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Who Holds the Child in Baptism?

Recently in looking for “clip-art” images of baptism (and actually beyond that in online photographs, once the following was spotted) it is noticeable that in nearly every image the one baptising is not holding the child being baptised. I began to wonder if this was something about celibate RC priests lacking in agility to hold a child, or was this in a rubric that I couldn’t find. Do married RC deacons also have someone else holding the child? If so, and there is no rubric, why? Is that simply imitating what they’ve seen RC priests doing?

So I put the question on social media group of 5,000 people for those interested in liturgical minutia.

I received a lot of responses – by far the majority responded affirming that this is the way they baptise and explaining why. This is a typical comment:

The mechanics of holding an infant too young to support his own head over the font and pouring water over his head tend to require three hands. Since most priests and deacons, and indeed most humans, have only two hands, this inevitably necessitates someone other than the minister of Baptism to hold the infant.

Where it is the custom to baptise by full immersion, this needs only two hands, so the minister of Baptism is the only one required.

Full disclosure: I have baptised plenty of people of every age-group, and with babies and young children my normal approach is to hold the child myself. Through baptism preparation and rehearsal, I normally have established a relationship with the child and held the child so there isn’t the surprise at being held by me at the actual baptism. On occasion, the call has been made that someone else hold the child as I baptise.

Finally, someone did point to the actual RC rubrics:

If the Baptism is celebrated by the pouring of water, it is preferable for the child to be held by the mother (or by the father); however, where it is felt that the exist- ing custom should be retained, the child may be held by the godmother (or by the godfather). If the Baptism is by immersion, the child is lifted from the sacred font by the same person.

The Order of Baptism for Children Section 60

The RC rubric is unambiguous: if pouring, the one baptising does not hold the child. The particular English translation when baptising by immersion is unclear. Who is “the same person”? Other translations clarify:

 If baptism is by immersion, the mother or father (godmother of godfather) lifts the child out of the font.

Rite of Baptism for One Child Section 97 and here

Some comments beginning at this last point: I do not at all visualise “the mechanics” (to use my first quote’s terminology) of immersion having the parent or godparent lifting the child from the font. Secondly, whilst clearly trained and formed to not hold the child at baptism, RCs generally do so without reference to the rubric but justify that practice as a necessity, a necessity which, in my personal experience and that of being present at many other’s, is unfounded. There appear to be Anglicans and possibly others who mimic the RC requirement (I have never seen it) without fully thinking this through. Finally, online presence and resources in this area is by far RC. It is nigh on impossible to find attractive”clip art”, for example, where the one baptising is holding the child. This may say a lot about RC commitment to producing quality resources and having a strong online presence – the place where most people nowadays are found.

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5 thoughts on “Who Holds the Child in Baptism?”

  1. In response to baptism of child, I am thankful for each child I have held – it is not impossible to use only two hands – to hold each and see the hope in each pair of eyes as they look up at you and then to move out into the congregation with the child as you introduce him/her to the entire family – priceless and sacred. Take the risk, have the sponsors hold the towel.

      1. I did a quick search of baptism images and indeed they mostly show others holding the baby! I’ve always held the baby when I baptised. There were the occasional exceptions, but they were definite exceptions. Taking and holding the baby in my arms, and then baptising her or him is one of the most precious and sacred actions I experience as a priest. Mind you, it can be tricky! I find out ahead of time what the baby will be wearing so that I am forewarned if baby will be all decked out in shiny, slippery material! When it’s going to be great-grandmother’s baptismal gown I’m confident it’s going to be helpful-for-a-good-hold cotton! Regardless, having played American/Canadian football I learned how to hold a football so that nobody was going to take it away. I would assure the parents that with their baby’s head comfortably in the palm of my hand and her legs tucked under my arm, she wasn’t going anywhere. There was many a baptism when I would be fighting back the tears, being so close to the baby’s face, as I baptised, then anointed and made the sign of the cross, and finally prayed over the baby the prayer in the Canadian BAS that immediately follows the anointing. Never thought of doing it any other way unless circumstances required a different approach. Lastly, pure delight to take the baby in my arms again, to walk together up the aisle through the congregation right up into the chancel of the cathedral so that the choir would not be left out and then lifting the baby up for all to see for rousing round of applause. Sorry for the length but could not resist! A blessed Willibrord day to you.

        1. Thanks, Keith – although some of the specific details differ, our experiences are the same in essence. Blessings.

  2. I’ve always held the child at baptism, I’ve dropped the order of service/oil/towel in the font but never the child. I think it’s a great privilege to then present the newly baptised to their new family of the church.
    I don’t think you can equate celibacy with the inability to hold a baby, I don’t have children but have plenty of cousins, nephews and nieces and God Children and have no problem safely holding a baby.

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