The Sacrament of Baptism
The sacrament of baptism is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. It is an individual’s initiation into the Catholic Church and the Body of Christ. You cannot be “born” a Catholic – while you may be born into a family or community that has a Catholic culture, you are not yourself a Catholic until you have been baptized.
Almost all Christians have baptism in form or another, but there are many ways that it is practiced.
In the Catholic Church, Baptism is the first Sacrament of Initiation, followed by the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist (not necessarily in that order). The word “baptism” means to “plunge” or “immerse.” Being “plunged” into water at baptism (whether you are literally plunged under water or just have water poured over your head) symbolizes that we are buried with Christ – we are participating in His death so that we can participate in His joyful resurrection in heaven. Baptism cleanses us from the original sin we received from our ancestors. It also welcomes us into the Church and the family of faith, making us adopted children of God. Lastly, it permanently marks us as holy, belonging to God, and open to the gift of salvation.
Although we don’t often think of this, every baptism includes an exorcism. The baptismal rite includes what is referred to as a “minor exorcism” – this does not mean that the person being baptized is believed to be possessed by a demon, which would require a major exorcism. A minor exorcism is more like a way of providing protection from sin and the devil. The person being baptized is claimed for God, and the Holy Spirit is invited to dwell within him or her.
Scriptural Basis of Baptism
Jesus’ disciples began baptizing new Christians within weeks of His resurrection – it has always been the way we mark entry into the Church. The New Testament makes it very clear that baptism is not optional or merely a symbol, but the means by which we receive God’s lifesaving grace.
Just before ascending to heaven, Jesus commissioned His disciples to baptize others, saying “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). While genuine belief in Jesus Christ is non-negotiable, the ritual of baptism cannot just be an afterthought.
There are also many other passages in the New Testament illustrating the importance and salvific power of baptism.
Of course, another memorable New Testament mention of baptism is the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus had no need of baptism – He was already sinless and holy, and He didn’t need to be initiated into the Church He would start. There are different theories as to why Jesus was baptized, but most theologians agree that it was, at least in part, Jesus’ way of setting an example of obedience and humility for His followers. In dying for our salvation, Jesus took our sins on Himself – He voluntarily lifted our burdens onto His own shoulders. By being baptized, He indicated that this was His mission. He who was without sin took His place among sinners in order to save us.
What Happens at a Baptism?
A baptism can take place during a regular Mass or outside of Mass. Most baptisms are of infants, but adults can also be baptized.
When an individual is baptized, the priest (or deacon) pours water over them (or immerses them in water) and says "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The individual is also anointed on the chest (before the baptism with water) and forehead (after the baptism) with sacred oil. The Oil of Catechumens, which is used before the water, is meant to ward off evil and strengthen the individual for a lifetime of following Jesus. The Oil of Chrism, used after the baptism, is an ancient symbol marking someone as a Christian – which the newly baptized individual now is!
A special candle, called a baptismal candle, is also lit from the Easter (or Paschal) candle. This represents the light of Christ, which the newly baptized is called to spread and follow throughout their life.
These symbols are all present for the baptism of an infant or an adult, though they may change slightly. For example, when an adult is baptized, they are usually anointed with the Oil of Catechumens at the beginning of their baptismal preparation process rather than on the same day they are actually baptized.
A baptism also involves godparents. Another term for this role is “sponsors” (which is the term typically used when an adult is baptized). An adult may choose his own sponsor(s), but for an infant baptism the parents will select one or two godparents. Being a godparent is more than just an acknowledgement of a special role in the baptized person’s life – like the parents themselves, godparents are expected to help the newly baptized live out their faith as they grow.
Why Do Catholics Baptize Babies?
Catholics are sometimes criticized for baptizing babies, as babies obviously cannot choose baptism for themselves. This stems in part from a different understanding of baptism. For many Christian churches, baptism is a physical sign that a person is ready to commit their life to Christ. A person chooses to be baptized once they have experienced a conversion, accepting Jesus as their savior. It is a celebration of the effects of God’s grace in their life. A Catholic understanding of baptism is slightly different.
Catholics believe that a baptism (like all sacraments) is an outward sign of an invisible reality. When a baby is baptized, it’s more than just a celebration or a symbol. A baptism confers special graces – which can occur only with baptism. For one thing, a baptism cleanses you of sin. While an infant has never sinned themself, every person is born with the stain of original sin, and must be freed from it through baptism. While an infant also cannot have faith, in infant baptisms the parents who are choosing baptism are extending their faith to their child – a concept with several scriptural precedents. For example, consider God sparing the first child during Passover because the faith of the parents (Exodus 12), or Jesus healing the paralytic because of the faith of those who had brought him (Mark 2:3-5) and the centurion’s servant because of the centurion’s faith (Matthew 8:5-13).
Infant baptism itself is an ancient practice in the Church. Most theologians agree that they probably happened in biblical times, given the references to entire households and families being baptized, such as Lydia’s household in Acts 16:14-15, the jailer’s family in Acts 16:25-34, and others.
However, there is no denying that a parent’s faith can only go so far. Therefore, the Catholic Church also places great weight on the sacrament of Confirmation, where an individual who is already baptized makes their own free decision to continue their faith journey as a Catholic. Confirmation stirs up the graces granted at baptism and also bestows new gifts upon the one being confirmed, and it is also a powerful sign that the individual has chosen to continue in the faith chosen for them at baptism.
All that aside, you don’t have to be a baby to be baptized into the Catholic Church. Adults who choose to be baptized experience a very similar baptismal rite, but they do so after a period of personal discernment and preparation referred to as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). And since an adult is making their own choice to be baptized, it is common that an adult who is baptized also receives the sacrament of Confirmation (and First Communion) at the same time. Traditionally, adult baptisms happen at the Easter Vigil, the first Easter Mass, which takes place at sundown on Holy Saturday.