Updated: Jan 9
Today marks the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a day when Catholics remember Christ requesting baptism from John the Baptist not because He needed it but because He wanted to intentionally establish the sacrament and its critical importance in becoming one of His followers. In light of that, let’s talk a bit about the parents’ obligation to their baby when it comes to getting them baptized.
When Is My Baby Supposed to Be Baptized?
It makes sense to first establish what the Church has said through current canon law (found here) regarding infant baptism:
Can. 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it.
§2. An infant in danger of death is to be baptized without delay.
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;
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.
Let’s break this down a bit and allow the guidance of the Church to bring us some true freedom and direction.
You, as the mother or father of this image of God, this baby you have been gifted, have a moral obligation to bring them to baptism. They are that important and baptism is that important. Their soul deserves your utmost care and should be prioritized above other things that are far less important to your baby’s eternal welfare. This is not a suggestion, it’s an explicit obligation. We are to have our baby baptized within the first few weeks after birth, highlighting just how important the sacrament is. It’s not a few months or a few years. It’s not when family can make travel arrangements or when the parish secretary can fit you in a few months from now. It’s not when a fabulous party can be organized or when the world is free from sickness or lockdowns. The wording of the Church is intentional and beautifully clear. Baptism is so important that we are obliged to give this to our children within the first few weeks after they are born.
If baptism is the fulfillment of and the replacement to the old rite of circumcision (and it is), then perhaps it makes sense to try to have the baby baptized on or around the 8th day after birth as was the Old Covenant prescribed law. This exact timing is, of course, not required, but it certainly is appropriate and falls within the “first few weeks”.
Getting out of the house the first few weeks after birth is difficult, absolutely. But if we are prioritizing or expected to get to pediatrician appointments, shopping, family visits, newborn photo shoots, or other outings, then we are also able to bring our baby to church for something far more important (and maybe make those other things less a priority!). The ceremony can be planned within an already scheduled Mass or at a separate private time in which the actual rite only takes 15-30 minutes. Perhaps pastors could even consider performing the baptism in the home of the family, especially if doing so would make it more accessible and the needs of the mother postpartum would make that preferable. Using the very limited energy we have postpartum and offering it towards something as significant as the baptism of our baby is a testament of faith and a beautiful prioritization of that time and energy.
How Do We Celebrate Our Baby’s Baptism?
Consider whether a large party is truly necessary or in the best interest of mother and/or baby. There’s nothing at all wrong with celebrating, of course. Quite the opposite! It is the most important day of your child’s life. However, remember that the ritual itself is the primary celebration and that further celebration does not have to look like a large expensive party, especially if organizing that would delay the sacrament OR if it would place unhealthy physical, emotional, or mental stress on the mother whose needs should absolutely be prioritized in this decision. If a big party is important to you, perhaps delay for a month or two after the baptism (or more) allowing the baptism day itself to be simple and intimate, as soon as possible those first few days or weeks after birth. I can pretty much guarantee that a party a few months later will be much more enjoyable and actually a celebration for mom and baby than one endured a few days or weeks postpartum!
It might be helpful to think about what it may have looked like for Mary and Joseph to present the Baby Jesus in the temple. It most definitely wasn’t accompanied by Mary scrubbing a house clean in order to entertain guests or spending several hours on her feet introducing baby Jesus to dozens of family members or going straight from the temple to mingle at a local restaurant for a few hours to celebrate or putting together an elaborate feast. If you are just a few days or weeks postpartum, it is in your baby’s and your best interest to treat this time as sacred and reverent and go right back home after the baptism to be in or around the bed, or at the very least, not hostessing a party.
How Do I Schedule Our Baby’s Baptism?
Connect with the pastor of your parish at least a few months before birth to make sure everyone and everything is ready to set up a baptism for the baby after birth. This is a great second or third trimester task as you prepare to birth your baby. Make sure you know what your parish would like from you to show that you are properly prepared. Make sure you ask Godparents and have them submit any necessary verification from their own parish to yours. This is also a good time to get the family gown or purchase something special for your baby to wear to the baptism if you don't already have something. And think about something for you, too (remember, nursing friendly)! If you want to get Godparents a gift, do this now as well.
If your parish imposes overly burdensome requirements that do not allow you to baptize your baby within the first few weeks (provided you are ready and properly disposed to raise your child in the Faith), consider whether that parish truly has the soul of your child as a priority and if you need to make a change.
As soon as you’re able after baby is born, make the phone call to your parish to schedule the baptism. In some cases, such as a planned birth or simply knowing that your baby will definitely be born by a certain date, you might even choose and be able to schedule it beforehand.
In love, I’d like to add here that if you are Catholic and your baby is older than a few weeks and still has not been brought to the waters of baptism, please make haste to set that up today. If you didn’t know this, then of course, you are not culpable but now that you do, it is your sacred duty to your child to get them the sanctifying grace of baptism as soon as you possibly can. Through baptism they become an adopted son or daughter of God. They enter into the divine family and into the new eternal covenant with our eternal God. Through it, original sin is washed away. It is the way that Christ Himself established as the way to participate in eternal life, our souls forever changed by the sacred water. It is not up to us to declare it unnecessary or frivolous or to be put off as merely symbolic. God can work outside of His sacraments, yes, but an explicit refusal to follow what He ordained as the regular means of salvation and entrance into the Church is itself a response to His offering of salvation. He will respect our free will if we knowingly choose to reject what He has Himself established and forfeit His offer of eternal life.
A note to pastors:
In the very remote chance there are any who might be reading a birth blog...
PLEASE do not set up arbitrary and burdensome requirements for baptism.
PLEASE do not set up rules that go beyond what the Church Herself has established.
Most pastors are understandably unaware of how incredibly difficult the postpartum time can be. Getting to classes shortly after birth with a newborn baby is unreasonable and possibly even unsafe. Getting to classes when you are pregnant and have several other children can be completely unfeasible for many families, especially those without access to childcare. Requiring classes but then only offering them every few months or a few times a year is contrary to the mind of the Church. Repeating mandatory baptism classes for each subsequent baby a couple has is especially ridiculous. Ensuring couples are prepared for the responsibility of baptism should not be a one size fits all approach. It should be personalized and fit to the needs of the family. Not allowing baptisms during certain seasons of the Church that she has not Herself restricted also is not in line with the serious obligation of baptism.
Do your best to know the families in your parish. Do your best to have a reasonable confidence that they know the Faith adequately enough to bring their baby to baptism. That does not need to be formalized or through a program and in fact, it’s probably preferable for it not to be. If they do not have that understanding of the Faith necessary, then that might indicate an issue with that individual family’s catechesis and formation that must be addressed or it might indicate an area where the whole parish can improve. Consider using your homily time to teach the importance of baptism and better teach the requirements of the Faith as a whole. Checking a class off a list is a weak determinant of a couple’s actual understanding of the sacrament and intention to live and teach the Faith. Far better is it to talk with them, know whether you see them coming every Sunday to Mass, and have some sort of personal relationship with them.
How Do I Choose Godparents?
Can. 872 Insofar as possible, a person to be baptized is to be given a sponsor who assists an adult in Christian initiation or together with the parents presents an infant for baptism. A sponsor also helps the baptized person to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it.
Can. 873 There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each.
Can. 874 §1. To be permitted to take on the function of sponsor a person must:
1/ be designated by the one to be baptized, by the parents or the person who takes their place, or in their absence by the pastor or minister and have the aptitude and intention of fulfilling this function;
2/ have completed the sixteenth year of age, unless the diocesan bishop has established another age, or the pastor or minister has granted an exception for a just cause;
3/ be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on;
4/ not be bound by any canonical penalty legitimately imposed or declared;
5/ not be the father or mother of the one to be baptized.
§2. A baptized person who belongs to a non-Catholic ecclesial community is not to participate except together with a Catholic sponsor and then only as a witness of the baptism.
You only need to name one Godparent (sponsor) for your baby, though even that is not an absolute if circumstances do not allow. Two are possible, provided they are male and female and meet the other requirements noted above. The most important part of choosing a Godparent is that they will fulfill the duty of helping your child lead a Christian life. Choosing a faithful practicing Catholic is more important than not offending family or choosing the easiest option. This is a good opportunity for practice in making the best decisions you can for your child regardless of whether other people agree or will be happy about it. When you know who is qualified and who you would like to ask, simply ask! If they don’t already know what is required, share with them why you have asked them and your desire for them to help you in your task of teaching and sharing the Faith with your child.
What an absolute undeserved gift we have in baptism. What a grace it is to be able to be able to bring the tiniest members of our families so soon after natural birth into true supernatural birth! Let us do our best by them, bringing them into covenant with God and welcoming them into the Church as members equal in dignity and worth. May our love for our babies extend to prioritizing this gift for them as soon as possible after birth.
(I feel compelled to close by inviting you to Rosie Hill's beautiful and heart wrenching post related to this topic following the unexpected loss of her baby daughter.)