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How Can Catholic Parishes Make Baptism Easier to Access?

This is Part 3 of a series about the problem of some Catholic parishes/dioceses holding the sacraments hostage. Part 1 and Part 2 also discuss baptism.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts on what we can do as a church (both upper and lowercase C) to potentially fix this issue, as pertains to baptism:

End the custom about no baptism during Lent.

It has no basis in canon law. Interestingly, I was informed by another person in my diocese that her parish does in fact conduct baptism during Lent, so either it’s not a mandate from the bishop and the baptism coordinator at my parish lied to me, or that person’s parish is ignoring the mandate. I ended up e-mailing the diocese last week to get clarification. I haven’t heard back yet, but if/when I do, I will update this post.

This article from EWTN explains why some parishes have that rule:

[G]iven that Lent is traditionally orientated toward the preparation for baptism, many parishes and even a few dioceses have policies that discourage it.

I can understand that; however, Lent is approximately six weeks long. If you have a baby born shortly before or shortly after the beginning of Lent, it seems unnecessary to make the family wait that long just because others in the parish are preparing for baptism on Easter Vigil. Remember, baptism of desire does apply to people above the age of reason, but it does not necessarily apply to infants for whom baptism is desired by their parents (see paragraph 29 in this document for more on that).

The article continues: 

Another reason why several places discourage baptisms during Lent is that in some cultures they also give rise to festive social celebrations that might be inappropriate during a penitential season.

Okay, I can understand this too. However, Sundays are still considered to be “celebratory” even within the context of the Lenten season, so why not schedule baptisms only on Sundays during Lent? Or ask the parents if they’d be willing to postpone any baptism celebration until Easter Sunday (or give THEM the choice to postpone baptism until after Easter if having a party is that important to them).

We typically don’t have any celebratory baptismal parties other than going out to eat with the godparents afterwards, and I would have gladly postponed even that if my baby could have been baptized before Easter. (In fact, I can think of a lot of parents who’d love the excuse to forego the party!)

Stop forbidding siblings and infants at classes.

This is the number one problem for families and baptism classes. One person said that her parish had that policy because the priest wanted the parents to be able to focus on the material.

To which I replied, “We’re moms. We can multitask.”

Plus, do you really expect parents — especially first-time parents — to be able to focus if they’re worried about leaving their tiny newborn with a babysitter for the first time? Yes, it might get loud. Yes, siblings might cause a distraction. But that’s called life, and it’s called parenthood. Roll with it.

Let the teens in your parish help out by keeping an eye on the little ones. Gee, maybe that could be part of the Confirmation service hours so many parishes without restored order require! (More on that in a future post.) Or ask members of one of the ministries of the church to make that one of their service projects. Ask your parish Scouting troop (whether Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, AHG, or similar) to make it a service project towards earning a merit badge. Ask parishioners to bring coloring books, crayons, Brother Francis movies, Legos, and similar to help keep kids occupied.

Stop requiring the birth certificate prior to baptism.

It is a requirement in canon law that parishes make sure that the parents requesting baptism are actually the child’s parents or custodial guardians — i.e., people who have the authority to request baptism — and not rogue grandparents or kidnappers or non-custodial parents. I get that. However, canon law does not specify that a birth certificate is the only document that can prove this, so there is no reason to delay baptism until it arrives. A hospital birth record or birth record signed by a licensed midwife should be sufficient to prove that for the purposes of baptism (and the birth certificate can be dropped off later).

Records from the adoption agency should work as well in the cases of adoption. One adoptive mother told me that her parish had denied her adopted child baptism until the adoption was finalized, even though she had the child’s birth certificate and the permission of both birth parents. Why?? That’s incredibly unnecessary.

Bring it back to the hospital setting.

Why not have the priest or deacon visit the parents in the hospital after the child is born and do the baptism right then and there? Maybe a nurse or hospital volunteer or family members can stand in as proxies for the godparents if the godparents themselves aren’t able to attend. The godparents can even attend via FaceTime or Skype.

There’s no need for baptism to be an elaborate ceremony and no requirement. Pope Benedict XVI was baptized the same day he was born (DURING LENT [well, the Triduum]). And most hospitals provide white onesies for newborn children, so you already have a white garment — and there’s usually a sink in every hospital room!

Maybe not all parents would want this, but I sure would. Going home from the hospital with that chrism head smell? Yes, please!

Keep it simple.

Several priests commented on the original post and said that their requirements were simple — the parents had to request baptism, and then they had to meet with him to fill out paperwork and chat about their faith. Subsequently, they kept an eye out for those parents at Mass (and would presumably speak to them if they didn’t see them attending). Beautiful! So simple! I know this may not be possible for very large parishes with thousands of registered families, but really that’s the way it should go in smaller ones, in my humble opinion.

Let preparation take place during pregnancy.

The priests above both mentioned that they allow and even encourage parishioners to start arranging the baptism during the pregnancy, and I cannot for the life of me understand why this isn’t ALWAYS the case. Canon law even says that parents should request baptism “as soon as possible after the birth or even before it” (emphasis mine) so why do so many parishes require you to wait until the baby is born before requesting baptism? I can tell you that life doesn’t get less hectic after a baby is born — quite the opposite.

Bring food.

Another commenter suggested having parents call the parish as soon as baby was born, and once the family had returned home, a priest/deacon/catechist would arrive at the home with a freezer meal and the paperwork to schedule baptism. Lovely! That’s a great idea. Our parish has several groups that might be able to share in that ministry — the Women’s Guild, the Catholic Daughters, the Legion of Mary, etc. One group could make the freezer meal while a volunteer from another group delivers it, in company of the catechist/priest/deacon.

Online classes.

I keep beating this drum, but please, if give a class you MUST, offer online classes! I’m able to renew my Safe Environment Training online; why can’t I do baptism classes online, too? I’m told that Formed has a beautiful series on baptism that would be perfect for this purpose. And if it’s too expensive, give parents the option of a free in-person class or paying the cost of taking the online class via Formed. I can tell you what I’d choose (because paying for the class via Formed would likely be less expensive than the cost of hiring a babysitter). And the beauty of online classes for godparents is that they are much easier for parents whose godparents live elsewhere.

So those are some of my ideas. Do you have any ideas on how parishes can make this process easier for parents? Share them in the comments!

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Stop Holding the Sacraments Hostage: More About Baptism

It appears that Part 1 of this post resonated with a LOT of people! I have heard so many stories over the past few days in response regarding parishes that have instituted similar ridiculous requirements prior to baptism, and the heartbreak and frustration that has caused many, many Catholic families.

I wanted to add some clarifications based on some of the feedback I received.

One commenter brought CCC 1256 to my attention:

1256 The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.

Notice that it says “In the case of necessity,” not “in the case of danger of death.” The Code of Canon Law states that children “in danger of death” are to be baptized “without delay,” but I’m not sure if it’s ever been defined what what “necessity” would entail.

If a parent is truly anxious that his or her child needs baptism sooner than the bureaucracy of his or her church is willing to provide it, a baptism could in theory be performed by the parents in their home. The subsequent Church baptism would be a conditional baptism.

Please note that I am not encouraging this as a standard practice in every case, nor am I encouraging people to circumvent their church’s established protocol for requesting baptism. It’s more of an option to consider if the bureaucracy of their particular parish is such that baptism is being unreasonably delayed and/or parents have genuine fear or anxiety about the state of their baby’s soul, due to potential SIDS risk or similar concern, that doesn’t rise to the level of “immediate danger of death” — which seems to be the only criteria many parishes use for immediate baptism, given that phrase is in canon law.

Also, while reading the CCC excerpt above, I noticed this line in CCC 1261:

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.

Given that line and what the Code of Canon Law says (more on that below), it’s more frustrating to me than ever that church bureaucracy and policies will allow often MONTHS to pass before children are baptized.

One thing I wanted to mention: when my fifth baby was born, he had a birth defect that required surgery at six weeks of age. Soon after his birth, I called my parish and explained that my baby would be having surgery in less than two months, and that I felt it was important for him to receive baptism before the surgery.

They agreed, and because his baptism was considered an “emergency baptism,” we had the deacon come to our home and do the required baptism class (since it had, sigh, been over three years since the last one). My son ended up being baptized within the same month that he was born!

Also for the record, we were able to arrange a private baptism for babies three and four at my parish because at the time I had a friend (godfather for babies #4 and #6, as a matter of fact) who worked in the parish office and was able to streamline things for us. They were much different experiences than the one I had with my sixth baby.

A Former DRE Weighs In

In Part 1, I mentioned that I’d provide input from a former Director of Religious Education. Jessica M. is a Catholic wife and mother who, in addition to being a former parish DRE, was also a Dominican Sister for six years. You can find her blog at https://catholiccustoms.wordpress.com.

I asked Jessica,

What do you think of parishes placing onerous requirements on parents seeking baptism for their children? As a hypothetical example, let’s say a parish required three mandatory parent classes before scheduling baptism. What would your response be?

She replied,

If a 3-session class is required, this causes undue hardship on families that may just barely be on the fence about baptism. Many families I met with during my time as a Pastoral Associate were merely doing it for the sake of tradition. They were Catholic, yes, but often times had very little catechesis; they wanted to have their baby baptized because that is what was expected of Catholic parents.

To require a 3-session class of these new parents would have caused many of them to turn away from bringing their child to the waters of baptism. I also met many families that, through one obstacle or another, never got around to baptizing their child until many, MANY years later.

It is a direct contradiction to the requirements of the current Code of Canon Law. When I worked at the church, I was alarmed by the lack of knowledge of Canon Law by those who should know it (at least know of it enough to look things up). Baptism was one such battleground, so to speak. I found that offering baptism only during certain months of the year prevented many parents from fulfilling this, even though they desired it.

Eventually I was able to offer a suggestion that if a family desired it (and was properly prepared), they could request a baptism apart from he usual time. It took a lot of effort, and the exception was rarely made, but it put the phrase from Canon Law into their minds.

Also, I changed the baptism prep program so that I had a team of catechists, who would meet one-on-one with a family (after I spoke to them on the phone either before or after baby was born), and met with them to catechize them about baptism. This was a one-time meeting…and we told them it lasted up to 2 hours. Usually it was done in 1 hour, but there were cases of such poorly catechized parents that 2 hour classes did happen.

What would you say to someone who argued that anyone who wasn’t willing to attend multiple classes shouldn’t have their child baptized Catholic anyway, because that meant they weren’t committed to raising their child in the faith?

I would say that we do not know the inner workings of the hearts of the parents and godparents. It is not up to us to discern that. Our job is to ask them if they desire to raise their child Catholic, and believe their answer! Then, give them the tools they need, especially in the years to come.

There is no canonical requirement for a 3-part series about baptism. If the parents say they will raise the child Catholic, we must trust them and accompany them on the journey. If, however, the parents make known that they only want baptism because of family custom (no ties to the faith at all… just superstition, or what have you), then there is a great need to help them understand why baptism is important, and what responsibility it places on the parents. Also, if you’re going to require three classes, let the parents do them while they are pregnant still. [Addition from JoAnna: or, at the very least, let them do it online!]

Going to Canon Law again, I would remind them that it says the following (notes in parentheses are my own):

Can. 868 §1. 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; (okay, so this is taken care of by the parents coming out and asking for baptism)

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. (It does not say anything about totally refusing baptism, but of informing the parents as to why the baptism is to be delayed…and working through the issue).

From my experience, any time a representative of the Catholic church (be it a deacon, priest or lay person) put up a roadblock to baptism without showing a bridge, the family turned away. At times, they even left the church, and went to some protestant denomination instead. It was heartbreaking.

That is heartbreaking. And so unnecessary.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, where I’ll talk about practical suggestions I feel parishes could implement to simplify and streamline the process of baptism.

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Dear Catholic Parishes: Stop Holding the Sacraments Hostage

This is Part 1 of what will be a two-part post.

I’m a Catholic mother of six living children, and I’m here today with a plea: stop holding the sacraments hostage.

Don’t erect arbitrary and unnecessary obstacles to the sacraments, obstacles that have no basis in canon law. In particular, stop making it harder for parents or parishioners to access baptism. By doing so, you’re denying members your flock the grace they need to live strong Catholic lives and grow in their faith, and you’re putting the souls of innocent babies in grave danger.

I’m not talking about setting basic standards. Those are needed and necessary. I’m talking about tying up burdens that you yourself aren’t willing to shoulder (cf. Matthew 23:4).

Let’s start with an example that I am all too familiar with: baptism.

Some of the obstacles to baptism I’ve heard about from other Catholic mom friends are patently ridiculous. Some parishes require a class (or two, three, or even more!) that can only be taken after the child has been born, and only after he or she has received his or her birth certificate (which can take several weeks or sometimes several months after birth), and require both parents to attend, and don’t offer childcare for older siblings. Some even stipulate that you can’t bring your newborn child!

Tell me, how can the Church claim to support large families if they require large families to shell out money just to attend a parish baptism class? Do you think it’s easy for a Catholic family with six kids to (a) find a babysitter in the first place and/or (b) afford a babysitter? Most large Catholic families, including my own, can’t afford a babysitter for the desperately-needed occasional date night, let alone a required baptism class at a parish!

And speaking of that, why do parishes require a new baptism class for each child or make it so the classes “expire” after a set amount of time (usually three years)? Do you really think that a Catholic family who has already baptized 4-5 kids has suddenly forgotten what baptism is and why it’s important? If we’re having 4-5 kids in today’s day and age, chances are we are intimately familiar with Church teaching and doctrine. Heck, by kid #5 I think I could have TAUGHT the baptism class.

And it’s not even large families. Do you really expect a brand-new mother who is exclusively breastfeeding to leave her tiny child alone for several hours, likely for the first time? You have new parents who are constantly exhausted, stressed out, anxious about a million different things, and you tell them: “Oh, by the way, you have to attend this class at your parish [or sometimes multiple classes] before we can even set a date for the baptism. We’re going to make it at the most inconvenient time possible for the parent who is working, and you’ll need to find a babysitter to care for your tiny, vulnerable newborn. Oh, you breastfeed exclusively? Well, you’ll have to figure that out, because we can’t possibly have an infant at a class where we’re discussing infant baptism.”

No. You don’t do that to families. You don’t target them when they’re already in one of the most chaotic, tiring, stressful periods of their lives and do what you can to make it even WORSE. That isn’t going to bring people into the Church, or evangelize them in any way. That is only going to push already lukewarm Catholics out of the door and send them down the street to the local happy-clappy Protestant church where all they need to do is sign up to get their kid baptized.

We as Catholics need to meet people and parents where they are. It’s 2018 and we can do better. Online classes (with a short quiz afterwards to ensure information was received and retained). Skype classes. Sending a deacon or a catechist or even the priest to the parishoners’ home to do the class. If a class at the parish is needed, allow siblings — including the new baby! — to attend along with their parents, and don’t have the class in late evening when toddlers will be tired and cranky. Feed them so they don’t have to cook that night, or organize a potluck. And allow parents to attend this class BEFORE the baby’s birth, especially if they are first-time parents!

Don’t require a birth certificate, social security card, passport, and godparent affidavits signed in triplicate by a notary. The hospital record of birth should be good enough documentation to start with, and the rest can wait and be submitted later. And while I understand the importance of having qualified godparents, it’s sometimes hard if you have godparents who live farther away to get all the necessary documentation in a timely manner.

If you’re worried that the godparents may not be suitable, ask if you can have a five-minute phone conversation with them instead of requiring that they get a testimonial from the local bishop or other onerous paperwork. Ask them to record a five-minute video about why godparents are important and have them send you the YouTube link.

And for the love of all that is good and holy, do not refuse to baptize children during Lent. This has absolutely no basis in canon law and is frankly discriminatory towards babies born in January/February.

I had to go through this with my sixth baby, who was born January 21 of last year. By the time my postpartum fog had began to clear enough for me to realize that I should really call the parish to ask about baptism (because of course we weren’t allowed to do so BEFORE the baby was born), Lent was nearly upon us. We’d been further delayed by the fact that we wanted to ask her potential godparents to be her godparents in person, but every time we arranged to meet up, one of us had to cancel due to illness. Finally, I had to do it over the phone.

So I finally remember to call the parish to request baptism (which canon law states should be done AS SOON AS POSSIBLE after birth), and what am I told?

No, we can’t baptize the baby during Lent because Lent is a time of penitence and baptism is too celebratory, even for Sundays; it will have to wait until after Easter. Allegedly, this is a mandate from the bishop (though I have my doubts).

No, you can’t set a date until you have an in-person meeting with the deacon. We’ll need you make sure that you submit offering envelopes for at least three months so you can prove you’re a regular churchgoing member of the parish. Oh, you don’t have to put anything in them, we just need the proof for our records.

No, it doesn’t matter that we see you every Sunday and your husband is in Knights of Columbus and you’re in Catholic Daughters and you regularly bring your children to religious ed class, and have done so faithfully for years.

No, you can’t skip the required baptism class, because it’s been more than three years since your last child was baptized (gee, I’m so sorry I had TWO MISCARRIAGES in between babies five and six).

Oh, we only offer the baptism class once every three months, so may the odds be ever in your favor. And we don’t allow kids to attend, so good luck finding and affording a babysitter for all six kids, especially your breastfeeding newborn!

I hadn’t remembered this ordeal with any of my other babies, but I was steamed. I did get our parish priest to waive our requirement for the class, but not the requirement to wait until after Lent. In the end, the baby was over three months old before she was baptized, and it was the longest three months of my life. I even considered baptizing her myself, just in case (especially when she suffered a skull fracture due to a freak accident at four weeks old), but I didn’t because technically she wasn’t in danger of death (even with the skull fracture).

And it was so unnecessary! My husband and I are faithful, practicing Catholics. We have six kids, for heaven’s sake! The other five were baptized, three of them at that very parish. The father of the baby’s godfather was a deacon at our parish, but I still needed to submit paperwork proving the deacon’s son and his wife were suitable choices even though they had been godparents of our fourth child as well.

I would have been willing to bring my child for baptism the following week if I’d been allowed. All we needed was the baby, the priest/deacon, the baptismal font, and the godparents. I didn’t need time to plan a fancy party or anything. I just wanted my baby baptized, and it felt like I was being denied baptism until I jumped through ridiculous and arbitrary hoops.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll feature input from former parish religious ed directors about this issue.