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CatechismLiturgy and Sacraments

Words Matter in Baptism – Part II

By April 29, 2022 2 Comments
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Last week we took a quick look as to why the proper use of the pronoun “I”—and not “we”—is an essential element of the formula (or sacred words) necessary to baptize someone. This week we will look at yet another question/objection from an astute learner from my class who pressed even further into the matter by pointing out something very clever.*

After completing the assigned reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, she noted that the formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” is only proper to the Latin Church. In the Eastern liturgies the proper formula is, “The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (see CCC 1240).

Her question was a good one. If we accept that words matter, but there are different words used in different rites, then what is the issue with changing one word in a formula?

The answer lies with authority. The human person presiding over the sacrament does not have the authority to change the language of the ritual. Indeed, the ritual is not his to change. He is the steward of the liturgy and not its master. He did not create it, he received it, and as such he has no authority to do with it as he wishes.

This answer is simple but profound. Authority is the very fabric by which the universe is woven together. It is by Divine Authority that the sun comes up in the East and sets in the West. It is by Divine Authority that the angels are created and they reflect this authority in their own ranks. It is by Divine Authority that you and I came into existence: “every spiritual soul is created immediately by God” (CCC 366). In the words of Sacred Scripture, “How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?” (Wisdom 11:25). In other words, how could a thing exist had it not been authorized by God? Authority is the very principle by which God orders all things mightily.

His authority does not stop with creation. Indeed, “Man is dependent on his Creator and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of his freedom” (CCC 396). It makes sense, then, that things go so very poorly when the Divine Authority is ignored or attempts are made to circumvent it. Take, for example, the Fall. Adam and Eve were permitted—authorized if you will—to take from any tree of the Garden except the tree in the middle of the Garden. In choosing their own way and ignoring God’s authority to govern their lives, they sinned against God and set the stage for a good amount of the mess you and I currently find ourselves in.

To sum up then, changing even one word, even just a pronoun, when one does not have the authority to do so, especially when dealing with something so sacred, is not only wrong but it should come as no surprise when the result we get isn’t what we expected or wanted.

*By the way, Jessica, thanks for the question and for being such a keen student and active observer.
Anthony Gallegos

Anthony Gallegos

Born and raised Catholic (thanks mom and dad!), Anthony Gallegos is a native of Denver, Colorado. He attended the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and earned a B-Phil from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. After successfully discerning that he was not called to the priesthood, Anthony married, began a family and graduated from the Augustine Institute with a Masters in Theological Studies. He has served various parishes in various capacities in the Archdiocese of Denver. He joined the Catholic Catechetical School in 2015 and is glad to be “back home again” working out of the same seminary that started his love of studying and teaching the faith.

2 Comments

  • Elizabeth P says:

    I feel like some explanation is missing. I realize the debate today is the use of “we” versus the use of “I.” But when referring to the Eastern liturgy, “I” isn’t even used. It’s as if the catechumen is baptizing themselves. Is then the argument “authority?” If so, CCC lists the acceptable Eastern liturgy but why? The pronoun isn’t I or we, it’s now “proper,” ‘The servant of God, Elizabeth, is baptized in the name of the…’ Is the authority implied here? – Elizabeth – 4th year CBS

    • Anthony Gallegos says:

      Hello Elizabeth,
      If I understood the core of your question then yes the answer is authority. But authority over what? Well the authority to change the words of the formula specifically. The priest or the deacon who is presiding over the baptism does not have the authority to change the words. He must follow the formula or the recipe so to speak. This would also be true of the use of water. The priest or deacon does not have the authority to replace water with say beer or motor oil. Water must be used. Hope that helps. holler if it does not. And by the way thanks for asking.

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