This article over at Crux, “Vatican says baptisms done with plural pronouns are invalid” has all the makings of a depressing internet debate: We have an ancient practice handed down directly from the Lord, a group of people with presumably good motivations for proposing a slight variation from the prescribed words, and the Vatican giving that variation a big fat no-way-no-how.
Boring direction #1: The Vatican is full of horrible old meanies, because what difference does it make if someone says “We baptize you” instead of “I baptize you”? The intention here seems like a good one. The parishes using the alternative [invalid and therefore ineffective] formula are trying to express the communal nature of welcoming someone into the faith. What’s so wrong with that?
Boring direction #2: The people doing this are a bunch of slacker heretics, thank goodness the Vatican is putting a foot down for once. Anyone who dares mess with the prescribed formula clearly hates Jesus, law-‘n-order, and homemade mac-n-cheese at the parish potluck like God intended. Straighten up and fly right, crazy libruls.
We’ve got all the makings of your basic model internet blow-up, and I had to swear those off and binge watch Agents of SHIELD instead, because I was getting too fussy. Maybe that happens to you sometimes, too.
–> Let’s consider a third way: If you are like me, you never for a moment even considered the possibility that the I in “I baptize you . . .” was a make-or-break part of the baptismal formula. (I also never contemplated varying from it.) It was simply there, and it seemed logical, and what else was there to know? Now we have something to ponder. What’s going on with this one little pronoun the CDF is so worked up about? Turns out the answer is more interesting than I had guessed.
Who’s doing the baptizing?
If you go directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s written response on the question, you’ll see that the response of the CDF falls into two major arguments.
#1: You can’t do that! Quit messing with the sacraments! We don’t have that power, you don’t have that power, no one has that power, this comes from God and quit trying to improve on God’s work!
That was the predictable half of the discussion, but it leads directly to the exciting part:
#2 Actually it’s God who is doing the baptizing.
Hooboy. In other words, when you say the words “I baptize you . . . “ the I refers to Christ who is doing the baptizing. You are being the hand of Christ, but Christ is the I.
Money quotes from the CDF, if you are having your world rocked and think I am just making this up:
The Second Vatican Council states that: “when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes”. The affirmation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, inspired by a text of Saint Augustine, wants to return the sacramental celebration to the presence of Christ, not only in the sense that he infuses his virtus to give it efficacy, but above all to indicate that the Lord has the principal role in the event being celebrated.
. . . it is Christ the Head who acts in the ecclesial Body generated by him in the Paschal mystery.
. . . the Church has safeguarded the form of the celebration of the Sacraments, above all in those elements to which Scripture attests and that make it possible to recognize with absolute clarity the gesture of Christ in the ritual action of the Church.
. . . It is therefore fundamental that the sacramental action may not be achieved in its own name, but in the person of Christ who acts in his Church, and in the name of the Church.
. . . When the minister says “I baptize you…” he does not speak as a functionary who carries out a role entrusted to him, but he enacts ministerially the sign-presence of Christ . . .
. . . although many ministers, be they righteous or unrighteous, should baptize, the virtue of Baptism would be attributed to Him alone on whom the dove descended, and of whom it was said: ‘It is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (Jn 1:33)”. Therefore, Augustine comments: “Peter may baptize, but this is He that baptizes; Paul may baptize, yet this is He that baptizes; Judas may baptize, still this is He that baptizes”.
Note here that, depending on the circumstances, the “minister” of the sacrament of Baptism could be any person, Catholic or not, Christian or not, ordained or not. Read here for more details, as applied to the problem of pandemic-related church closings, but with lots of good informational links on all kinds of topics related to baptism. –> Which leads to yet more amazing stuff.
The amazing takeaway: Christ is able to act through you.
Going into this article, my first thought and perhaps yours as well was, “Oh great. More Catholic food fight. <Insert suitable emoji here.>” But, once again, as has been the case since the first recorded (proto-)Catholic food fights broke out way back when, questions like this one help us understand Jesus better.
In this case, the stunning response from the CDF is not to belittle a reasonable question, but to say: Something much bigger is going on here. You can’t change these words because you are literally speaking for Jesus Christ when you say them. You are being His voice.
This is huge. Because any human person has the capacity to baptize, we discover: Anyone is able to be the hands and voice of Jesus Christ.
Depending on your state of life, you may never have occasion to baptize a single soul, and yet this teaching tells us something important about you: God is able to work through you. You. Sinful you. Weak-of-faith you. Image-of-God you.
God wants to do this in your life. From the dawn of creation, this has been your purpose. How exactly you present God to the world will depend on all the unique aspects of your life and who you are and who He made you to be — and He leaves you free to choose whether to live out your God-given destiny or not. But it’s yours. God is able to act through you.
Artwork: Christ in Majesty, illumination on parchment from the Evangéliaire dit de Charlemagne, circa 781-783, courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain. This was the first result when I searched on “Jesus Christ in Art,” and I think it’s a pretty good match for today’s topic. Because seriously, guys? If God can use the dynasty of Charlemagne to make Christ present in the world? He can use anybody. Sheesh.
Like what you’re reading? Find more at my personal website, jenniferfitz.com, or get a treasure-trove of good stuff in print via The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You.