immersion and which form is used is the parents’ choice — even if various Pastors have expressed a definite preference for immersion. Our baptisms are usually celebrated during Mass and we’ve had as many as 5 at one Mass with 4 by pouring and the last by immersion.

    As far as naked immersion goes, to me (mother of 3, grandmother of 2) it makes more sense than bringing a diapered baby out of the font with water pouring from the diaper.

  3. sea the stars says:

    I have seen this practice at a parish in central Paris also. Three babies were baptised this way, in the middle of Sunday Mass. It was a normal baptismal font though, not a swimming pool.

    [To avoid any doubt about the validity of the baptism, water must flow on the skin of the head, not somewhere else.]

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I am very sure a priest has not authority to impose immersion, especially not one wherein he is handling a dozen naked babies. Some people have ZERO common sense.

    “So for me this situation does beg the question, why?” I hate it when people use ‘beg’ that way.

  5. polycarped says:

    Sounds to me suspiciously like he may be a priest of the Neocatechumenal Way, especially given the description of the large font in the narthex. This is the only place I’ve seen this kind of full/naked immersion of babies done. I have slightly mixed feelings about the specific approach and VERY mixed feelings (diplomacy applied) about the Neo-Cats in general.

  6. “The babies (in the past as many as 12 or more at a time) will be completely disrobed.”

    I would want my baby to be first, unless of course he had not changed the water from the previous Baptisms. That is unsanitary IMHO. When a baby hits that water I am sure many of them urinate. That is just, well……not a good idea.

  7. JesusFreak84 says:

    If one of the parents or a significant portion of extended family are of a denomination that requires full-immersion, I could understand doing so then just to keep them from squawking, but that’s about it o_O

  8. ReginaMarie says:

    Full immersion Baptism is indeed the tradition in Orthodox Christianity. It is also the tradition in the Eastern Catholic Churches. I don’t think the parents should be too concerned, since this is a valid & ancient form of Baptism.

    [Sure its valid. Of course in the Roman Church – the Church we are talking about – dropped it as the norm. Moreover… the parents don’t want it.]

  9. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Just wait till the first naked baby pees in the font, let alone poops therein.

  10. majuscule says:

    I’m with semperficatholic–even if it’s holy water it will undoubtedly have something added along the way.

    And since the water “has to flow on the skin of the head” does full immersion mean the whole head is dunked? [No.] Has anyone done a study of babies baptized in this parish and a later fear of water?

    I’ve been in only one Catholic Church with a baptismal wading pool and it seemed to draw the toddlers for hand splashing if adults did not keep a strict eye on them. Truly a distraction and health hazard!

  11. JohnRoss says:

    The manner of baptism you describe is normative in the Byzantine rite.

    I believe the Ambrosian rite used by Latin-rite Catholics in Milan has always retained baptism by immersion for infants.

  12. Supertradmum says:

    The custom was also not uncommon in Roman Catholic Medieval Europe. Paintings and decorations in Psalters of babies AND adults being baptized by immersion may be found. St. Thomas a Becket’s mum was an Islamic convert, who is seen in at least one drawing being fully immersed in a baptismal font big enough for adults, as well as drawings and paintings of babies in this position–all naked. Some famous kings and saints are also depicted as being fully immersed with no clothes on, etc.

    Even paintings and pictures of the Baptism of Christ not only mostly show Him naked, but sometimes even in a font as that was the common way. I think modern sensibilities cause this view, not liturgical form. That the Roman Church dropped the norm and that it has come back in some parishes could be discussed by the priests who would like to see this, not enforce it, but have a preference, and perhaps use it as a teaching moment.

    As to illness or diseases from water, I think those arguments are red herrings, as the one parish with which I am familiar that had baptism by immersion has a person who is scrupulous about hygiene.
    I hope the taking of videos at sacraments such as baptism has nothing to do with this family’s preference. Thankfully, in the parishes where I have lived, the priests discouraged videos of sacraments.

  13. APX says:

    [To avoid any doubt about the validity of the baptism, water must flow on the skin of the head, not somewhere else.]

    This is what I thought as well, and so I’m curious why they mean by “full immersion” for babies. It seems very dumb and dangerous to stick a baby’s face under water. The closest things I’ve seen to “full immersion” for babies looked quite traumatic and questionable regarding validity. What I’ve seen is the priest takes the arms, and the godfather takes the legs, and holding the baby above the font dunk the back and rearend into the font three times as each person of the trinity is mentioned (if you’re familiar with getting the “Birthday bumps” it’s like that). This is how all my cousins have been baptized at one parish. So many screaming and unhappy babies (they did baptisms in groups every 6 months).

  14. acardnal says:

    If immersion is used to baptize, do they have to be immersed three times or is once sufficient for validity? [Once.]

  15. pjsandstrom says:

    Two ways to avoid accidents in the font: 1) use tepid — not too warm — water & 2) insist on using “swimming Pampers” (they do exist and do work as a practical solution)! Immersion Baptism (like breast feeding of babies) is the most natural [?] — and with long tradition way of doing essential things for the physical and spiritual health of the child (and probably also of the parents). [So what? Some parents don’t want it.]

  16. Michael_Thoma says:

    While full immersion baptisms are in deed Traditional in Eastern Catholic Churches, I do not believe it is mandatory to have the baptism during the Divine Liturgy. In addition, in the Eastern Churches, I have never seen the same water shared among multiple baptisms unless it was in a natural body of water (a lake, stream, river).

  17. dans0622 says:

    The parents were told these requirements by the pastor himself? And if the parents say “No, she won’t be baptized that way” the pastor will respond with…? I agree with Dr. Peters–the pastor “has not authority to impose immersion.” I also hope that “total immersion” does not mean “total immersion.”

  18. ReginaMarie says:

    A liturgical practice being dropped as the norm (receiving the Eucharist on the tongue, celebrating Liturgy facing East, etc.) doesn’t necessarily mean it is less desirable. Full immersion Baptism seems to better represent the symbolism of dying to sin & rising again with Christ in the new birth of Baptism. [So?]

  19. Adeodata says:

    My children were baptised that way at two different parishes. It was suggested at the first parish. We liked it enough to request it at the second parish. The babies were not immersed to the point of being totally underwater. After being disrobed, we gently lowered them into the baptismal font with their heads supported above the water. Then, the priest poured a little water on their head reciting the words “I baptize thee . . .” Afterwards, we lifted them out, dried them off, and put on their new white baptismal gown. I must say it makes quite an impression on the congregation. People at the second parish who had never seen it done that way before were talking about it for weeks in terms of its beauty and meaning. I encourage other parents to be open to the idea.

  20. StabatMater says:

    Just my 2 cents: Could they find an “Extraordinary Form” Baptism??? It is the stuff of which deep conversions are made. To even witness just one makes one weep with joy at God’s mercy upon His people. [It is interesting that you bring this up. Both I and the priest whose parish I am at on Sundays have remarked that people who experience the older, traditional rite of Baptism for the first time are pretty much blown away by it.]

    However, it also makes one weep at the raw, in your face evidence of just what has been stripped of the Sacraments, the liturgy, and the Faith in the past 60 years.

    I so wish I had known about the Old Rite when my children were babies. It is probably my deepest regret in motherhood.

  21. Pastor in Valle says:

    The baptism is, as many have commented, certainly valid and licit. But this fad for total immersion baptism is a strange thing and is not ancient. Look at any ancient depiction of baptism, and you will see the baptiser standing beside the font/river and the catechumen standing waist-deep or so in the water. The baptiser pours the water onto the head of the catechumen. Secondly, most examples of ancient fonts that have been discovered are simply not large enough for a person to lie down. The fad for immersion derives in one instance from the practice of the Byzantines in the baptism of infants; more immediately in the West, from the practice of certain Protestants of mostly Anabaptist tradition, who assumed, without any evidence at all, that it was the practice of the Apostles.

  22. Volanges says:

    polycarped, many parishes that have probably never heard of the Neocatechumenate Way install those large fonts with continually running water when they do renovations. I know that the Basilica in the next parish installed one several years ago and we were considering one when we were looking at a major renovation. Only the price stopped us.

  23. Volanges says:

    During immersion, no, the baby doesn’t go completely under water. Hand under the bum, hand under the head, lowered into the water so that the face is not immersed. I mean, really, no different from the way I bathed my babies and washed their hair. I must say that the priests I’ve dealt with who liked immersion were the ones who were very comfortable holding babies, either because they had a passel of nieces and nephews they dealt with since infancy or they’d been doing immersion for a long time.

    As for fear of water, we’ve had older kids want to go back into the font. I’ve had more babies squawk at pouring than immersion, perhaps because with pouring we’re less vigilant about the water being warm enough not to shock. With immersion the parents test the water ahead of time and it’s adjusted to be about the same temperature as the child would experience when being given a bath.

  24. benedetta says:

    To all those who say that this is tradition in Eastern Rites therefore…we can “borrow” and select elements or customs at will (?)…is it in the rubrics in the Eastern Churches that several or more infants at once or quick succession be immesed into a pool naked?

    No offense but my take is that Father here doesn’t really know much at all about baby wrangling! LOL…

    [Latin customs for the Latins!]

  25. Volanges says:

    I don’t know about the Rite in other countries but if you read the Canadian Rite of Baptism for Children you soon realize that it presumes immersion.

  26. frjim4321 says:

    The priest in the example, and others like him, is making a big mistake not only by imposing something that the church does not require (in other words, being more Catholic than the church) but also by taking away a choice. I find that when people have a choice they feel empowered and can take greater personal ownership for what is going on. Another example is the use of the screen for confession. We always give the second graders a choice. I think when they have control over part of the process they are less nervous about it.

    While all of our baptisms are at mass, there is a choice as to whether to use pouring or immersion. Most people chose pouring. For immersion, we do that naked and its quite easy to hold the baby in such a manner that private areas are not displayed.

    My understanding is that for most of history adults were baptized and were indeed baptized naked because of the symbolism of birth. Also, I suspect for most of history people weren’t as squeamish about nakedness as they are in recent years.

  27. Supertradmum says:

    Even way back in 1988, I got permission to have my son baptized in the EF…the old way like I was baptized in and so forth…especially nice because of the exorcism. And, he wore the same gown I did and a little crocheted hat which his maternal grandpa wore on his baptismal day…which, of course, was taken off the head before baptism.

  28. Mary Jane says:

    Okay, Hubby and I have four children 5 years old and under, so we’ve had quite a few baptisms in the last 5 years. (For context, we have had our children baptized in the EF rite at our FSSP parish). Regarding immersion, a few thoughts:

    There is no way to avoid babies having accidents in the water…the temperature of the water does matter, but water is water is water…

    They do not make swimming pampers diapers (not that I have seen anyway) small enough to fit newborns correctly.

    I don’t see how immersion can contribute to the physical health of the child. A few questions come immediately to mind: What is the temperature of the water? Is it warm enough / cool enough so the baby won’t be freezing / won’t get scalded? How many other children were immersed prior to my baby? Did any of those children have dirty bottoms prior to being immersed? Did any of those babies have infected umbilical cord sites that were still healing? Did any of those babies have accidents in the water? Etc. Yuk.

    Naked newborns, especially when wet, are slippery and difficult to hold on to and support correctly. Anyone who has ever done bathed a newborn baby knows this. I don’t like the idea of Godparents (who may never have handled newborn at all, let alone a wet one) holding a wet slippery baby above a large-ish pool of water that is what, how many feet deep? Yeah, no.

    Baptizing babies by immersion…no thanks. Just not for us.

  29. benedetta says:

    I’m really glad that you piped in up there, frjim4321, as I know how much you hate anything that smacks of “being more Catholic than the Pope”. As far as I know, our Holy Father Pope Francis is still baptizing children (with Mass said ad orientem in the Sistina) the usual way. I suppose that you may want to revisit your policy of offering so many choices when the Pope himself still goes with just the one option.

    I find it odd that you would presume that offering more choices to, babies, second graders, and more, somehow is comforting or as you say “empowering”. Really I think a lot of people would find the menu perplexing and confusing, not to mention some kind of implicit undermining of the goodness of the Faith, of tradition. I mean, if you are not a Reformer Protestant, or, perhaps, even if you are one, then, we aren’t going by Sola Scriptura. And I know how much you dislike going that route as well from your past commentating ouevre found herein on the blog of Father Z. I think to offer a slate of options for some things, some select things well self selected by you the clerical one, but not all things, would, and I say this as someone with vast experiences in child development, seem to undermine things and cause a lot of consternation and overall confusion. Not to mention fostering doubt, undermining the confidence inherent in the Faith which is trustworthy. I don’t know that any amount of simple or complex explanations from yourself the celebrant would suffice in that case. I fear that a lot would really not feel so tenacious, especially in these troubling times, to stick it out, as it were, to discover the entire fulness of the Faith that still remains solidly but may require some chasing down in order to make it one’s own so to speak. Now that can really be empowering, in the ultimate sense, and not as a little bonus proffered by you the presider.

  30. Fr. John says:

    In the Eastern Tradition, when babies are baptized, that does mean fully — head and all. There are sometimes deviations from this norm, but it is still the norm.

  31. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Urine is sterile. But urine is not all that babies manufacture.

    Nevertheless, any priest who insists on touching anybody naked–even babies–is some kind of sick kook. I can hardly believe any bishop is tolerating such goings-on.

  32. Imrahil says:

    On a practical point… I know babies are small, but even babies aren’t that small that they fit t0 be immersed into a usual-sized baptismal font… unless the font is as full as possible full and the celebrant makes the recipient baby do a head-down plunge immediately taking him out again.

  33. Kathleen10 says:

    I have never heard of this, but don’t actually like the idea. I hate to interject weirdness into a lovely discussion but frankly, there are just plain too many perverts in the world today to expose any child to such a vulnerability for an unnecessary purpose. (The nakedness of course, not the baptism) Sorry, but the days of presuming anything are over. Parents must exercise extreme caution in all areas and protect their child’s privacy.
    Not only that but the already mentioned bacterial factor in the water is a good point.
    Thirdly, a slippery, naked baby should only be handled by experts, generally parents.
    Supertradmum as usual makes a superb point. When our grandson was baptized, I happily flew there carrying his great-grandfather’s baptismal gown, worn circa 1920. That’s a beautiful tradition as well, passing along a family baptismal gown. He wore a little irish cap and it was a splendid thing.

  34. oldconvert says:

    Someone above mentioned Anabaptists. An aunt of mine joined one of those very fundamentalist Baptist churches where baptism of children and adults was by total immersion, no choice. For the adults they had a little deep pool, I gather it was rather like the hydrotherapy pools you get in hospitals, and she had to wear a white dress with a specially weighted hem for modesty’s sake. There were steps down into the water and the baptized had to go right down until their head was completely under. I admit I wondered rather about effect on the women’s hairdos. They believed that that was how St John the Baptist baptised in the River Jordan, though presumably without the weighted hems.

  35. majuscule says:

    Urine is not sterile.

    I am not a medical professional and I do not play one on the Internet. However, as a former baby diaper changer and present adult diaper changer I’ve always felt the “urine is sterile” meme was crazy.

  36. benedetta says:

    Pastors who offer “choices” in rubrics are subtly, and often also not too subtly, sending the message that the Faith of the Church and her traditions are somehow not trustworthy, and that endless experimentation and innovation is somehow required. I suppose from their point of view they are experimenting with “liturgy” and “theology” but in the end it is human beings they are experimenting upon, without really a groundswell of demand or even consent to it. If one could project out to parents what this approach does to the faith of young people over time, without much interference from the secular culture, no parent would consent to experimentation with these essential sacraments on their children.

  37. frjim4321 says:


    (1) The rites themselves offer various forms, and the forms offer various options of prayers.

    (2) You must be psychic because even though you’ve never met me you seem to think that you know me.

  38. benedetta says:

    frjim4321, And how can you be so certain that I’ve never met you? I find that statement quite odd indeed really. We all know you so well from your commentating here, frjim4321. I quote from your commenting oeuvre. But, my knowledge has really little to do with your opinions or pontificating or posturing. If you take seriously the faith lives of your flock then you should reconsider your approach. I’m far from the first here to urge you to refrain from certain practices for the sake of your flock and I’m sure far from the last. You can mock me all you want. It changes precious little in terms of what is important in life. I accept your apology.

  39. Nan says:

    frjim, it’s just that you come across as being a leftover hippie priest who thinks that the traditions people here love are a bunch of silliness and that there’s something wrong with someone who doesn’t love felt banners or giant puppets – I’m not accusing you of harboring felt banners or including giant puppets in Mass, just using those as examples to illustrate the contrast in your comments to those of most others here. We’re accustomed to you advocating for whatever we find cringeworthy and cringing at whatever we advocate for.

    Please note that I had correctly interpreted your statement about choices to refer to those choices that the Church allows.

  40. benedetta says:

    Well, the Church also “allows” the Extraordinary Form. [The Church also “allows” the Ordinary Form.]
    So, to avoid deceptive clericalism and hypocrisy, frjim4321 would offer private Baptism (not at Mass) and using the old form of the prayers. Instead, he chooses for himself “what the Church allows” and favors what the Pope does not even do and uses his authority and influence, bringing this to bear on what parents have a right to choose. If he indeed believes that providing these “choices” empowers children and families, then, he would offer what a great many people are asking for, Baptism using the old formula and rubric? Yes?

    So, even if Nan above believes her interpretation to be “correct” with respect to frjim4321’s mindset acquitting himself of subtle pressure in favor of things the Pope does not even do, I stand by my experience and knowledge which has shown that very often young people raised in such a spiritual environment abandon the regular practice of their faith, a faith that could be tremendously helpful to them in these times, due to confusion and perplexity of precisely this sort.

    I understand that frjim4321 hasn’t defended clown or puppet Masses here ever and correctly interpret what he has said on the blog in terms of the consequences for our communion.

    [Okay… this is enough now. This post has a topic and it isn’t frjim4321.]

  41. benedetta says:

    Yes, agree Father Z., thanks. I will leave any rabbit holes to care of the Easter Bunny.

    [Good one.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

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