What Goes on at a Catholic Baptism?
Baptisms in the Catholic Church usually take place on Sundays, during the parish Mass or in the early afternoon after all the Masses are over. It all depends on the parish, the pastor, and the parents.
Adults who were never baptized are an exception to this rule; they’re highly encouraged to be baptized with other adults on Holy Saturday evening, during a service known as the Easter Vigil, because it’s held on the night before Easter Sunday. Children, however, are baptized once a month or every Sunday, depending on the diocese and parish.
The person being baptized is asked to dress in white. Some parishes put a small white garment on the child, especially if she isn’t already dressed in white. When adults are baptized, they typically put on a full-length white gown known as an alb, from the Latin word for white.
The white garment symbolizes the white garments that Jesus wore when he was placed in the tomb after his death on Good Friday. When the women and disciples returned on Easter day, they found the tomb empty except for the white robes. So it represents the promise of the Resurrection, made at Baptism. The promise is that the baptized body will one day die, like Christ’s did, but it’ll be raised from the dead someday by Christ. White also symbolizes purity of faith and cleansing.
The priest or deacon is usually the minister of Baptism, but anyone can baptize in an emergency, such as in a hospital or whenever someone’s life is in danger. Here are the steps that occur during both infant and adult Baptism:
- During the Baptism of an infant, the priest or deacon asks the parents, “What name do you give your child?”
He doesn’t ask this question because he’s too senile to remember or too blind to read the child’s name on the card in front of him, but because that person becomes a child of God by name and Jesus becomes her brother by name as soon as the person is baptized. The parents respond aloud, ideally with a Christian name, such as one of the saints or heroes of the Bible.
In adult Baptism, skip this step.
- The priest or deacon asks, “What do you ask of God’s Church for your child?”
The parents respond, “Baptism.” If an adult is being baptized, she answers the same.
- In infant Baptism, the priest or deacon asks the parents and the godparents whether they’re willing and able to fulfill their duties to bring up this child in the Christian faith.
- As a symbolic gesture, the priest or deacon makes the sign of the cross with his thumb gently on the forehead of the child or adult.
This sign is made to show that the cross of Christ has saved her.
The parents and godparents do the same.
- A particular passage from the Bible is read, usually from the New Testament, where Baptism is mentioned or alluded to.
- After some other prayers, the first anointing takes place.
The infant’s white garb is pulled slightly beneath the neck so the priest or deacon can smear a little Oil of Catechumens (blessed olive oil) on the infant’s neck with his thumb. The same anointing takes place for an adult.
The oil symbolizes that the person, born into the world, is now being set apart from the world by the anointing. She is soon to be baptized and therefore belongs not to the world but to God and heaven.
- The priest or deacon blesses the water of Baptism.
The prayer recalls how water has played an important role in salvation history as recorded throughout the Bible: It represents a sign of new life, the washing of sin, deliverance from slavery, and a new beginning.
- The first part of the baptismal promises are made: renunciation of evil.
Because an infant can’t speak for herself, mom, dad, and the godparents answer for her. The priest or deacon asks, “Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” If things go well, everyone says “I do.” If not, you have to check for devil worshippers among the crowd. Later, probably when she’s 14 years old, the child answers those same questions on her own before the bishop. Adults who are being baptized answer for themselves.
- The second part of baptismal promises follows, with the Apostles’ Creed put in question form: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?”
Again, the hoped-for response is “I do.” Then the other two persons of the Trinity are mentioned: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ. . . ?” and “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit. . . ?” And, once again, parents and godparents answer for infants; adults answer for themselves.
- The actual Baptism takes place.
In infant Baptism, the immediate family gathers around the baptismal font (see the figure), and the child is held over the basin while the priest or deacon pours water three times over the child’s head and says his first and middle name, and then, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Usually, the baby cries, because the water tends to be a little cool. (In the Eastern Catholic Church, the formula is: “The servant of God, [name], is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Confirmation (Chrismation) and Holy Communion are also given at the ceremony when one is baptized in the Eastern Church.)
In adult Baptism, the catechumen holds her head over the basin, and the priest pours water over her head; or, if baptized by immersion, she enters the pool, and the priest dips her head into the water three times.
- The priest or deacon anoints the top of the new Christian’s head with chrism oil.
The anointing symbolizes that the newly baptized Christian is now exactly that — a Christian. The word Christ means anointed, and a Christian is someone who’s anointed in Jesus Christ. This anointing also means the person is now to share in the three-fold mission of Christ — to sanctify, proclaim, and give Christian leadership and example to the world. Now, a white garment is usually presented to the newly baptized.
- A Baptismal candle is lit from the burning Easter Candle, which is present throughout the ceremony.
It symbolizes that the new Christian is a light to the world.
- The Our Father is said and a blessing is given for mom, dad, and the family, and everyone celebrates.
If you’re invited to a Baptism:
- You don’t need to be Catholic or even a Christian to attend. Your presence is a sign of love, support, and friendship for the parents and for the baptized.
- If you’re a Christian, you may want to join in the renewal of baptismal promises when they’re asked.