For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. —1 Cor. 11:23
When I woke up on the morning of August 6, I expected the worst part of my day to be a long meeting. But then I opened my laptop to see an email about a Vatican statement, and realized that my day was about to get much worse. My world had been turned upside down.
I had served as a priest for three years. But from that email, I learned that I had never validly received the gift of the sacrament of baptism, and therefore had never validly received confirmation, the Eucharist, or ordination to the priesthood. According to the email, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had clarified that the words “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are not valid for conferring the sacrament. It must be “I baptize you.” But a few months earlier, while watching old family videos, I had noticed that I was baptized with the formula “We baptize” instead of the correct “I baptize.”
My situation was quickly corrected. A week and four days later, after receiving the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist, and being ordained a deacon, I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ—again. I did not experience the usual excitement and nervous tension; I still was unable to reconcile with the fact that I had not received these sacraments the first time around. But I now knew with certainty that I had received new life in Christ through the sacramental life of the Church.
My diocese also began to consider the repercussions of my three years of invalid priestly ministry, and of the decade of invalid baptisms at the church of my original baptism. Some have called this legalistic, pharisaical, and overly scrupulous. Some have said that my situation should never have been made public. But the Church has only sought to do one simple thing: to pass along faithfully what has been received from Christ. Silence would have prevented that from happening. Some have misunderstood my story because they misunderstand the importance of baptism and the sacraments in general. Baptism and the other sacraments are meant to give the gift of eternal life. What could be more important than receiving this gift of Christ? What reason could be sufficient for postponing or refusing this gift?
It was for a zeal to share the sacraments that the apostles went out to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The same zeal was shared by St. Francis Xavier, who went to the ends of the earth, baptizing thousands along the way. The same zeal compelled St. Damien of Molokai to sacrifice his own health, and eventually his life, to bring the sacraments to the lepers of Hawaii. These heroic men wanted to pass on what Christ had given to them. It is with that same zeal to share the sacraments that we must seek to remedy the damage caused by invalid sacraments.
The baptisms I have celebrated were all valid, since it is the longstanding belief of the Church that anyone can baptize provided they use the correct matter and form, which I have always done. The other sacraments, unfortunately, have all been invalid. For the confirmations that I presided at, those individuals have now all been validly confirmed. Most of the marriages have already been rectified, or are currently in the process of being rectified, through convalidations (saying vows in the Church) or radical sanations (retroactive dispensation to marry with an official witness without proper jurisdiction).
For the many Masses I offered (close to 1000 in my three years of ministry), the intentions will need to be offered again. For the confessions and anointings, we must have real confidence in the Lord; as St. Thomas Aquinas said, the Lord has bound himself to the sacraments, but he is not bound by the sacraments. Those moments when sacramental grace was expected were still moments of grace. We must sincerely hold that the Lord was present, even if not sacramentally.
Ultimately, we must turn to the Lord to remedy these matters because it is not possible for us to do this on our own. It would result in an endless cycle of “what ifs.” We also cannot let ourselves fall into anxiety about the validity of the sacraments. Throughout the world, with rare exceptions, the sacraments are celebrated validly. If we have clear and irrefutable evidence to the contrary, then we can act to correct the situation swiftly. But the faithful should not be anxious. If anyone should be anxious, it should be the ministers of the Church, that they renew their efforts to celebrate the rites of the Church faithfully.
Because it is Christ himself who baptizes, we cannot use the first-person plural (“we”) to baptize but must use the first-person singular (“I”). It is Christ, through the minister, who speaks “I baptize.” The beautiful, powerful gift of the sacraments is obscured when we replace the voice of Christ with our own voices. As “stewards of the mysteries of God” we are proven “trustworthy” when we faithfully administer the sacraments according to the law of Christ and his Church by allowing Christ to speak through us (cf. 1 Cor. 4:2). We would not dare to change the words of Scripture to fit our own whims, so why would we change the words of the sacramental formula so that our own voices are heard?
My life has now been set right. I can be certain that I have validly received what Christ desired to give to me many years ago. A grace in all of this has been an awareness that, while I had not validly received any sacraments previously, the Lord was still active and present in my life and my vocation. In the end, in our efforts to share the gospel, the best that we will ever be able to do is to faithfully hand on what we have received—nothing more and nothing less.
Father Matthew Hood is the associate pastor at St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, Michigan, in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
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