Emergency baptisms: who, why, and how

Here’s a dreadful little story:  Russian couple faces jail time after taking their injured baby to be baptized instead of treated.

A couple in St. Petersburg, Russia is facing charges for failure to assist a person in danger after taking their injured baby to church, instead of the hospital.

The two-month-old baby had sustained a head injury in a minor car accident, Russian news outlet RIA Novosti reported, despite the fact that he was in a car seat. He died by the time he was in the priest’s hands.

The parents took him for an emergency baptism because “otherwise he would be denied the Kingdom of Heaven,” the parents told authorities, according to Fontanka.ru.

Please note that this is an extremely short story with almost no facts in it.  Did the parents realize, or could they be expected to realize, how badly injured the baby was?  How much time did they lose by stopping at the church?  Would it have made any difference if they had gone straight to the hospital?

Whatever the answer to these questions, it’s a good opportunity to review few facts about infant and emergency baptism:

Almost anyone can perform a baptism.  It is preferable to have a priest or deacon perform a baptism in a church, but if there is an emergency, anyone with the right intention — that is, anyone who wishes to do what the Church does when she baptizes — may perform a baptism.  This means that if your baby is in the ER, you can do a baptism in the hospital sink, or with a bottle of Aquafina.  It also means that a pagan nurse who doesn’t know anything about baptism, but is willing to respect the beliefs of the parents, can licitly baptize a baby.

This is how you do it:  Pour plain water over the person’s forehead while saying the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

We don’t actually know what happens to babies who die unbaptized.  Baptism is necessary for salvation.   Yet the catechism says:

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,”64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

The Church fully expects us to care for the immediate physical needs of people around us.  Again, we don’t know the details of the story above, but in general, life-saving medical procedures should not be postponed!

One final note:  emergency baptisms are for when someone is in danger of death. “I don’t think my daughter-in-law will ever get around to scheduling a baptism” or “My neighbors are wiccans and someone needs to care for their poor baby’s soul” do not constitute emergencies, and sneaky baptisms performed on children on the sly are not licit.



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  • Bonnie Engstrom

    I am so glad you shared this. When our son was born with no signs of life my husband did an emergency baptism. It was the only way we could parent our son at that moment, the only thing we could do for him. It brought us great comfort that if he was not revived that he would certainly rest in peace. I hope no other parent every has to go through what we went through, but if they do I hope they too can find comfort in providing the Sacrament for their child.

  • Stefanie

    An excellent public service announcement which I frequently tell my RCIA & Adult Confirmation students. When the nuns told us this in Catholic school, I immediately went home and ‘baptized’ my cats because I certainly wanted them to go to heaven. 🙂 I think emergency baptism is not widely told by priests during homilies because of the possibility of those good-intentioned illicit ‘kitchen sink’ type of baptisms being even more wide-spread.
    I love how the CCC notes the desire of the grieving parents when it states that through our funeral Mass, we affirm that they are in the hands and the mercy of God. This can also be said about the Eucharistic Prayers of every Mass where is found: #1: “not weighing our merits, but granting us Your pardon…” ; #2: “remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and all who have died in Your mercy…” #3: “To our departed brothers and sisters and to all who were pleasing to You at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to Your kingdom.” #4: “Remember also those who have died in the peace of Your Christ and all the dead whose faith You alone have known…”

  • Patrick Tramma

    Not only are sneaky baptisims illicit, but they’re also invalid. Nobody can be baptized without their consent, or in the case of an infant, their parents’.

    • simchafisher

      Actually, an infant n danger of death can be baptized without the parents’ consent.

  • Nan

    Note that as the accident happened in St. Petersburg, Russia, the parents are likely Orthodox Christians and, as such, are bound to Orthodox traditions so may have been unable to baptize their baby conditionally. I found an article that indicates the baby had a brain injury so he may not have survived no matter what; even the priest said he should’ve gone to the hospital first.

    • IRVCath

      From the Orthodox Wiki, it seems that their criteria for a valid baptism are almost identical to ours. Perhaps the parents were ignorant of the formula.

      • Nan

        I checked with an Orthodox friend and she said that conditional baptism is allowed but due to the suppression of religion in Russia and its only recent resurgence, the parents were probably unaware that they could baptize.

        • IRVCath

          Thought as much.

  • anna lisa

    I have a feeling that a couple of rules were bent when my unborn son and I received the anointing of the sick right before he died. I hadn’t felt him move for a day, but my ultrasound proved that his heart was still beating. There was nothing in this world that could be done for him, and certainly an emergency c-section in order to *baptize* him would have been legalistic. The tenderhearted priest who I went to traced the sign of the cross on my belly in holy oil, and we prayed that the waters within me would baptize him. Another priest performed what I think he called a “conditional” baptism over my stomach for my other late loss, even though the ultrasound showed that she was clearly dead. All of our other “early losses” didn’t have the benefit of a priest praying over them at all.

    I just can’t believe that the soul of one baby is ushered into the presence of God and another is not, based upon their religious affiliation, or due to the proper procedure, or the speed of a surgeon’s scalpel, to get them to this procedure. Despite what the catechism says, or the writings of post Vatican II Popes, I am sure there are legalistic people who would find this idea heretical. But as in the case of the poor Russian couple, whose baby died–legalism taken too far seems nearly like a form of paganism, where the man serves the ritual, rather than the ritual serving the man.

    I prefer to think of it more along these loose lines (using an albeit flawed human understanding):
    Not all of us have fought for freedom and Democracy, though we are allowed to share liberally in the fruits of the efforts of others who did the footwork. Perhaps we, who did not fight in such wars, can not savor democracy as intimately as those who won it at a dear price… In heaven, we, the “elect” who were charged with the important duty to “stay behind” and fight “the good fight”, will be celebrated, revered and decorated as veterans, but the joy of heaven will be perfect for everyone.

  • Karyn

    Is there a similar thing for emergency Last Rites? Our former priests used to hold a weekday mass every month in which he performed the Anointing of the Sick for whomever attended. He warned us that since he is the only priest in the county, he might not make it to the hospital if there is an emergency. It makes me wonder if a loved one can perform any similar ritual if the priest cannot arrive in time.

    • simchafisher

      No, only priests may administer Last Rites.
      This is why it’s important not to wait for the last minute to have Last Rites administered! This sacrament is not reserved for life-and-death situations or extreme emergencies, but can be administered when someone is sick, going in for surgery, etc.

      Of course a layman may always pray for someone, or bless someone with holy water.

      • wineinthewater

        Anointing of the sick is only one of the Last Rites, and therefore the only Last Rite reserved solely to priests. My step-father is a deacon and served a couple of parishes with no priests. He often does the Last Rites without the Anointing of the Sick for the dying when there is no priest available. Whether the non-sacrament parts are reserved to clergy (priests and deacons), I don’t know.

  • Jenna


  • Jennifer

    I’ve had to baptize two of my newborn babies. One was born not breathing and was blue and floppy. Praise God, they were able to revive him after a few scary minutes but not before I grabbed my bottle of Dasani. The second baby spiked a fever one week after birth and seemed to develop breathing problems as we raced into the closer hospital because we didn’t think he’d live long enough to make it to the best hospital. I grabbed a Dixie cup of sink water for him.

    My priest’s response? “You’ve really got to quit doing this.”. I’d LOVE to quit having deathly ill newborns, thanks. The dear man also said, “You should have had a priest do the baptisms.”. Well, when seconds count a priest was only a half hour away.

    • NurseTammy

      As a former NICU nurse and former Hospital Chaplain (in the capacity of student) and Catholic mother and grandmother (but admitted NOT a theologian) I think you did EXACTLY the right things Jennifer and I applaud your good parenting and the fact that you were well informed and ready to do what needed to be done in the moment. You were right and in “neonatology time”, 30 minutes is an ice age..neonatal resuscitations are successful (or not) in very few minutes (we train very hard to be VERY good at it and literally not waste a single second).

      I imagine the Priest was well intentioned in his guidance but I would venture that he may not have seen all that many babies who were critically ill. I would hold up your experience as a perfect example of why we all need to have a good working understanding of this subject.

      In reality, situations that threaten the lives of wee ones are often unexpected and very rapid onset. I am of the opinion that excellent medical care can be pursued and undertaken while the parents needs and insistence for their rituals to be respected at the same time. We Catholic parents, however, simply cannot depend on the idea that a Priest will be handy or the Protestant pastor will fulfill our requests…there may be times we have to do it ourselves.

  • Interesting timing. A few days after Beadboy3 was born (3 weeks ago tomorrow) we found out that he had a very rare heart defect (as do my other children, each one different; stop that, please, God), and might need surgery; I spent the next 24 hours running through the rules for emergency baptism (thanks, Mom, for telling me!) and wondering how quickly a priest could arrive at the hospital. Fortunately, it looks like he does not need surgery after all, so the baptism will happen as planned with my brother officiating (God willing), but thinking about that and the story above and all the stories the commentators have shared makes me get teary-eyed again. My prayers to all of you and the Russian couple.

    (Do I have enough parentheticals in this comment?)