In our look at baptism, we have covered its origins, history, the ritual, and the effects or graces that it gives. As every sacrament is to be rightly ministered by the Church and is intended for reception by those who are rightly meant to receive it, in this installment we turn our attention to who are the proper minister and recipients for this sacrament.
The ministering of baptism is ordinarily and properly that of the ordained clergy – that is, of bishops, priests, and deacons. Given the necessity of baptism for eternal life in Christ, any of the ordained ministers rightly confer this sacrament in typical circumstances – making this sacrament most accessible to all who seek it. While there are particular Church laws that regulate who is able to baptize in given settings (such as how parish priests [and any deacons assigned under these priests] have the responsibility to baptize in their own parish/s) each of the ordained has the sacramental power and mandate to baptize through their reception of ordination. Thus, every parish has at least one proper minister of baptism assigned to them who is to oversee all baptisms, even if it is offered by another clergyman.
As baptism is necessary for salvation – since the forgiveness of sin is necessary to dwell in union with God – there can be occasions that arise when a baptism must happen urgently. A primary example of such an emergency is when a newborn child has health circumstances that unfortunately may cause death soon after being born. In such moments, the Church accepts that anyone, even if the person is NOT baptized, can confer an emergency baptism (so long as that person has the intention of the Church) by the pouring or immersion in water while saying the Trinitarian formula – so that such a child is not deprived of the graces of baptism. If the child were to live, they can later be more formally received into the Church through a ceremony that includes the other ritual elements of baptism, such as profession of faith by the parents, the anointings, and so forth. Finally, in some locations (such as mission territory), a bishop can designate lay people as “extraordinary” ministers to baptize, lest people be deprived for an inordinately long time.
As for the recipient, it is important that we appeal to the Church’s Canon Law, which always gives the lowest threshold in speaking of recipients of sacraments. Here, canon 864 tells us that the recipient of baptism is “Every person not yet baptized and only such a person is capable of baptism.” Once more, the necessity of baptism for eternal life in heaven is at stake. Accordingly, the Church accepts all who are not baptized as right recipients – even if they cannot profess the faith (as with infants), as the Church desires all persons for heaven and does not want to withhold baptism wherever it can fittingly be given.
This lowest threshold for reception practically means that all can be baptized upon birth into this life. However, we do not give any of the sacraments blindly; each sacrament normally includes formation. Thus, when the Church baptizes infants (who, in the Church’s use of the term “infant” is any child up to age 7-8), the parents with the aid of at least one sponsor/godparent are responsible for professing and handing on faith to their child – thus making that profession within the baptism rite and then raising their child accordingly. Adult baptism (of anyone older than age 8) requires the person themselves to be rightly formed in the Catholic faith (through RCIA), that they might fully and knowingly embrace baptism.
In the next part, some common questions and concerns will be addressed regarding baptism.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1246-1261 speak of the recipient and minister of baptism, along with the necessity of baptism.