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I take off my shoes in the sacristy while the cantor leads the Litany of the Saints.  I pull off my socks and hike up the black sweat pants I’ve been wearing under my alb, stole, and chasuble.

I take off the chasuble so it will stay dry.  I also remove the wireless microphone.  I’m not an electrician, but something tells me that wearing a battery pack into a well of water is not a good idea.

Each Easter Vigil we baptize by immersion at our parish.  When the Liturgy of Baptism begins, I briefly leave the sanctuary to adjust my clothing.  I return and step into the pool of water.  Then I extend my hand across the rim to steady the first catechumen who has prepared all year to enter this font.

Baptizing in the Catholic Church sounds simple enough: You immerse or pour water three times while saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  But there are ways to baptize well.

Immersion or pouring

Perhaps the first decision to make is whether baptism will be conferred by immersion or pouring.  The Catholic Church has a long tradition of baptism by pouring, but recent legislation has expressed a preference for the more ancient practice of immersion.

§    Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring; the prescripts of the conference of bishops are to be observed (Code of Canon Law 854).

§    Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water.  However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1239).

§    As the rite for baptizing, either immersion, which is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, or pouring may lawfully be used (Christian Initiation: General Introduction 22).

§    [In] the celebration of baptism the washing with water should take on its full importance as the sign of that mystical sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through which those who believe in his name die to sin and rise to eternal life.  Either immersion or the pouring of water should be chosen for the rite, whichever will serve in individual cases and in the various traditions and circumstances to ensure the clear understanding that this washing is not a mere purification rite but the sacrament of being joined to Christ (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults 213).

§    The celebrant baptizes each candidate either by immersion, option A, or by the pouring of water, option B. . . .  If baptism is by immersion, of the whole body or of the head only, decency and decorum should be preserved.  Either or both godparents touch the candidate.  The celebrant, immersing the candidate’s whole body or head three times, baptizes the candidate in the name of the Trinity (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults 226).

§    Baptism by immersion is the fuller and more expressive sign of the sacrament and, therefore, is preferred.  Although it is not yet a common practice in the United States, provision should be made for its frequent use in the baptism of adults.  At the least, the provision of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for partial immersion, namely, immersion of the candidate’s head, should be taken into account (National Statutes for the Catechumenate 17).

§    The font should be large enough to supply ample water for the baptism of both adults and infants.  Since baptism in Catholic churches may take place by immersion in the water, or by infusion (pouring), fonts that permit all forms of baptismal practice are encouraged (Built of Living Stones 69/2).


Baptism by immersion indicates complete abandonment of oneself to God in Christ.  It was almost certainly the method of the apostolic church.  The very word comes from the Greek baptizo, a verb meaning “dip”.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans, proclaimed at every Easter Vigil, compares baptism to burial: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (6:3-4).

The Letter to the Colossians makes a similar point: “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).

Other biblical passages use images of birth, new clothing, and flood.

§    Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).

§    As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28).

§    And baptism, which [the saving of Noah] prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).


All these images suggest that a large quantity of water was used to baptize well.

Instructions for baptism throughout the first millennium of church history preferred immersion.

The Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, probably comes from Syria around the year 100.  It says, “Baptize in running water, into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If you do not have running water, baptize in some other water. If you cannot baptize in cold water, then use warm. If you do not have either, then pour water on the head three times, into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Before the baptism, the one baptizing, the one being baptized, and all others who can should fast. You should exhort the baptized to fast for one or two days” (7).  (Unless otherwise noted, these citations come from Paul Turner, Ages of Initiation, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000).

The Apostolic Tradition probably reports practices from 3rd to 5th century Rome and other areas.  It says, “Let the water be drawn into the pool or flow down into it. . . .  And let them strip naked.  And first baptize the small children. . . .  Afterward, baptize the grown men, and, finally, the women, loosing all their hair and laying aside the jewelry of gold and silver that they are wearing.  Let no one take any foreign thing down into the water with them. . . .  Let [the presbyter] give [the catechumen] to the bishop or the presbyter standing by the water to baptize.  And likewise let the deacon go with him down into the water” (21) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002, p. 112-114).

The 8th century Gelasian Sacramentary (449) says, “Then you immerse the candidate three separate times in the water.”

In the 10th century, the Roman-Germanic Pontifical (375) used three different verbs to describe the immersion: “Then the bishop receives the infants from the godfathers or godmothers.  He baptizes the males and then the females with a triple submersion, invoking the Holy Trinity only once, saying: ‘Do you wish to be baptized?’ Each responds, ‘I do.’  ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father’ – he dips once – ‘and of the Son,’ – he lowers a second time – ‘and of the Holy Spirit’ – and he plunges a third time.”

Gradually the Church permitted three forms of baptism – immersion, pouring, or sprinkling.  Sprinkling is no longer allowed.  Today’s preference for immersion is part of the Second Vatican Council’s urge to return to the sources for a more authentic celebration of the liturgy.

The Font

To offer baptism by immersion, a church needs a font suitable for the task.  Because of the long recent history of baptizing infants by pouring, many churches have shallow bowls raised on pedestals.  These catch drops of water rolling off an infant’s head, but they are inadequate to meet the needs of adult immersions.

Many parishes have redesigned their fonts.  A pool of water large enough for the immersion of adults may be attended by a raised bowl large enough for the immersion of infants.

Other parishes erect a temporary pool for baptism at the Easter Vigil.  They carry in a stock tank or other large vessel, and decorate it with drapery, plants, rocks, candles or lilies.  They fill it with warm water before the service starts.

This allows immersion, but it makes baptism seem like a seasonal decoration.  If a parish has no permanent font large enough to support adult immersions, it is time to begin the long-range plan for its installation.


If the priest enters the water with the adult he can better manage a full immersion.  The method depends on the depth of the water.

In some evangelical Christian traditions, for example, the water is over waist-deep.  The minister enters the water and lowers the person backward.  Sometimes those being baptized pinch their own nose, or the minister cups a cloth over their nose and mouth.

But recent immersions in the Catholic tradition have taken place in a shallower pool – about knee-deep.  Only the most muscular priest will lower a catechumen backward there.  More commonly, catechumens kneel in the water, and the priest places his hands around the back of the catechumens’ shoulders and neck.  He brings the catechumen face forward, while the catechumen bends at the waist.  The catechumen may cross his or her arms in front of the chest or reach down to the bottom of the pool to help maintain balance.  The action is performed three times.

In other instances, catechumens kneel while the priest pours water over their head.  This blends the two methods of baptizing, but resembles pouring more than immersion.


Catechumens being baptized by immersion will get completely wet.  In many parishes they come to church in swimwear covered by a loose-fitting vestment resembling an alb, though not white.  They are clothed in a white garment later.

Godparents help the newly baptized out of the font.  They may wrap them in a towel.  After confirmation, the neophytes go to a dressing area where they dry off and change into their Easter clothes.

The priest who baptizes also needs to dry off.  (In the Catholic Church, a deacon may also baptize, but at the Easter Vigil it is usually a priest.  The priest has the faculty to confirm those whom he baptizes, not those whom a deacon baptizes.  See canon 883/2.)

When I leave the font, I go back to the sacristy and remove my wet alb and stole.  Because of the depth of our font, I’m still pretty dry from the knees on up.  Still, I change into black suit pants, put my shoes and socks back on, wire up the microphone, don a dry alb and stole, and reposition the chasuble.

The baptismal year

Baptisms take place throughout the year.  Adults should be baptized at the Easter Vigil (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults 17), but may be baptized at other times due to “unusual circumstances and pastoral needs” (26) with permission of the local bishop (34).

The baptism of infants is recommended during the Easter Vigil or on Sunday (Rite of Baptism for Children 9).  Baptism is permitted on other days, but it is preferred on days that carry a paschal character.

Baptism may take place during mass or outside of it.  Celebrations during mass allow the entire assembly of the faithful to be present to celebrate the welcome of its new members.

Several principles learned at the Easter Vigil will help celebrate baptism well throughout the year.

·        Baptism by immersion is preferred.

·        The singing of acclamations by the assembly is encouraged.

·        Processions interpret the parts of this event.

Very often when baptism is celebrated apart from mass, no one leads any singing, and processions are omitted.  But the Rite of Baptism for Children calls for the people to begin at the door of the church (35), move to “a separate place” for the Liturgy of the Word (43), approach the font wherever it is located (52), and conclude in front of the altar (68).  These processions focus the attention of the community on the significance of entering the church, hearing the word of God, celebrating baptism and remembering the Eucharist.  These four places also call to mind the four parts of the Easter Vigil, when baptism has its preeminent celebration.

This usually takes care of itself when baptism is celebrated during mass.  The faithful have already gathered.  Musicians are in place.  The processions of the Sunday liturgy will happen.

Here are a few points to keep in mind when celebrating infant baptism at a Sunday mass:

1.                           Introduce people before mass.  Especially if more than one family is presenting a child for baptism, take a few moments to let people meet one another.  Even if there is only one family, it’s possible that some family members won’t know a godparent or will have forgotten the names of in-laws and their cousins who have come to celebrate.  Set a friendly, joyful tone.

2.                           Let the assembly know what’s happening.  Before the cantor announces the opening hymn, he or she could announce the baptism.  The cantor should probably not say the name of the baby, because the parents will announce the name as the rite begins.  If visibility will be obstructed when everyone stands, consider having the assembly remain seated for the reception of the child at the beginning of mass.  The cantor could use words like these: “Good morning, everyone, and welcome!  Today we celebrate with Joe and Amy Smith the baptism of their new baby.  Please remain seated and turn to the back of the church for the beginning of the rite.”

3.                           Decide what to do with the opening hymn.  Sing only one verse.  Or have the priest start with the sign of the cross, and let everyone sing the hymn during the entrance procession after the reception of the children.

4.                           Utilize the stations of the baptismal liturgy.  Start at the door of the church.  Let the family process in with the ministers (after the servers, before the lector.)  Seat the family in reserved places near the front.  Invite at least the parents and godparents to the font for the baptism.

5.                           Locate the font in a visible place.  If the parish baptismal font is not located in full view of the assembly, a temporary font may be established for mass.  The entire assembly should be able to see and hear the celebration.

6.                           Involve children.  If little children cannot see the baptism from where they sit, invite them up closer after the homily.  It will keep their attention and help them celebrate the joy of this day.

7.                           Pour water generously.  If your font is not large enough for immersion, the priest should pour a good stream of water over the child – not just a few drops.  Make the image of the water-bath as clear as possible.  If the font is shallow but wide, he could sit the naked baby in a few inches of water before pouring water over its head.

8.                           Anoint generously.  When anointing the child, use a generous amount of oil.  Especially with chrism, the priest might pour a tablespoon or more into the cup of his hand and rub it all over the crown of the child’s head.

9.                           Encourage the use of full baptismal garments.  Most parents bring their children to church already dressed in a baptismal gown, but the point of the gown is to show the new creation the child becomes after baptism.  If parents bring the child to church dressed more simply, the baptismal gown can be the white garment presented to the child.  Even if parents have to wait till after the ceremony to reclothe their child completely, the gown takes on much more significance if it is the white garment presented during the rite.

10.                       Choose a memorable baptismal candle.  Get a candle substantial enough to be relit at home on the baptismal anniversary.  And be prepared for a moment of drama at mass when the godparent lights the candle.  It doesn’t always catch fire the first time.  Just be patient.

11.                       Issue congratulations.  After the baptism the priest might express the joy of the community.  He could say, for example, “Congratulations, Joe and Amy, and welcome, Christopher, to the Christian family!”  Then he could kiss the baby while the assembly applauds.

Above all, baptism should be a time of celebration for the community.  Some churchgoers feel that baptisms at Sunday mass impose on their time.  But conducted reverently, purposefully and joyfully, they do not add much more time to the mass, and they fill everyone with a sense of celebration.

Baptizing well is an inconvenience on the assembly who prays, the catechists who prepare, the catechumens who get wet, and the priest who unlaces his shoes.  But celebrating life in Christ is worth it, isn’t it?

This article first appeared in Rite 37/1 (January-February 2006):8-10.
It was reprinted as 'Baptising Well' in Liturgy: a Publication of the Auckland Diocesan Liturgy Centre.

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