Simcha Fisher: A fake baptism and the real presence

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The Baptism of Christ by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, circa 1655. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Baptism of Christ by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, circa 1655. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Effects of an invalid Baptism

The other week, Catholic Twitter was in a tizzy over the story of an unfortunate priest who discovered, fifteen years into his priesthood, that his hippie parents had baptized him with milk.

Which is not a valid baptism. And since baptism is “the door of the sacraments” . . . well, he’d not only need to be baptized or at least conditionally baptized, but he’d need to be confirmed, and ordained.

And if he hadn’t been validly ordained, then the sacraments he thought he had been administering for fifteen years were also not valid.

The baptisms he presided at were valid, since anyone can perform a baptism as long as the form and matter is right and they intend what the Church intends by baptism.

I think you could make a case that the marriages were valid, since a priest is the witness, and it’s the couple themselves who are ministers of the sacrament.

But all the absolutions he gave, and all the bread and wine he consecrated? No. No good. If he wasn’t baptized, he wasn’t a priest, and if he wasn’t a priest, he can’t absolve sins or confect the Eucharist.

The Church would have to make a public announcement that those sacraments had been invalid, and then they would go through their records and attempt to notify everyone who thought they had received sacraments through that priest. A complete and utter nightmare, with more terrible implications than I care to work out.

The only good news is that it probably didn’t happen, and is just an urban legend. Although several people say they heard this story, no one seems to know the name of the priest at the center of it.

Even in the very silliest of silly seasons in the seminaries, it seems likely that someone, somewhere would have caught the detail that this legendary fake priest had been baptized with milk, and the process would have come to a screeching halt long before the putative ordination.

But if it were true, I can’t see a way around the horrible consequences, because the sacraments are real. Something real happens when they are performed, and if they’re not really performed, then nothing real happens.

A priest presides at Eucharistic Adoration during a prayer service for vocations. Photos: Gregory Shemitz

We can’t just wave our hands and say, “Oh, but he meant to be a priest, so that was probably close enough to actually being the real Eucharist. Let’s not be sticklers; let’s just move along.”

We believe that both baptism and holy orders bring about an ontological change in a person — a change to the very nature of their being. Ordination “confers an indelible spiritual character” which “cannot be “repeated or conferred temporarily.” “The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently”

Valid sacraments aren’t just about rules and formulas, and they’re certainly not just about hoping and wishing, but they actually make something real happen. And when they’re not valid . . . well, nothing happens.

The Eucharist miracle of Moncada

Here’s another story about a man whose priesthood was in doubt. Unlike the one about the putative priest baptized in milk, this one is well documented, and the way it was resolved is a profoundly moving illustration of just how real the sacraments are.

Caesar Baronius, a 16th-century Italian cardinal and historian of the Church, wrote a long and thorough history of the first twelve centuries of the Church, the Annales Ecclesiastici.

After his death, his work was continued by Odorico Raynaldi, who recorded, among other things, a Eucharistic miracle that occurred in Moncada, Spain (where several other accounts of the same miracle are also recorded).

In the late 1300’s, according to Raynaldi, one Fr. Mosén Jaime Carrós began to suffer violent doubts. He had been ordained by a bishop who had been appointed by the antipope Clement VII, and poor Fr. Carrós was tormented by the possibility that his own priesthood was therefore not valid — that every time he heard a confession, he wasn’t really absolving sins; that every time he consecrated bread and wine and fed them to his flock, it remained just bread and wine.

He begged God for some reassurance that he really was a priest, and that the sacraments he celebrated were real, and he was not deceiving his people.

On Christmas Day, 1392, he celebrated Mass. After the service, a mother in the congregation had a hard time persuading her five-year-old daughter Inés to leave. Ines wanted to stay, “to play with the beautiful child the pastor had held in his arms during Mass.”

NEwly-consecrated Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens (for baptisms) and Oil for Holy Chrism. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

He had, of course, not been holding any child in his arms; he had been elevating the Host.

But the same thing happened the next day: “[W]hen the priest lifted the Host, the little girl saw the child in the hands of the priest.”

The mother brought her daughter to Fr. Carrós, who questioned her. Then he devised a test: He took two hosts and, in private, consecrated one of them. Then he showed both of them to the little girl. She immediately said that one was “a little white disc.” The other one, she said, was Baby Jesus.

So there was his answer. He had been holding a child in his arms, hidden under the appearance of bread to all but the little girl, who saw the sacrament for what it was: something real, really happening. (And, according to tradition, the little girl grew up and became an anchorite, and is now either venerable or a saint, according to various sources.)

So we may recoil in horror when we think of how awful it would be to be that legendary milk-baptized priest who found out too late that he wasn’t even Catholic. But how much more horrible it would be if it didn’t really matter either way — if the sacraments were only a matter of what we wished them to be.

That would make Christ a liar. It would make God himself a deceiver. He promised us priests could really forgive our sins, and they do. He promised us he would feed us with his body and blood, and he does.

The sacraments are real. They bring about real change. The consecrated host really is Jesus. It’s worth going to some trouble to verify it, every once in a while.

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