German bishop allows secular baptisms – is it allowed?

The Bishop of Essen, Germany, last Saturday appointed 18 lay pastoral and parish workers — 17 women and one man — as extraordinary baptismal ministers.

The lay ministers received a four-day training from the diocese’s head of faith, liturgy and culture and will now prepare children’s families and individual adults to receive the sacrament they will administer to them.

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck said he was making the move in response to “a difficult pastoral situation” caused by a shortage of priests in the diocese, and that he planned to appoint more lay ministers, to whom he is giving a mandate of three years. mandate.

Basilica Mission San Juan Capistrano California.

The media, both Catholic and secular, covered the commissioning of lay ministers. But is this last decision authorized by the Church? And is it a big change?

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Who can baptize?

Overbeck noted in his Saturday homily that in the early Church it was always the bishop who administered baptism. As the Church grew, it became a sacrament primarily administered by priests and deacons, and less frequently by bishops.

But while the Code of Canon Law states that the ordinary minister of baptism is a cleric – bishop, priest or deacon – it also allows “a catechist or someone else designated for this function by the local Ordinary [diocesan bishop]» to confer baptism when the ordinary minister is impeded or absent.

Certain elements of each sacrament, the “essential matter and form”, are necessary for the sacrament to be valid – to be considered by the Church to have actually taken place.

In the case of baptism, all that is needed is an unbaptized person who will be baptized, a washing with real water and the invocation of a personal and Trinitarian formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Unlike other sacraments, there is no requirement as to the identity of the minister for baptism to be validly celebrated.

In fact, canon law actually allows anyone “with the right intention” to baptize lawfully in times of need, so when the need arises, a non-Christian can actually baptize another non-Christian. .

So, is this move of the Diocese of Essen important?

It is certainly new, in a reasonably stable European diocese, that the bishop decides to appoint extraordinary lay ministers of baptism on a stable basis.

But, in many parts of the world, some Catholic communities can go months without seeing a priest, and parishes span huge territories – and these are the kinds of situations that canon law has in mind. when he speaks of bishops appointing catechists and others to do baptisms when the ordinary minister is absent.

But some people would certainly say that the bishop of Essen has expanded the idea of ​​the “absence” of an ordinary minister. This would not normally include the decline in vocations reported by the Diocese of Essen and other German dioceses.

In fact, as long as Sunday masses are celebrated regularly in most parishes of the diocese, it would probably be difficult to argue that the traditional idea of ​​”clerical absence” has occurred. Indeed, canon law recommends that baptism should ordinarily be celebrated on Sunday or, if possible, during the Easter Vigil.

Every Sunday Mass and Easter Vigil has an ordinary minister of baptism present – the priest celebrant. So, even though there may not be as many priests in the diocese as the bishop would like, if Sunday masses are still celebrated, the situation does not seem to correspond to the ordinary canonical idea of ​​the absence.

So why do it then?

The diocese stressed the need for “individual accompaniment” in preparing individuals, or in the case of babies, their parents and godparents, for baptism.

Overbeck said Saturday that lay baptismal ministers would provide people preparing for baptism with an “experience [of] the lived unity of the celebration and administration of the sacrament of baptism with the pastoral care that accompanies it”.

In other words, the bishop wants to see baptismal formation done by the same person who baptizes – and with a shortage of priests, the bishop seems to think his clergy don’t have that kind of time.

Of course, some people might point out that it is not necessary for the minister of baptism to provide sacramental preparation. Indeed, canon law says that the raison d’être of baptismal godparents (often called godparents) is “to assist an adult in Christian initiation” and “to help the baptized person to lead a Christian life “.

But the reality is that parents and godparents often need sacramental formation themselves, and bishops have called for more ways to recognize needed catechetical ministers.

In May 2021, Pope Francis put the ministry of catechist on a more formalized and defined basis with his motu proprio Ministry of Antiquity.

The pope allowed the role of catechist to be officially instituted in dioceses around the world.

But, curiously, while catechists are recognized in canon law as acceptable substitutes for baptisms when clerics are unavailable, Overbreck did not commission all 18 lay ministers as catechists last weekend. Instead, he created a separate category of ministry. We do not know why.

Ministry of Antiquity requires that catechists “receive appropriate biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith and that they have prior experience in catechesis”.

It is possible that the four-day training given to the baptismal pastors of Essen was considered insufficient to make them “catechists” properly speaking.

Is it just about “diversity”?

While it would be cynical to assume that Bishop Overbeck was creating a stable new class of extraordinary ministers of baptism for novelty, the diocese points out in its own press release on Saturday that the new ministry shows how “the diocese of Essen is diversifying.”

“Even though the 18 new ministers of baptism are initially limited to three years in their new office and exercise them under a special permit under canon law, they make the image of pastoral care in the diocese of Essen,” the diocese said.

“In many places, for example, believers have worked with women and men in celebrations of the Word of God or funerals, some of whom are volunteers in these areas. In the past twelve months, three women have also assumed leadership responsibilities in the parishes of the diocese as parish officers.

Overbeck is one of the leading voices of the “synodal way” of German bishops and has long been a champion of radical church reform.

He called for married priests, the ordination of women to the priesthood and said he would not sanction any priest in his diocese who blessed a same-sex union in a church. These propositions contradict either the universal discipline of the Latin Church or the main doctrinal teachings of the universal Church.

Besides that, appointing lay baptismal ministers is a novelty, but actually much closer to theology and church discipline than Overbeck’s other “innovative” ideas.

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