New Life in Christ
by Sr Eustochium Lee OSB
The minister: bishops, priests, deacons and lay-people
If baptism is given in an emergency by a lay person, he should inform the local Catholic priest as soon as possible, describing what he did, so that the priest can be sure the baptism was carried out properly. The newly baptised person, even if he has only a short time left on earth, is now a member of the Church and part of the parish priest’s flock. The local parish will want to be sure he receives all the prayer and support he needs, both before and after his death. When he dies, the parish will pray for him as if he had been a long-time member of the parish community.
The person baptising does not have to be a good Catholic; in fact, he does not even have to be a believer. The minimum that is required is that in good faith he intends to do what the Church intends (even if he is hazy about what this actually is). The reason for this is that it is Christ who is acting, through a baptiser. As St Augustine wrote:
Peter may baptise, but still it is Christ who baptises;
Judas may baptise, but it is still Christ who baptises.
If a person has been baptised in a non-Catholic church and now wishes to become a Catholic, he would not be re-baptised unless there was some doubt about whether the baptism had been carried out properly. In this case he would receive ‘conditional baptism’. Before Vatican II it was common to administer conditional baptism to converts; it has now been recognised, however, that the mainstream Protestant churches all use a baptismal ritual and form of words which fulfils the basic minimum requirement for valid baptism, and therefore conditional baptism is administered rarely. This is not a matter of ecumenical politeness, like supporting each other’s church fête. It is part of the Catholic doctrine of the efficacy of sacraments ex opere operato. Over a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church had already faced this question with converts who had been baptised and brought up in the Donatist or Arian churches. Non-Catholic Christians were not re-baptised, because, as one of Augustine’s fellow African bishops, Optatus of Milevis, wrote, “All who baptise are labourers not lords, and the sacraments are holy through themselves, not through men.”
The Christian community
On the day of the first Christian Pentecost, “Those who received Peter’s word were baptised…and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (Ac 2:41-42). No one becomes a Christian on his own; no one lives as a Christian on his own – even hermit are linked with the rest of the Church by the bond of prayer and their obedience to the local bishop. Being baptised is not a private matter. It is conceivable that a dying person who wants to be baptised may have no one else there but the priest, but for everyone else the presence of other Christians is immensely important. Those present at a baptism will include some or all of the local Christian community and most importantly the candidate’s family and friends, and his sponsors or Godparents.