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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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