I'm currently working with a team of people at my parish to reform our parish's baptism preparation class. This work started off as an individual effort to develop a more rigorous curriculum but has evolved to included team building and possibly some interparish collaboration. The course is shaping up well, and we have some great people engaging with the program.
One of the points mentioned in the course is the minimal requirements for a valid sacrament. In Catholic sacramental theology courses, we get a framework for sacramental validity. A sacrament must have a valid minister, a valid recipient, proper form, and proper matter. For the Sacrament of Baptism, anyone with any exposure to Christian practices knows that baptism involves water, which is the valid matter required for the sacrament. Fewer know that there is a proper form (the Trinitarian form instituted by Christ in Matthew 28:19) or that the recipient has to consent (or be represented by guardians who consent) and intend to receive what the sacrament confers. And yet fewer know that a valid minister can be anyone who performs the sacrament with the proper intention.
That's right. Anyone who has the proper intention. As the lecturer in my Sacraments class (Marcellino D'Ambrosio) indicated, an atheist who intends to do what the Church requires can validly baptize someone.
Now, of course, we're not talking about the Rite of Baptism but the Sacrament of Baptism (which is part of the rite and the heart and purpose of it). The Rite of Baptism is performed by an ordained minister. However, in an emergency, if someone wishes to receive baptism and only an atheist is on hand but wishes to do what the requester asks, the atheist can baptize. Imagine a doctor delivering a baby who will most not likely survive, and a parent requests baptism. If the atheist doctor desires to confer the sacrament for this child and uses water and the proper formula (I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit), that baptism is considered valid.
We added this information because I believe that all Catholics should know this and be able to perform a valid baptism in an emergency situation. However, during a baptism preparation class, we also have to add that the rite includes more than just the sacrament and that the minimal form is only something to do in emergencies.
Unfortunately (or not), that last part of the norm wasn't really explained to me when I was a child.
When I was young, I was a fervent Catholic and firm believer. My mother had been involved with the charismatic movement, and she instilled in us a sense of the faith as well as she was able. I attended CCD and Mass on Sundays, fulfilled all the obligations of the faith, and otherwise practiced as well as I could at that age. And I got some of that old-time catecheses. We hadn't yet reached the era of kinder, gentler Catholic faith formation (in which the realities of the last things were watered down and the need for a Messiah was largely replaced with the need for a really nice friend). I sometimes like to say that, as a Catholic growing up on a military base, I got all the guilt but little of the culture. (More on my Catholic childhood here and here) Anyway, at eight years old, I probably understood more about the basics of the faith than many adults these days.
And part of that teaching was basic instruction on the sacraments, including the Sacrament of Baptism. Somewhere in all that catecheses must've been the minimal requirements for baptism, and certainly I had witnessed a few baptisms by that time and heard the three-part formula. All of this information was cached away in my memory for use at a later time.
My mother was also very connected with other Christians on base, many of them non-Catholic and very evangelical in spirit. They loved to talk about Jesus, and they held bible studies, and they encouraged their children to do the same. I can honestly say that I knew very few kids on base who did not believe in God and who were not Christian (with the exception of some Mormon neighbors* and one Hindu family). And many of my friends were also Catholic, also not a surpise given that Catholics tend to be overrepresented in the military.
So I wore my faith on my shirtsleeve, so to speak (or on my loincloth, as the case may have been). I was happy to talk about Jesus and my faith. Anti-Catholic sentiment wasn't particularly common on base (although I did experience it more when we moved to nearby Medical Lake). I had no reason not to evangelize, and so I did.
We lived in the officer housing area on Fairchild AFB. That sounds a bit classist, but it was pretty typical of most military bases (and perhaps still is). However, while the housing was intended to be assigned to officers, there were often enlisted people with families who lived there (perhaps noncoms). One year, a family moved in across the street. They were atypical—much younger than the other familes in the neighborhood.
There were two children, a boy and a girl. I don't remember their names. They had blond hair and brown eyes. They mainly kept to themselves, never leaving the yard. They were in trouble and on restriction a lot. And naturally, I was happy to introduce myself to them, being both gregarious and clownish. They looked like they needed cheering up, and I was happy to oblige.
Over the few weeks that I knew them, I got small glimpses of what must have been a pretty horrific life. They couldn't leave the yard, so I always went to them. They sometimes had wounds (gouges) on their arms which they said came from their parents as punishment. I don't remember seeing any other children playing with them, and they certainly didn't wander the neighborhood looking for playmates.
I don't know how the topic arose, how I phrased the question, how I was prompted to ask, but for some reason, I must have asked if they went to church. They didn't. I must've followed up. Do they believe in God? In Jesus? Did they know that Jesus died so they could go to heaven?
I don't recall how we engaged the subject, but what came out was that they had not been baptized, but yes, they wanted to go to heaven. That was good enough for me. And I must have shared with them what Jesus had done, and what He meant, and the means He gave us to come to Him. And I must have retrieved that bit of information from my memory cache.
For some reason, the garden hose in their back yard was on. Just a bit. A trickle. Enough to do the job.
I asked them, "Do you want to be baptized?"
They said, "Yes."
And so, I had both of them lie down, one after the other. And I took the hose in my left hand, pouring the water into my right, and I poured the water over their foreheads and said, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Proper participants with proper intent, valid matter, valid form.
I'm actually weeping a little as I finish this post, because I wonder if this small act (but possibly one of infinite grace) may have had an impact on their lives. Every once in a while, when I remember, I pray for these two friends of mine, and I hope that they freed themselves from the cycle of abuse they were in, and I hope that the grace of God touched them and moved them in mysterious ways.