Understanding the Rite of Catholic Baptism

Newborn baby baptism

The Rite of Baptism, the first of the seven sacraments, is steeped in the history, traditions, and rituals of the Catholic church. It is intended to cleanse away original sin and symbolizes a rebirth in Christ, recalling his baptism by John the Baptist. The ceremony initiates a child (or adult) into the Catholic faith and membership into the church, the holy body of the people of Christ.

The Ordinary Form Rite of Baptism

The Ordinary Form Rite of Baptism of 1970 is the sacrament performed by most Catholic churches around the world today. It is simpler and not bound to follow every detail of the more traditional Extraordinary Form Rite.

Today's modern churches can be flexible in the baptism rituals and accommodate a parishioner's wishes or needs. The baptism is often held at a Sunday mass in "communal celebration" with mother, father, child, family, friends, and other members of the church. The ceremony is divided into five main parts:

  1. Reception of the Child
  2. Celebration of God's Word
  3. Celebration of the Sacrament
  4. Explanatory Rites
  5. Conclusion of the Rite

Each part of the Catholic baptism ceremony has special significance and meaning.

Priest blessing a baby

Reception of the Child

The baptismal sacrament for a child begins with the reception of the child into the church, during which the congregation may sing a psalm or hymn. The celebrant priest in his vestments, with his ministers, goes to the front or other part of the church where the parents, child and godparents are waiting. The priest:

  • Greets them, reminding them of the child as a gift to them from God, then asks the parents the child's name.
  • Enquires of them what they ask of God's church for "name of child," or other such words. The parents might answer, "Baptism," or "Entrance into the Church," or another similar response.
  • Then the priest asks the godparents if they are ready to help the parents in their Christian duty to the child.
  • Next, the priest asks the parents, then the godparents, if they accept responsibility for training and raising the child in the practice of the faith.
  • The celebrant then welcomes and claims the child "for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross," making a sign of the cross on the child's forehead and invites the parents and godparents to do the same.

Finally, the priest invites everyone to participate in the liturgy of the baptism. They then proceed to the place of the baptism (the Baptistery or the Sanctuary) while the congregation might sing a song.

Reading prayers

Celebration of God's Word

The Celebration of God's Word has five parts.

1. Scriptural Readings and Homily

  • The celebrant priest reads one or more selections from the gospels, such as John 3:1 - 6 "... unless a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God..."
  • The priest then gives a brief homily explaining the significance of the readings and the mystery of baptism and the acceptance of responsibilities by the parents and godparents. The homily might be followed by a period of silent prayer and a hymn.

2. Intercessions (Prayer of the Faithful)

  • First, there is prayer for the child, that the Lord Jesus Christ looks on him lovingly and mercifully, bathes him in His light, gives him "the new life of baptism and welcomes him into His holy church," and that the child be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.
  • Next, the priest prays for the parents and godparents to be examples of love and inspiration for the child.
  • He then prays for the family and for all the congregation that the Lord will keep them in love and renew the grace of each one's baptism.

3. Invocation of the Saints

The celebrant invites the congregation to invoke the saints in succession to, "Pray for us":

  • Holy Mary, mother of God
  • Saint John the Baptist
  • Saint Joseph
  • Saint Peter
  • Saint Paul

Other saints may be invoked, especially patron saints of the child.

4. Prayer of Exorcism

The priest asks God to free the child from original sin, for the Holy Spirit to dwell in him, and to strengthen and watch over the child.

5. Anointing Before Baptism

  • Next the priest anoints the child on the breast, tracing a cross with the Oil of Catechumens, or the oil of salvation in Christ.
  • He prays for strength for the child "in the power of Christ our Savior," and lays hands on the child in brief silence.
  • The group next proceeds to the baptismal font where the baptism sacrament will take place.
Priest and baby boy

Celebration of the Sacrament

At the font, either parent may hold the child or, if by tradition there are godparents, one holds the child while the other places her right hand on the child 's shoulder during the baptism. The celebration of the sacrament has three parts, including the baptism.

1. Blessing and Invocation of God Over the Baptismal Water

The priest makes solemn prayers invoking God and recalling His plan of salvation and the power of water:

  • First, there is a reminder in prayer that God uses the sacrament of the water to "pour divine life," and asking God to pour His gift from the baptismal font to the child.
  • The priest then recalls the instances of God's grace through water:
    • At the dawn of creation
    • At the great flood
    • At the parting of the Red Sea
    • At the baptism of Jesus in the river of Jordan by John the Baptist
    • At the flowing of water and blood from Jesus' side as he hung on the cross
    • At the call of Jesus to His disciples at His resurrection to go out and teach and baptize all the nations of the world

The priest next asks God's blessing on the water of the font, to make it holy so that the baptized may be cleansed of sin and made holy. The priest touches the water with his right hand and completes a prayer over it.

2. Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith

  • There is next a call on the parents and godparents to renew their baptism vows and reject Satan and sin and profess faith so they can bring up the child in faith.
  • Then comes the profession of faith in God, the Father Almighty; Jesus Christ, His only the Son; the Holy Spirit; and "the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."

3. The Baptism

  • The celebrant priest immerses the child in the font or pours water over his head three times, saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," invoking one name of the Holy Trinity in turn before each immersion or pouring of water.
  • The congregation may sing a short song after the baptism.

Note: If the baptism is done by pouring of water, the mother or father usually holds the child; or either godparent may hold the child if it is the tradition. If the baptism is by immersion, either godparent or either parent can lift the child out of the font.

Ceremony of a christening

Explanatory Rites

The explanatory rites which follow the baptism have three or four parts.

1. Anointing With the Chrism

Before anointing the child with the sacred chrism (consecrated oil), the priest welcomes the child into the holy people of Christ.

  • The priest first explains that as Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king to live in His holy body of people, so he anoints the child and welcomes him to Christ's holy body (the church).
  • In silence, he then anoints the child with the oil on the crown of his head, signifying enrollment into the royal priesthood and the company of God.

2. Clothing With the White Garment

The family provides the white garment that is now put on the child- which may have been passed down through generations. The white clothing is a baptism symbol representing a new creation. The child is now clothed in Christ and the white garment is an outward sign of the Christian mantle.

3. Lighted Candle

  • The celebrant priest brings forward the Easter (paschal) candle and says, "Receive the light of Christ."
  • A family member or a godparent lights the child's candle from the Easter candle.

The lighting of the child's candle is a symbol of his enlightenment by Christ.

4.The Ephphatha or Prayers Over the Ears and Mouth

The Ephphatha (be opened) ritual is optional in modern baptisms. If done, the priest touches the child's ears and mouth with his thumb: ears to receive Christ's word, and mouth to proclaim his faith "to the praise and glory of God." Historically, the priest wets his thumb with spit to administer the Ephphatha. Many churches skip this ritual because of health concerns.

Conclusion of the Rite

The child's lit candle is carried in a procession to the altar, while a baptismal song may be sung.

1. The Lord's Prayer

  • The priest reminds all that the child "has been reborn in baptism" and is now a child of God.
  • He then invites the congregation, "Let us pray together in the words our Lord has given us."
  • The congregation then sings or says The Lord's Prayer: "Our Father who art in heaven... but deliver us from evil."

2. The Blessing

Finally, a blessing is given to conclude the baptismal rite, at the end of which the congregation may sing a hymn of thanksgiving. The priest first says a prayer of blessing over the mother (who holds the child), then the father, then everyone else present. He concludes the Sacrament of the Baptism with "May almighty God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit bless you." The people reply, "Amen".

Holding Baby at Baptismal Font

The Extraordinary Form Rite of Baptism

Only a few Catholic churches still use the traditional Extraordinary Form Rite of Baptism, which is more elaborate than the modern Ordinary Form Rite. The terms "Extraordinary Form" and "Ordinary Form" were coined by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 to differentiate the 1962 "old" Catholic rites of Pope John XXIII (published from 1570) from the 1970 "new" rites of Pope Paul VI, respectively.

The Extraordinary Form Rite is more steeped in rituals, Catholic liturgy and Latin readings, and the order of the sacrament is different from the Ordinary. All the steps are required and a series of rituals take place that are left out of the Ordinary Form Rite:

  1. The Questioning: The questioning of the parents and godparents outside the church symbolizes that the child is not yet a member.
  2. The Exsufflation: At the entry way the priest breathes into the child's face three times, recalling the Spirit or breath of God.
  3. The First Sign of the Cross: The priest traces the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on the child's forehead and chest.
  4. The Imposition of Hands: The priest places his hands on the child's head and prays for the kindling of faith to break the hold of Satan.
  5. The Imposition of Salt: Priest places a few grains of salt in the child's mouth as a symbol of wisdom.
  6. An Initial Exorcism: The priest prays for the exorcism of the unclean spirit in the name of the Holy Trinity as he makes the Sign of the Cross over the child three times.
  7. Another Sign of the Cross: This time, the priest traces the Sign of the Cross on the child's forehead as a symbol of protection of the mind from the devil's violation.
  8. A Second Imposition of Hands: Again, the priest lays his hands on the child's head.
  9. The Admission into the Church Building: Symbolizing his priestly authority, the priest places the end of his stole on the baby before they enter the church building.
  10. The Solemn Exorcism: Now inside the church, the priest once again prays for the exorcism of unclean spirits.
  11. The White Linen Cloth: Instead of the white garment put on the child after his baptism in the Ordinary Rite, a white linen cloth is placed on the child's head to symbolize his cleansing.

Throughout the ceremony there are more prayers for the exorcism of Satan and sin than in the Ordinary Form of Baptism.

Adult Baptism in the Catholic Church

Catholic baptism is not limited to children. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), adults who wish to join or convert to the Catholic faith complete the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Those who have not previously been baptised in another Christian faith will also go through a Catholic baptism ceremony.

Rich Rituals and Symbolism

The Rite of Baptism is infused with the rich rituals and symbolism of Catholic sacraments. Whether you prefer the traditional ceremonies of centuries past or you prefer simpler, more modern forms you will find beauty and grace in either version of the baptismal rites. Find a Catholic church and talk to a priest if you are considering a Catholic baptism for your child or yourself.

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Understanding the Rite of Catholic Baptism