Baptism was already prefigured in the Old Testament. Some of
the ancient rites or events that anticipated Christian Baptism were
circumcision (Colossians 2:11), the march of the Israelites through the Red Sea
(I Corinthians 10:2), and across the Jordan (Joshua 3:14). What the church
considers a formal prophecy of baptism was the oracle of Ezekiel regarding the
I shall pour clean water over you
and you will be cleansed. I shall cleanse you of all defilement and all your
idols. I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you (Ezekiel
An immediate preparation for the Baptism instituted by
Christ was the baptism administered by St. John, which moved those who received
it to repentance for their sins. This in turn prepared them for divine
forgiveness. But Johns baptism did not itself remove sins, unlike the
sacrament of Baptism which directly causes the remission of the guilt and
punishment of all sin.
Institution by Christ
We cannot tell from the Scriptures exactly when Christ
instituted the first sacrament. According to St. Bonaventure, the Savior
decided on the material to be used when He was Himself baptized by John in the
Jordan; He began to communicate the graces of baptism when He rose from the
dead; He determined how the sacrament should be given when He commanded the
apostles to baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity; He merited the graces to be conferred at baptism during His
Passion and death on the Cross; and He foretold its purpose and necessity,
during His conversation with Nicodemus as recorded in the Fourth Gospel (John
A Catholic may not doubt that Christ instituted the
sacrament of Baptism or say that the Roman Church, which is the mother and
teacher of all churches, does not have the true doctrine concerning the
sacrament of Baptism (Council of Trent, March 3, 1547).
The Churchs teaching on this sacrament is precise and
extensive. One reason is that Baptism is the most fundamental of the seven
sacraments. We may say it is also a model for all the sacraments in terms of
their power to confer or deepen the supernatural life of the soul.
To understand how Baptism operates is to see how all the
sacraments are effective signs of divine grace.
What is Baptism?
A very clear and up-to-date definition of this sacrament is
provided by the new Code of Canon Law issued by Pope John Paul II on January
25, 1983, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. After quoting the
definition, we shall briefly analyze its principal elements.
Baptism, the gateway to the
sacraments, is necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by
desire. By it people are freed from sins, are born again as children of God
and, made like to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the
Church. It is validly conferred only by a washing in real water with the proper
form of words used (Canon 849).
The first thing that strikes us in this definition is that
Baptism is the gateway (Latin janua =
door) to the sacraments. In other words, no other sacraments can be received
except by a person who has been baptized.
It means that a baptized person has a unique title which
belongs to no one else. It is the title to those graces which Christ reserves
exclusively to baptized people. Even if a person has lost Gods friendship
through grave sin, and perhaps lost every vestige of faith by denying Gods
revealed truth, yet the ability to receive the other sacraments remains. This,
of course, presumes that the necessary conditions are fulfilled.
In saying that baptism is necessary for salvation, the
Church is telling us that the obligation applies to all human beings without
exception. Unless they are reborn through the grace of baptism, they cannot
attain the beatific vision.
Christs teaching on the universal necessity of baptism has
been interpreted by the Church to mean that in case of emergency baptism by
water can be replaced by baptism of desire or baptism by blood. Baptism of
desire is the explicit or at least implicit desire for sacramental baptism and
is associated with perfect sorrow for ones sins, that is, contrition based on
charity or the love of God. Baptism of blood means the patient endurance of a
violent death because of ones profession of the Christian faith or the
practice of Christian virtue. Even young children can receive baptism of blood,
as is clear from the Churchs honoring the Holy Innocents who entered heaven
after they were murdered by Herod at the time of Christs birth in Bethlehem.
The Church has never wavered, however, in insisting that even
children before the age of reason must receive baptism of water. Thus, in the
famous definition of Pope Benedict XII referred to before, he states explicitly
which persons attain to the beatific vision. They are the souls of all the
saints who died before the Passion of Christ. They are also those of the
faithful who died after receiving the Holy Baptism of Christ, provided they
needed no purification after death or had been duly purified in purgatory. Then
the crucial statement that, The same is true of the souls of children who have
been reborn in Baptism when they die before attaining the use of free will
(Constitution Blessed God, January 29,
This historic declaration is introduced by the words,
According to the usual providence of God. Consequently, we leave to Gods
mercy the eternal destiny of those who die without baptism before reaching the
age of discretion. But historically the Church has never given her official
approval to any theory that substitutes for infants some other way of attaining
the beatific vision other than baptism of water. Moreover, the Church has
condemned as false, the Jansenist denial of a limbo of children. This would
be a place of perfect, natural happiness but without the face-to-face vision of
God (Pope Pius VI, in The Author of Faith,
August 28, 1794).
The Churchs law on the duty of baptizing infants is
Parents are obliged to see that
their infants are baptized within the first few weeks. As soon as possible
after the birth, indeed, even before it they are to approach the parish priest
to ask for the sacrament for their child.
In fact if the infant is in danger of death, it is to be
baptized without delay (Canon 867).
Effects of Baptism
The Church identifies four main effects of the sacrament of
Baptism, namely: removal of sin, rebirth as a child of God, assimilation to
Christ, and incorporation into the Church. Each of these deserves at least a
Removal of Sin. The best way to
explain the removal of sin by Baptism is to understand that the sacrament
confers divine grace.
After all, this is what really happened when our first
parents sinned. They lost the supernatural life and virtues and gifts they had
possessed before they fell. By their sin they lost these graces not only for
themselves but for their descendants.
What then, does Baptism do? It restores the essential graces
that Adam and Eve did not pass on to their posterity. By restoring these graces
Baptism removes the inherited sin.
What graces are restored? All the supernatural gifts which
our first parents had in what we call original justice. Baptism restores the
uncreated grace of the Indwelling Trinity, sanctifying grace, the infused
theological virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Restored too, are the fruits (Latin frui, to enjoy) of the Holy Spirit which are the
enjoyable experiences we have when we put the virtues and gifts into action.
St. Paul identifies twelve such experiences when he compares the works of the
flesh with their opposites. The fruit of the Spirit he says, is charity,
joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith,
modesty, continency, chastity (Galatians 5:22-23). This is not an exhaustive
list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It is rather a series of examples of
virtues that when practiced, give us spiritual ease and satisfaction in doing
the will of God.
If the person baptized is older and therefore has committed
personal sins, these too are totally removed, both in their guilt (or loss of
grace) and their penalty (suffering due). This includes the remission of all
mortal sins along with their debt of eternal punishment.
Supernatural Rebirth. In positive
terms, the sacrament of Baptism makes us adopted children of a loving God.
There is only one natural conception and birth for us human
beings. But thanks to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ we have access to
a second origin as adopted children of Gods own divine community, which is the
Holy Trinity. This second now supernatural origin takes place the moment we are
Likeness to Christ. What makes
us like Christ is the indelible character we described in our earlier
reflections on the sacraments in general. As we saw, the sacraments of Baptism,
Confirmation and Holy Orders each confer their own distinctive supernatural
The distinctive quality of the baptismal character is to
give a person a twofold share in Christs own priestly power. The first is a
share in Christs power to offer Himself in sacrifice to the heavenly Father.
The second is a share in Christs power to communicate to others the graces
that He gained for the world by His death on Calvary.
Incorporation into the Church. The
two expressions incorporation into Christ and incorporation into the Church
are used almost interchangeably. Yet there is some difference between them.
Incorporation by Baptism into Christ is basically what we
mean by being assimilated to Christs priesthood, as just described.
Incorporation into the Church builds on being incorporated
into Christ. But it goes beyond this. Baptism makes a person part of the
Mystical Body of Christ which is His Church. The one baptized receives certain
rights and privileges, and duties that no one else can claim. Christ who is the
Head of His Church works on those who are baptized and through them to continue
His great work of salvation. In a profound sense, they are a continued
extension, or an extended continuation, of Himself as Redeemer of the human
Whatever a baptized person does for the rest of his life on
earth builds on this foundation. Why? Because Baptism entitles a person to a
lifetime of extraordinary actual graces that no one else can expect to receive
The Ritual of Baptism
The essential rite of Baptism has not changed since Christ
told His disciples: All power is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go,
therefore, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-19).
No significant liturgical change was introduced by the
Second Vatican Council. However, certain modifications were made to the new
Code of Canon Law. Only two ways of baptizing are now allowed, namely by
immersion or by pouring. Previously Canon Law offered a third option, by sprinkling
Also, previously it was required that a Christian name be
given to the one being baptized. The new Code simply says that a name foreign
to a Christian mentality is not given (Canon 855).
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Pocket Catholic Catechism