In Persona Christi or Liturgical Personality?

Neither 'we' nor the 'community' nor the 'Church' baptizes. Christ baptizes.

Gestis verbisque, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent “Note” on sacramental validity, raises questions about the spirituality of a sacramental minister. Occasioned by apparently growing concerns about the number of potentially invalid baptisms resulting from priests or deacons who tampered with the essential form of the sacrament (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”), Gestis not only reaffirmed what is essential to sacramental validity but explained its significance in a more comprehensive way. The explanation does not break any new ground (nor should it), but the fact that we haven’t spoken for a long time explicitly about sacramental validity and invalidity makes the reminder worthwhile. (Helpful commentary on the Note is here).

The proximate cause for this new Note, according to the opening paragraph of Gestis, is that growing numbers of bishops are voicing concern about invalid baptisms. Given that baptism is the gate to all the other sacraments, an invalid baptism is serious business. In 2020, for example, a Detroit “priest” discovered that his baptism was invalid and, therefore, other sacraments — including ordination — were also invalid. It was not a question of needing to “repeat” them because the original sacrament, despite outward appearances, was not valid.

Now, as Gestis notes, validly baptizing somebody is not an exercise in rocket science. It requires (1) matter, i.e., water poured thrice to the accompanying (2) form, i.e., “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” with the (3) intention, i.e., “I want to do what the Church does.” Given that our catechisms once taught children these essentials in the event baptism ever had to be conferred in danger of death, it’s hard to imagine how one could get this wrong.

But some ministers did.

In most cases, those invalid baptisms stem from deficiency of form, i.e., adulteration of the words of baptism. In other words, some ministers deliberately tampered with the essential form of baptism. The two most common bowdlerizations were “I baptize you in the name of the Creator and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier” or “We baptize you in the name of…” The CDF declared both those formulae deficient and, therefore, baptisms attempted under those formulae invalid.

Both variations were deliberate, pushed by ministers with ideological agendas. The first was typical of the feminist obsession with “inclusive language” that was all-the-vogue, especially in the 1970s/80s and especially in the Province of Michigan. To avoid “sexist” language about God, the revealed Divine Names were replaced with functional titles, a heretical construction inasmuch as creation, redemption, and sanctification are not “niche” specializations of particular Divine Persons but the work of the whole Trinity. The second formulation was typical of those who decried “clericalism,” insisting on a more “democratic” Church where the “community,” not one big bad priest, welcomed a new member.

The paradox is that these decriers of “clericalism” in fact were its best practitioners. Despite their theological ignorance, leading them into heretical formulations regarding the “work” of the Trinity, they asserted the power they de facto had because they were clerics to redefine the Church’s liturgy and practice. In that regard, they denied the People of God their right to the liturgy as the Church established it (and, in the case of these baptisms, their reception of the sacrament, which they came seeking in good faith).

Gestis properly reaffirms that sacramental ministers need to adhere to the Church’s liturgy, especially sacramental form. That, too, is not new ground. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) set as a general norm for all liturgy that “… no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (art. 22.3). But Gestis just doesn’t insist on the discipline but properly explains why, not just from a canonical and validity perspective but from a spirituality of the minister. It’s the latter on which I want to focus.

The Note reminds sacramental ministers that, when they celebrate the sacraments, they exercise two roles: they act in persona Christi and in nomine Ecclesiae. Sacramental ministers act in persona Christi. All sacraments are effective only insofar as they participate in the saving power of Christ. During the Donatist controversy, the Church reminded its faithful that it is Christ who baptizes, forgives, etc. If ordination is an ontological configuration to Christ, one in fact acts in the person of Christ. So, it is not “Father Bob” or “Deacon Jack” that is baptizing. It is Christ. In persona Christi is not just pretty language; it speaks of an ontological reality brought about by ordination.

“We” do not baptize. The “community” or the “Church” does not baptize. Christ baptizes. Using the “we” in the baptismal formula is not a semantic nicety; it betrays an understanding — or confusion — about just who it is who is baptizing. The “community” is constituted by Christ; the community does not “make” one a Christian (which is what baptism is).

At the same time, that community is established by Christ’s grace. It is Christ’s work, not a mere human assembly, a voluntary association, a gathering of like-mindeds. It is gifted to continue Christ’s work, which means that, in celebrating the sacraments, a minister acts in nomine Ecclesiae. One, therefore, does what the Church does (the requisite intention to celebrate a sacrament, as Gestis points out), not what one wants to do. That means adhering to the Church’s rite, not just in terms of absolute essentials (form and matter) but to the text itself.

Once upon a time, when seminarians were taught the ars celebrandi — how to celebrate the liturgy — the BLUF (bottom line up front) could be contained in six words: “Read the black, do the red.” Read the language in black print; follows the instructions about what to do in red print. Had clerical sacramental ministers pretending to be vanquishers of “clericalism” done that, we wouldn’t be suffering from a spate of invalid baptisms.

But, more importantly, we need to underscore the spirituality of acting in persona Christi. When John the Baptist encounter Jesus, the Baptizer’s remarks are relevant advice to every other minister of God’s reconciliation and communion: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3;30). Christ’s prominence must be apparent, and the priest or minister must fade into the background. When a Catholic looks at a sacramental minister, he should see Christ.

It’s not that Jesus simply expects that of ministers. “Like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), Jesus Himself models what it means to empty one’s self. Read the hymn of kenosis (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus is not being poetic when, in response to Philip’s request to “show us the Father,” he tells him “it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:8-14).

To what degree has this self-effacement of the human minister been lost in the contemporary Church? Part of the responsibility lies with the cultivation (or lack of cultivation) of that virtue. But another part is post-Vatican II celebration styles that have accentuated the human minister and obscured the divine. I’ve suggested some examples: the versus populum orientation; seating arrangements that put the priest front and center in the sanctuary and Christ in the tabernacle in some corner; entrance and exit processions that once were perhaps the prerogative of a visiting bishop but—like it or not—tend to showcase the celebrant as an arriving celebrity.

Is the long-term solution Gestis requires not just sticking to sacramental form and matter but the erasure of the human minister in favor of accentuation of Christ, the obedient Lamb who comes “not to do my will but the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:39), who speaks not His own words but the words of His Father (whose Word He is, per John 12:49)?

It all leads us back to the question: Is the minister in persona Christi, or is he a personality?


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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