Wherein Fr. Z reviews and rants on important points about VALID baptism

infant baptismBecause Easter is a special time for baptizing, I hereunder assemble some observations from past ASK FATHER Question Box responses about baptism and validity.


Bishops would do well to quiz priests, and seminarians before ordination as deacons, about how to baptize.  Some might find this insulting, but given how important this is… who cares?  I have heard some pretty crazy things in my email.  Some men trained in certain place and certain years – this includes especially permanent deacons, by the way – cannot be assumed to know how to baptize properly.

I mean … how hard is it, guys, to do it right?  To do it in such a way that there can be no doubt in the minds of those watching that it was valid?  How hard is it?  For all love, if priests and deacons can’t do these basic things right, say the black and do the red, they should be sent to some… I dunno… “re-education” camp. No air-conditioning.  No screens on the windows.  Perhaps they should stay in camps on the model of Sheriff Arpaio’s in Maricopa County until they can demonstrate that they know the words and actions.

QUAERITUR: What if the water doesn’t flow on the head?

I put this to the CDF and received a response that the baptism is not valid.  Other great writers have established that if they water does not flow on the head, the validity is doubtful and it should be repeated conditionally.   Say there is an emergency, an accident, and only a leg can be reached: after the rescue, the person should be baptized conditionally.  Bottom line: water must contact the head!

QUAERITUR: What if the water flows only on the hair of the head but not the skin?

If it runs on the hair of the head, the baptism is valid.

QUAERITUR: Does the water have to be poured, only poured?

No.  Pouring, sprinkling and immersion or a combination of the three are possible for validity.  However, the water must contact – say it together – the head.

Immersion: The water has to have contact with at least the back or base of – WHAT? – the head.   Concerning babies and immersion, dipping, of just the “backside”.  FAIL.

: Can the priest change the words used?

Sacraments have both matter and form.  The matter of baptism is water (not something else) in contact with at least the head.   The form is the speaking of the formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  In my opinion it is best to do this in Latin, though approved translations are allowed.  The form is absolutely essential. In no circumstance can it be altered. These words must be pronounced simultaneously with action of making the water contact the head.  Not before.  Not after.  A good practice is to pour the water thrice, with the Names of the Persons of the Trinity, or continuously as the whole form is pronounced.  That way there is no question about validity.

QUAERITUR: What about sponsors, godparents?

Having a godparent is important for baptism for liceity but not for validity.  I am writing here about validity. I’ll leave godparent stuff for another post.


It is a constant source of amazement to me just how hard some priests find it to follow the book!  Just do the red and say the black!

Well… I guess I do understand.

Priests are generally good-hearted men, even if some are dumb or have wacky ideas.

Sometimes priests err because they want to make the rite more “meaningful”.  Sometimes they endure real pressure from poorly catechized lay people.  Yes, it is good that they come to the church for these milestone moments.  However, because their identity is tenuous at best, they want “meaningful” stuff put into the rite where it doesn’t belong.  Priests sometimes cave in.    Believe me, I understand the pressure.  A bunch of people got really mad at me once because I wouldn’t interject goofy things they made up and wanted as part of the rite of baptism.  Yes… there is pressure.

Some priests think they are doing something “more authentic” because they read somewhere that in the ancient Church baptism was by immersion.   Liberal writers and workshops have fed them the line that if it is “pristine” then it must automatically be better.  This is redolent of the false archeologizing Pius XII warned about in Mystici Corporis Christi and which the Church condemned when pushed by the infamous Synod of Pistoia.  Just because something was done in the ancient Church, that doesn’t mean that it is better than what we do now.  We’ve learned a few things along the way, after all, and therefore changed our practices.

So here is a message for priests about baptism, particularly by immersion:

If you are too dumb to do immersion properly, just don’t do it.

Otherwise, next time throw yourself into the immersion pool, preferably wearing a millstone.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    It is a constant source of amazement to me just how hard some priests find it to follow the book! Just do the red and say the black!

    I have a slightly different take. IMO, it’s more likely that the priest doesn’t know or realize that making one iota of change to the form can matter, even though there were major schisms because of one iota.

    As a child, I was never told that questions on the Catholic faith had solid answers or that confirmation was a required or even expected part of the Catholic faith (I was told it’s optional, but a lot of things were optional so I wasn’t confirmed until I reverted decades ago) or even that Catholicism is any different from any other faith (including humanism, which is a faith with an informal creed whether the adherents admit it or not).

    If you don’t have a complete picture of the faith, it’s very easy to make well meaning but incorrect decisions, some of which have tragic consequences, and not even realize your part in those consequences.

  2. dans0622 says:

    Great commentary and also a great picture.

  3. jfk03 says:

    In the Byzantine Catholic tradition, and in the Orthodox tradition, baptism is by complete immersion. Babies are dunked all the way, head and all. Adults are immersed. Their heads go under. Judging by the epitrachaleon (stole) on the priest, the picture on your post seems to depict an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic baptism.

  4. jameeka says:

    Father Z, since this is a post on the BASICS, could you please elaborate on “conditional baptism”? I looked it up, and I (kind of but not quite) understand it.

    [Baptism, like Confirmation and Holy Orders, changes the soul ontologically, in its nature. It cannot be repeated. Therefore, if there is a doubt about the validity of baptism – a real doubt (it might have been valid but it might not have) then the person is conditionally baptized, using the words “If you are not yet baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, there is no attempt to repeat the sacrament, but it confers the sacrament if it has not be validly given.]

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “If it runs on the hair of the head, the baptism is valid.” Habesne citationem hoc in sensu?

    [Haudquaquam dubitandum’st quin saltem brevem mentionem de capillo in situ interretiali Encyclopediae Catholicae sub Baptimatis voce alacriter invenire possis.]

  6. lmgilbert says:

    Well, in all sincerity this was very re-assuring. At my grandson’s baptism, the priest scooped water out of the baptismal font with his hand, but by the time his hand was over my grandson’s head, there was precious little water in it. However, I am confident that at least two or three drops fell on my grandson’s head- making him a child of God.

  7. Former Altar Boy says:

    That was funny, Father, while still being good instruction for the ignorant or misguided. Back in the pre-Vat2 era when Catholic schools still taught Catholic doctrine, I think by 2nd or 3rd grade we were all taught how to baptize in an emergency lest someone die without it. Say the words (yes, the same ones you listed) while POURING water – not milk, not soda, not anything else – over the head AT THE SAME TIME.

  8. Papabile says:

    Regarding form, we had a Nigerian Prieat baptize our second child, and he said “I am baptizing you, in the name of …”

    English differs as it says “”I baptize you.” However, the first seems like it would fulfill for validity. I have had two Priests tell me it does, and the Diocese refused to answer three letters.

    Your opinion, Father?

    [The verb baptizo means, “I baptize” and “I am baptizing”.]

  9. anilwang says: I have a slightly different take. IMO, it’s more likely that the priest doesn’t know or realize that making one iota of change to the form can matter, even though there were major schisms because of one iota.

    Except that the priest has been through seminary. A Knights of Columbus chapter, perhaps, sponsored him during his formation; fundraisers were held to pay for his education; people in the pews might even have scared up the shekels to send him to Rome, or otherwise provide him with all the preparation he is supposed to need for his future ministry. It’s bad enough that after all that, he still doesn’t know Latin or how to celebrate the traditional Mass; it’s even more scandalous and disgraceful if he is also ignorant about the basics of Baptism.

    And yet, such priests are out there. Some years ago, I saw, with my own eyes, at the Easter Vigil Mass, people being “baptized” by making them walk through the baptismal…font? — really a multi-tiered, miniature pool/waterfall. I thought at the time that that was stupid and dangerous, since the catechumens had to climb up and then balance precariously, climbing down the tiers, barefoot, on slippery tiles through ankle-deep water (one of them was a very pregnant woman). I didn’t realize then that it was also invalid into the bargain, which I guess also made these people’s confirmations and every other subsequent attempt to receive a Sacrament invalid (how many men have purported to receive Holy Orders after having been similarly “baptized”?). Whether this was done out of ignorance or actual malice, the damage is incalculable.

  10. steve51b31 says:

    Question: must a device such as a shell or small cup be used to pour the water or may the minister use the hand to scoop and pour the water over the head?

    [The baptismal shell is a beautiful symbol and useful instrument, but it is not obligatory for validity.]

  11. Fr. John says:

    Interesting. I’d never thought about the issue of the head, before.

    One thing that I’ve had to watch for as an Orthodox priest that I’d never expected is when the Trinity is invoked. I’ve had several converts from the Baptist Church who all were baptized by Baptist ministers who said at a different point in the service, “I’m going to baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” but during the immersion itself, said something along the lines of, “You have been buried with Christ so that you may also rise with Him.”

    Our bishop said that they absolutely needed to be rebaptized, since the actual baptism part had to be where the Triune name is invoked. Something else for the priests out there to watch out for.

    Out of curiosity, you mention the possibility of just pouring water once with the invocation of the Trinity. Is that seen in Catholicism as valid? My impression was that the ecumenical councils called for it to be three times in all cases, and mandated rebaptism for people who only were immersed once. Is that not the case in the Catholic Church?

    [In the ancient Church there was certainly a well attested practice of three-fold immersion. This is echoed today in the practice of the three-fold pouring. However, in the ancient Church there was also a practice of single immersion, for example in Spain with the approval of St. Gregory the Great, as an anti-Arian statement. It certainly makes good sense to pour with each of the Trinitarian names and this has the earliest attestation. In Didache 7 we read, “If thou hast neither (cold or water water in sufficient quantity), then pour water on the head three times, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” So, this is the natural and best way, but I think that a single continuous pouring on the head during the whole Trinitarin form would be valid.]

  12. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    I hear priests and deacons all the time, in person, and on Catholic radio, say: “…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” They do this when giving blessings, when making the Sign of the Cross, etc.

    And I hear, “May almighty God bless you, in the name of the Father…”

    I wish all bishops would review the liturgical texts themselves, and then remind all their priests and deacons to do so.

    In some contexts, the correct words are “…the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” and in other contexts the words are “…of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    The words “…in the name of..” are never correct when a blessing is being given.

    I am certain that there have been countless baptisms at which the minister said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

    Has there ever been an authoritative response to the question of the validity of such baptisms?

  13. KAS says:

    There are priests who actually have problems getting this right? YIKES!

    I even Holy Water my kids on their heads while praying for them and always say, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” because Holy Water blessings are a reminder of Baptism. I encourage them to reach up to their head and get some Holy Water on their fingers and cross themselves, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. I usually rub the Holy Water in a bit so it doesn’t run off, and I usually rub in it by making a cross on the kid’s head. If a mom can do this when it is just a sacramental, and merely her blessing her kids– then there really ought to be no excuse for priests to get it wrong. It isn’t rocket science.

    Something else to add to my prayers for priests. Who knew?

  14. Amateur Scholastic says:

    I had to give my daughter an emergency baptism. I only poured a small handful of water onto her head — it may have been a few drops — but it definitely came into contact with her head. This seems valid matter to me… can anyone reassure me? How much water must be going down the head for it to be valid? (I know I got the form and intention right, no worries there.)

    The priest, giving her the conditional baptism later, said “N, I baptise you conditionally in the name of the Father… etc”. Is this valid form? It’s an unusual, err, form of words.

    Should I just have it done a ‘third time’ by a priest who will follow the rubrics?

    [Don’t worry about this. It sounds as if it was valid.]

  15. Paul Young says:

    The state of Missouri seemed to think it was necessary to explicitly teach the skill of baptism, at least back in about 1990. When I became an Emergency Medical Technician, there was a section in our textbook, complete with diagram and pictures, on exactly how to administer emergency baptism and who to notify, afterward.

  16. Sliwka says:

    If I cannot remember if my daughter, baptized by immersion, had water contact her hair/head, how is a conditional baptism performed or acquired?

    I do know one of my wife’s cousin’s children only had the bum dip.

  17. iamlucky13 says:

    I had a moment of alarm during our first born’s baptism. There were three children being baptized that day, and a permanent deacon administered the sacrament. For the first child, he said, “I bless you in the name of…”

    I knew that was incorrect and pretty sure it was downright wrong, but not certain enough I thought I should interrupt him. I planned to talk to him afterwards, before anybody left. I listened very carefully during our son’s baptism and during the remaining baptism, and he definitely said the correct, “I baptize you…” It was clear he had simply mixed up his words the first time.

    Unfortunately, with all that was going on (including a very fussy baby), I then completely forgot about it. It popped into my head several days later, and after some quick research that confirmed the form was invalid, I was certain I had absentmindedly failed to address a clearly very serious mistake. As I was fretting about whether to call the pastor right then or wait until Sunday to talk to him, my wife came in and asked what was on my mind.

    “Oh, don’t worry. They took care of it.”

    “What? How? You knew about this?”

    “I didn’t notice he said the wrong words, but while you were taking care of the baby, somebody else told the deacon about it. He sprinted out to the parking lot to chase them down, and they did it over again.”

    Thank God someone else noticed. Also, I’m a bit disappointed I missed the sight of the 60 year old deacon sprinting with his stole flapping behind him like a miniature superhero’s cape.

  18. Pigeon says:

    I remember seeing a video by Liguori during the baptism clash where the priest in it dipped only the baby’s feet on the water.

  19. hwriggles4 says:

    I agree about training on baptism.

    Permanent deacons that I have had experience with who were ordained in the 70s and 80s IMHO did not get as good of formation as the permanent deacons who have been formed within the last 10-15 years (at least in some dioceses). I say this because my experience with some of the permanent deacons who have been ordained more recently seem much more solid in theology than those who were ordained (although I do know a good permanent deacon who was ordained in 1987) in the 70s and 80s. The newer deacons IMHO seem to be stronger on liturgy, are more accepting on protecting the sanctity of life, and are against women’s ordination.

    I do know permanent deacons are allowed to perform baptisms, and they are allowed to perform the sacrament of holy matrimony if the Catholic wedding does not involve a full Mass (some parishes and dioceses allow the married couple the option of having a full Mass).

    IMHO, the 70s were an “experimental” time for the permanent diaconate, which was re-instituted after hundreds of years circa 1970 in the United States. Quite a few lay Catholics and even some priests during that time seemed to have let permanent deacons do nearly everything, except consecration and hear confessions. Quite frankly, I didn’t know the difference until about 20 years ago when on a college retreat we didn’t have a priest for Sunday morning Mass (we went after we got back to school), but the permanent deacon did a communion service, and explained the major differences between him and a priest before the communion service started.

    I’ve also had to explain to lifelong Catholics the difference between a “transitional deacon” and a “permanent deacon”. When I discuss the diaconate, I differentiate between these two terms, since quite a few don’t know the difference. Quite frankly, 10-12 years ago I wouldn’t of known the difference, and I was an altar boy for many years.

  20. Worm-120 says:

    I’m not concerned about the validity of my niece and nephews baptism, but is it permissible to have 2 Godmothers? [No.] Both my sister and I are our nephew’s Godparents, it was discussed with the Priest and he agreed so I didn’t look into it at the time but I’ve never heard of this before.

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  22. carl b says:

    Why is it that the Church has determined that for validity, moving water must come in contact with the head, and not just any part of the body?

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