Unauthorized Baptism

And More on Non-liturgical Music

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ROME, OCT. 3, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: I was asked the following question: A woman explained that her son was Catholic, though not a practicing one, who married a Jewish girl and they never had their baby baptized. This woman dearly wanted the child baptized. One day, after Mass, on the way out she stopped at the holy water fount, took some holy water and sprinkled it over the baby's head saying "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." She wanted to know if that was all right to do and sufficient for the child's baptism. -- C.C., Fall River, Massachusetts

A: The question must be answered on two levels: If baptizing the child was the right thing to do; if the woman's actions constituted a valid baptism.

The first question is rather delicate because although the grandmother deeply desired the child's baptism, the education of children usually falls upon the parents who are called to be the primary educators of children.

Canon law (Canon 868) also requires that for an infant to be baptized licitly:

"1. the parents or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent.

"2. there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic Religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason."

At the same time the canon specifies that "An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents."

Even though there are clear historical examples of grandmothers who secretly baptized children under atheistic Communist regimes, this does not appear to be the present case. The baptism should not have been done without the parents' consent.

Also, only the priest and deacons are ordinary ministers of the sacrament of baptism and can perform all of the rites. In some extreme conditions where there are no ordained ministers available, lay people have been authorized to perform the essential rites.

An unauthorized lay person should not perform a baptism except in cases of imminent danger of death or other dire situations where not even an authorized lay minister is available.

With respect to the second question regarding the validity of the baptism. As we have seen, the grandmother, no matter how sincere her motives, acted against Church law and should not be imitated. From the description of what she did, however, it would appear to have been a valid baptism and the child is truly baptized. All the same, in order to be certain, it would be necessary for her to give a detailed description of what she did to a priest in case she committed an error regarding matter or form that would cast doubt on the baptism's validity.

What to do? It depends on many factors, but sooner or later the parents should be informed. The grandmother could perhaps avoid having to reveal what she has done by asking permission from the parents to allow her to have the child baptized in a private ceremony, with just herself and the priest, and then take charge of its religious upbringing. If the parents consent, then she could have a priest or deacon complete the baptismal rites and formally register the baptism.

If the parents are very much opposed, then there is little to be done other than to await a suitable moment to inform them that their child is already baptized.

In all cases she should do all in her power to transmit the faith to the child, above all though her living witness to the Catholic faith.

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Follow-up: Non-liturgical Music in Cathedrals

Our quoting of the norms regarding concerts of non-liturgical music (Sept. 19) brought to light another question regarding the use of other forms of music in liturgical settings.

A Michigan reader mentioned that his new pastor had banned "patriotic music during the Mass" -- such as "The Navy Hymn" and "America the Beautiful."

"In addition," he writes, "ethnic songs ('Danny Boy') are not to be sung during funeral liturgies even if requested by the family. Also banned: music by Mozart, Handel, Chopin and Beethoven. The congregation must sing all parts of the Mass with Choir, even during special occasions (Christmas, Easter, etc.).

"Our parish is over 50 years old and has an excellent choir and music director. Four previous pastors encouraged excellent music (Latin, traditional, contemporary, gospel, folk). The choir has met with the new pastor and he insists that it is his decision on the type of music and songs that will be sung during the liturgy."

Few themes are more fraught with difficulties than that of suitable music for Mass. We have already discussed several aspects of liturgical music on earlier occasions (see Nov. 11, 25 and Dec. 23, 2003; Jan. 13, 27, Nov. 23, 30 and Dec. 7, 14, 2004).

The pastor is correct that he has final say regarding the kind of music used in church. But his decision must not be arbitrarily based on personal taste but on the criteria and indications found in Church documents as issued by the Holy See, the national bishops' conference, and the local bishop.

The Church has specifically recommended on numerous occasions the use of Gregorian chant and classic liturgical polyphony even though it permits other styles that are in harmony with the sacredness of the Eucharistic celebration, and are not immediately associated with profane contexts.

The Church also recognizes that many classical (usually orchestral) compositions are no longer suitable for common liturgical use even though some of them may still be used on special occasions.

Thus, while it is highly desirable that the congregation habitually sing all parts of the Mass, certain feasts may be highlighted by the choir singing a classical polyphonic Mass or by the assembly learning a Gregorian chant Mass.

It would probably be better to have the assembly sing the Mass with the choir for Christmas and Easter as such a community celebration could be a draw to those Catholics who only rarely practice their faith. There are many other suitable feasts that could be reserved for a classical polyphonic Mass such as Ascension or Trinity Sunday.

The choir may also use Gregorian chant and polyphonic compositions as musical meditations for example to accompany the presentation of gifts and after Communion.

Regarding patriotic songs: Some countries have special Mass formulas to commemorate national holidays such as Australia Day (Jan. 26) and Canada Day (July 1). Hence, it is not contrary to Catholic custom to invoke God's blessing on a particular country by dedicating a national day of prayer.

The use of patriotic hymns on national holidays depends on prevailing custom as well as the text and theology of the hymns in question. Not all patriotic hymns are suitable for the context of the Eucharist and some texts may even express sentiments contrary to Catholic theology.

Likewise, although patriotism is a virtue, the upsurge of patriotic sentiments produced by such hymns is likely to distract our attention away from the holy mystery we are celebrating. Thus, if patriotic hymns are used at all, it is probably better to use them as closing hymns after the final blessing.

With respect to ethnic songs, maudlin Irishman though I am, songs such as "Danny Boy" have no place at the funeral Mass at which only suitable hymns may be used. Otherwise the character of the Mass as the supreme act of intercession for the soul of the departed can be easily obscured.

Such songs may be performed during the wake at the funeral parlor or at some similar reception, along with any eulogies and celebrations of the life of the deceased.

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