As infant mortality has become less of a concern with modern health care in many parts of the world, the rush to baptize infants in the first weeks of life has also lessened. Alongside the physical health of the child is the spiritual health, however, and in speaking of the timing of the baptism of an infant, the Introduction to the Rite of Baptism for Children states that “the first consideration is the welfare of the child, that it not be deprived of the benefit of the sacrament” (No. 8).
The document goes on to note three factors to be considered: first, the spiritual welfare of the child; second, the health of the mother, so that she is able to participate in the baptism; and last, pastoral considerations, which would include allowing for the participation of family members.
There is, nonetheless, an obligation on parents not to delay the baptism of a newborn unduly. In the same section mentioned above, the document notes clearly, “An infant should be baptized within the first weeks after birth” (No. 8.3). This teaching is also captured in canon law: “Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks” (Canon 867). The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the theological rationale for this obligation: “The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (No. 1250).
These texts, and the constant practice of the Church, make the expectation clear that parents should employ the same zeal with which they care for the physical health of their newborn child in caring for the spiritual health of the baby. The celebration of baptism is principally about washing away original sin and allowing the inrush of God’s grace upon the soul of an infant, which are treasured gifts to be offered a child as soon as possible after birth. The social nature of a family gathering to celebrate this is important, as it demonstrates unity in faith and family support, but that is not the most important consideration.
For some families the delay could be because of a desire for family to attend. Given the clarity of the Church’s guidance on this point it might be best to celebrate the baptism of the baby as soon as possible, and later, if family is unable to attend, have a party to celebrate the child’s rebirth in Christ, sharing photos and videos of the event.
Rev. Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg.