MANHATTAN — Catholics in the U.S. are learning about a problem most could never anticipate — the idea that a baptism could be invalid.
Church leaders in the Diocese of Brooklyn acknowledged that this could happen if the person officiating a baptism deviates from the script and says, “we baptize you” over the required “I baptize you.”
And, if a baptism is declared invalid, then so too are subsequent sacraments. If that sounds extremely rare, that’s because it is, the leaders said. But it became very real in early August for one Detroit-area priest.
Father Matthew Hood, ordained in 2017, was watching a video made of his own baptism in 1990 and realized the deacon giving the sacrament said “we” instead of “I.”
Hood correctly realized that the invalid baptism nullified his other sacraments, including holy orders. Therefore, sacraments he gave to others also were invalid. Archdiocese of Detroit officials have scrambled to find those people and help them properly regain the sacraments.
“This gets a little mind-boggling,” said Msgr. Michael Curran, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary. “I don’t know how they reel everybody in; it’s vague in the real sense. But I would think the instances of somebody experiencing what happened (in the Detroit area) are rare.”
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit recounted how the Vatican, on August 6, issued a doctrinal note on the proper word formula required for baptisms.
“Ministers must allow Jesus to speak through them and say, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ ” Vigneron said in an August 22 letter to his archdiocese. “Specifically, to say ‘We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ does not convey the sacrament of baptism.”
Vigneron said Hood “was devastated to learn that a deacon decided to change the proper words (formula) to baptism.” Hood immediately reported the problem to his superiors, Vigneron said.
Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, sent the Vatican’s August 6 note clarifying the formula for baptisms. He stated that the Second Vatican Council established that no one, not even a priest, should dare to “add, remove, or change anything in liturgical matters.’ ”
To do so, the archbishop wrote, is a “vulnus” (wound) inflicted on the recognition that Christ died for all.
The Detroit incident is not the first time the Church addressed using “we” over “I.”
Morandi said St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) explored the question of whether a collective could administer baptism. The saint answered “in the negative,” Morandi said.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) set the groundwork for changes like celebrating the Mass in common vernaculars instead of Latin and modern music for worship. But, the Council did not give permission to change word formulas for giving sacraments, Msgr. Curran said.
“Perhaps people get caught up in the spirit of something without paying proper attention to what the Council actually taught,” he said. “But I think the larger issue is this reminds us of the great gift of the sacraments to the Church. They’re not the property of any cleric.
“The sacraments come to us from the Lord, and everyone acts, according to their roles for the good of everyone.”
Msgr. Curran suggested that the deacon who baptized Hood may have chosen the word “we” to involve people in attendance. He noted, however, that attendants already had established roles. He said the note from the Vatican clarifies that attendants are there to minister, for witnessing, and to speak for the infant.
“I don’t know the motive of the deacon,” Msgr. Curran said. “Probably, he wanted to be inclusive, but really, we’re talking about something that comes from the Lord and the Church.”
Back in Michigan, Hood rejoined the priesthood. He went on a retreat for a few days, then returned to correctly receive the sacraments of baptism, penance, and confirmation. He received holy orders on August 17.
According to the archdiocese, anyone who received sacraments from him before his reinstatement on August 17 should arrange to receive them again.
Baptisms conducted by Hood, however, probably are valid, according to the archdiocese. Information included in Vigneron’s letter reminded that anyone could administer baptism if performed according to Christ’s mind. It also requires pure water and the proper form — the word “I.”
The letter told worried parishioners, these standards assure that “your child/grandchild has been validly baptized.”
“This,” the letter added, “is because Father Hood is, and has been, very diligent always to follow the liturgical directives of the Church in his ministry.”
Matrimony might be another exception. Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, a judge at the Tribunal of the Diocese of Brooklyn, explained that the minister of marriage is not the priest in a Roman Catholic wedding service.
“It’s the groom and the bride who offer the matrimonial consent — the ‘I do,’ that they share together,” Achacoso said. “The priest is there as a qualified witness. He then signs the contracts that the ‘I do’ happened.”
The reverse is true for Catholic churches of the Eastern Rite, Achacoso said. “They have another system in that the most important thing is the blessing of the priest,” the monsignor said.
But Hood’s Masses, the anointing of the sick, confession, and confirmation are certainly invalid for the three years he was not properly ordained, the archdiocese said.
In these instances, however, parishioners who sought sacraments in good faith were not robbed of God’s grace, according to the letter from the archdiocese.
The information pointed out that St. Thomas Aquinas instructed that while God has bound Himself to the sacraments, He is not bound by the sacraments.
Msgr. Curran agreed, adding Catholics don’t have to obsess over whether their sacraments are valid. In many cases, there is no way of knowing, short of an audio or video recording.
“Unless someone is absolutely sure something was invalid, they are entitled to give themselves the benefit of the doubt that their sacraments are valid,” Curran said.
If they aren’t valid, but there is no way to find out, then only God knows for sure. But his character suggests he will show grace to those who seek him in good faith and loving hearts, Curran said.
“God’s grace,” he said, “is always at work.”