Understanding the Catholic Rite of Baptism

Updated March 21, 2022
Newborn baby baptism

The rite of Catholic baptism, the first of the seven sacraments, is steeped in the history, traditions, and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. It is intended to cleanse away original sin and symbolize rebirth in Christ, recalling His baptism by John the Baptist. It is defined as the ceremony that initiates a child (or adult) into the Catholic faith and membership into the church, the holy body of the people of Christ.

Rite of Catholic Baptism Ceremony Meaning

The Ordinary Form Rite of Baptism is the version of the sacrament performed by most Roman Catholic churches around the world today. It is simpler and not bound to follow every detail of the more traditional Extraordinary Form Rite. Each part of the Catholic baptism ceremony has special significance and meaning. A Roman Catholic baptism ceremony is usually held at a Sunday mass as part of a communal celebration that includes the child and their parents and godparents, along with family, friends, and other members of the church.

Rite of Catholic Baptism: Ceremony Steps

Priest blessing a baby

The Ordinary Form Rite of Baptism ceremony is divided into five main parts, which together represent the steps of Catholic baptism. Modern churches can be flexible in the baptism rituals and accommodate a parishioner's wishes or needs, so the precise contents and order may vary. Common steps are detailed below.

  1. Reception of the child
  2. Celebration of God's word
  3. Celebration of the sacrament
  4. Explanatory rites
  5. Conclusion of the rite

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 any other ministers who may be present, goes to the part of the church (usually the front) where the parents, child, and godparents are waiting. This part of the ceremony will proceed as follows:

  • The priest will greet the parents and godparents, remind them the child is a gift to them from God, then ask the parents to state the child's name.
  • Once the parents state the child's name, the priest will inquire what they ask of God's church on behalf of the child.
  • The parents are expected to respond with "baptism," "entrance into the Church," or a similar response.
  • Next, the priest will ask the godparents if they are ready to help the parents in their Christian duty to the child. They are expected to agree.
  • Then, 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." He will make a sign of the cross on the child's forehead and invite the parents and godparents to do the same.

Celebration of God's Word

Reading prayers

After the reception of the child, the priest invites everyone to participate in the liturgy of the baptism. 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 3:5, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit."
  • 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)

  • The intercession starts with a Catholic baptism prayer for the child. The priest asks the Lord Jesus Christ to look lovingly and mercifully on the child and to grant them new life through baptism and to welcome them into the Church as a faithful Christian witness.
  • 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 them. The priest will read the name of a saint, then the congregation replies with "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

Roman Catholic baptism ceremonies include a prayer of exorcism. This is an important baptismal rite. 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 by 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. The congregation might sing a song while this takes place.

Celebration of the Sacrament

Priest and baby boy

At the baptismal font, sometimes referred to as the baptistery, a parent or godparent will hold the baby. By tradition, one godparent usually holds the child while the other places their right hand on the child's shoulder. The celebration of the sacrament has three parts, including the baptism itself.

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; he asks 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

  • The priest will then call on the parents and godparents to renew their baptism vows, reject Satan and sin, and profess their faith so they can bring up the child in the faith.
  • Then comes the profession of faith via the Apostles Creed, which references God, the Father Almighty; Jesus Christ, His only 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 or sprinkles water over their 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.

Explanatory Rites

Ceremony of a christening

The explanatory rites follow the baptism. This portion of the ceremony can have up to four steps.

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, the priest then anoints the child with the oil on the crown of their head, signifying enrollment into the royal priesthood and the company of God.

2. Clothing With the White Garment

If the child is not already wearing a white christening garment, such a garment will be placed on the child at this time. The family provides the white garment, often using an heirloom christening gown that 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 lighting of the child's candle is a symbol of their enlightenment by Christ.

  • 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.

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 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 is holding the child at this point), 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."

The Extraordinary Form Rite of Baptism

Holding Baby at Baptismal Font

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 than the Ordinary Form, and the order of baptism steps is different. All the steps are required.

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 entryway, 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: The 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 baptized in another Christian faith will also go through a Catholic baptism ceremony.

Rich Rituals and Symbolism

The Roman Catholic 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. You'll need several things to move forward with a Catholic baptism, including the child's birth certificate or decree of adoption, documentation that you are a member of the parish (or permission from the parish to which you belong), and the name of at least one godparent. You may also need to attend a class before your baby can be baptized.

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Understanding the Catholic Rite of Baptism