Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Bureaucratic hassles at the parish level: Baptismal edition

Here's the quiz of the day for Catholic parents: how long does it take you to schedule a baptism at your parish?

In the last months of my last pregnancy, I called up our parish to try and schedule the baptism. We had a tricksy time frame with godparents graduating from college and only having a few days of time overlap to be in the area, so I wanted to get in good and early. Baby was due in March, and we needed the baptism in May. The parish secretary said, "Oh no, we don't even have any classes available until June." No class, no baptism.

So I spoke with a priest who'd just been moved from our parish to a parish about 20 miles away, and he scheduled the baptism right then, over the phone, for the day we needed. We didn't have to take the baptism class, and I made sure I got the paperwork he needed to the office in good time.

Now it's time to schedule another baptism. As before, I'm starting before baby is born because it's very important to us to have the baptism as soon as possible. I'd like to do things the right way because Darwin is on parish council and it seems important to set an example, and yet I'm running into the same hassles. Seeing as once again both my godparents are coming in from out of state, it's important to me to be able to set a date as soon as possible, but one can't schedule the baptism until one's taken the class, which one can't even sign up for without the proper paperwork from the godparents, who need to know the baptism date so that they can take time off work and buy plane tickets... And then there's the issue of requiring a birth certificate, which, as I hope to have the baby baptized two weeks after the class (which we can't take until next month, four days before baby is due), is simply not going to be possible.

I appreciate the need to ensure that parents and godparents take their responsibilities seriously, and I can understand that our priest doesn't want to be granting exceptions left and right, but the laid-back time frame on which the parish seems to operate seems to de-emphasize the vital importance of baptism to a child's soul. I don't want to wait a year or six months or three months -- I want my child baptized right away. Even in these technologically advanced times, children can die unexpectedly. I'm not willing to take the chance of pushing out baptism until some parish bureaucrat has ticked off every last box on the checklist. For now I'm going to try and work with the system, but if takes pulling a few strings to ensure that my child's soul is cleansed of original sin as quickly as possible, then so be it.

UPDATE: You guys have some crazy stories in the comments, but I defy you to top Opinionated Homeschooler's anecdote:
But my friend got it worse from our parish. Her godparents, like all of her family, were Cuban refugees. They had no sacramental records, as Castro wasn't going to fax them over. The parish flat refused to allow them to stand as godparents. She is outraged to this day.


discalcedyooper said...

I don't think you should feel bad about seeking exceptional treatment. Having godparents come in from out of town is exceptional. A baptism isn't something that should require German efficiency. An Itallian ethic should be sufficient.

mrsdarwin said...

"An Italian ethic" -- I love it.

Darwin said...

Does that mean that I offer a bribe, threaten to strike, but then drink a bottle of wine and take a nap instead? :-)

Amber said...

I think they should have an equivalency exam that would allow you to pass out of the baptism prep classes. I managed to get away with just doing a "refresher" class since the last baptism in my family was relatively recent, but if I hadn't been able to do that it would have been 3 hour and a half classes. Yeesh!

Still working on the godparent thing though - being the only Catholics in the family *and* being new to the area is a royal pain. I'm hoping by the next little one it won't be such a huge issue!

bearing said...

Eek. Why do you have to take a class when you're on number four? Do they think you've forgotten everything by then?

mrsdarwin said...

I dunno. You'd think that having a fourth child baptized (and are involved in parish council and Liturgy of the Hours and Schola) indicated that we were serious about raising our children in the faith. That didn't carry much weight with the parish secretary, though, nor with one of the priests with whom I brought up the subject.

The last baptism class we took (five years ago) was mostly devoted to reminding the parents in attendance that you really ought to get your marriage blessed in the Church.

I should note that at all of our children's baptisms, our baby was the youngest one there by far. Perhaps the parish assumes that you're going to wait until your child is eight months to two years to baptize him or her. I simply don't find that acceptable. The longest we've waited has been two months, and that only because of godparent scheduling constraints. I'd do it the day after the child was born, if I could.

Ginkgo100 said...

how long does it take you to schedule a baptism at your parish?

I thought you'd never ask! I also started trying to schedule things early. That meant missing a catechists' meeting to go to classes while I was still pregnant — classes I myself could have taught, seeing as how I am a catechist. The secretary absolutely under no circumstances would allow us to schedule without having the birth certificate in her hand. Baptisms (done only twice a month at our parish) were booked several months out, and not during Lent. So the race was on... and we lost. Sure enough, by the time we had the birth certificate, all pre-Lent baptisms had been booked. (Keep in mind the baby was born in early December!) Finally we got scheduled for early April. I called a week before to make sure everything was still copacetic — good thing I did, because it wasn't. The secretary forgot to write the date on Father's schedule, and if it's not on his schedule, apparently it doesn't happen. So we finally baptized a five-month-old baby, who was busting out of the outfit intended for a much younger baby, in early May. That parish secretary has no idea how close I came to baptizing the baby in the kitchen sink. Which I know how to do, since I am a catechist.

There were even more issues involving the godparents that I didn't even get into.

The kicker? My non-practicing Catholic friends (different parish, same diocese) picked non-Catholic godparents (not allowed) and got a baptism scheduled before baby was even born for only a month after the birth. How did they get away with that!?

Melanie B said...

I don't know if classes are standard at our parish or not. We never had to take them; but then we also skipped a bunch of the rigamarole in the wedding preptoo. It helps that my husband was DRE for a time and that he is friendly with our pastor on a scotch and cigars on the patio sort of basis-- actually he lived in the rectory for a few years back when he was a bachelor; but that's a long story.

We scheduled the baptism for baby #1 before she was born so we could insure my parents and sister could be there from out of state. It was about a month after she was born. Baby #2 was baptized about 2 months after she was born, scheduling based on when out of town mother-in-law and godmother could be there. Like you, I'd prefer it to be done the day after the birth, but having a spread out family I've had to bend a little.

I think the classes should be able to be waived with an interview with the priest. That seems like laziness on his part. And petty bureaucracy to insist on classes for baby #4.

mrsdarwin said...

It seems pretty non-negotiable that we need to take the class to get baby baptized at our parish. And I'm willing to do it, to show I'm in good faith, but I wish the bureaucracy showed some signs of realizing how important it is to have a baby baptized quickly. And showed a bit of understanding for those of us who aren't fortunate enough to live close enough to the godparents that we can just schedule a baptism whenever.

My mom once told me, "Always go with family for godparents -- at least that way you can be sure that years later you'll still be in contact." And seeing how non-family godparents worked out for myself and my siblings, I'm inclined to agree. But it's not an inconsequential task to put together a baptism with out-of-town godparents, and requiring this and that paperwork before parents can even take classes seems an unnecessary piece of red tape.

I guess you can tell what I've been stewing over all day. :)

Paul in the GNW said...

Thanks for bringing up a topic I have arguments with myself about!

First, I have to admit I have gotten off easy - Three children, three baptisms, all scheduled to my specification and I've never attended a baptism class. I know that at the other 4 parishes in my area, I would have never gotten away with that! I almost certainly won't get off so easy next time.

The Bishop of my diocese has made it mandatory that all parents of children receiving Baptism or First Communion attend significant classes.

Jumping topics (sacraments) my oldest received First Communion this past Easter Season. I had to attend 3 separate mandatory parents meetings, including a (3 hour) afternoon retreat. One local parish has a 2 day mandatory retreat. Most of the retreat was lecturing parents about taking there kids to confession and Church. A good idea I admit, but you are preaching to the choir with me.

Now, my argument with myself. On one side, I always have been a rule bender (breaker). I think that I should be the exception. I could teach the class! I study the Church and the Catechism and JPII and BXVI! All of which is true. Personally, unless they aim the class at a very high level of Catholic sophistication it is a 'waste of my time' and I am going to learn nothing - except to pray for patience.

The other side of the argument. Is that many of the parents really do seem to need a refresher of their Catechism. I think the local churches are correct that when children receive sacraments is a vital opportunity to reach out to the parents. They have nearly universally instituted that parents be coerced into these remedial classes.

Under that side, I chose to fulfill my obligation prayerfully and as joyfully as I can muster to be an example for the lax.

Third side of the issue. I think we need to find a better way. Coercion is ineffective and breeds resentment. The classes are LAME! We need to inspire and attract these people back to the beauty of the sacraments not guilt trip them and lecture them and drag up their selective memories of CCD.

However, I conclude that I, as a loyal Catholic parent, must be a part of the solution and participate. I should probably even volunteer to help plan. Now, if I can just find the time?

God Bless


Audrey said...

Parish specific comment:

Baptism class is good for 2 years, if class/interview was outside of the parish, we were told to obtain a letter from the parish with dates of class completion. This also pertained to my out of state brother who was a seminarian and didn't belong to a parish. He obtained a letter from the rector stating his qualifications as "godfather."

For the birth certificate, we were told that any document from the hospital would work that stated name and birthday. WE used a copy of the st davids paper with Clare's footprints on it--do I hear word document with name date, footprints and midwife's signiture? i think, yes!

Fr J Schola was a very helpful interpreter of the spirit of the baptismal law. I'd let him know your concerns, because he was able to "sign us up" for his class even though we were still waiting for paperwork etc

Let me know if you have any specific questions about our baptismal experience!

Kyle R. Cupp said...

We parish bureaucrats do enjoy hassling parishioners. ;-)

The rules set by a parish regarding the sacraments would ideally be what works best for the parish community, but that may not be what always works best for particular parishioners. The pastor has to consider not only the circumstances of particular couples, but also the reality of sacramental preparation in a parish that may have 20,000 registered parishioners. A required baptism class may work the best for the general parishioner, while seeming a silly requirement for a professor of sacramental theology. Special circumstances and legitimate reasons for exceptions do exist, and it may not hurt to ask.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I sympathize. I did luck out last time around; they were going to make me take a third round of baptism classes, but I had been working on being extra-sweet to the parish secretary in charge of the baptism paperwork, and convinced her I didn't need another class (being a CCD teacher also). I think the trick is to sign up for the class before you actually get pregnant; just take the class every other year. Like confessing every other week so as to cover the nine-day window for indulgences. ;-)

My horror story: at my cathedral parish, the form asked if the godparents were married in the Church. I wrote "no," and added the explanation that they had been married as Protestants, and then the godmother had converted. Well, the secretary (a different one) gave me a stern lecture on how she wasn't a Catholic in good standing, then, and would have to be married in the Church before she could stand as godmother. I tried, oh how I tried, to explain about the sacramental nature of valid Protestant marriages, and that there was no requirement for her to be "re-married," all to no avail. I begged to speak with Father, but she practically threw herself in front of his office door to prevent me. She refused to accept the paperwork. In the end, I wrote Father a carefully crafted note, explaining the relevant canons (I studied marriage law under Justice Noonan of the 9th circuit, btw).

Well, Father got back to me. Turns out canon law was his worst class, and he thought the godmother probably had to have her marriage convalidated. I tried, patiently and reverently, to explain again why this was not so. I begged, begged him to contact the Tribunal to confirm what I was saying.

A *WEEK* before the baptism, the secretary got around to e-mailing the Tribunal, which sent back a terse e-mail saying what I had tried to tell them. Did I get an apology? No--I got "good thing you got this paperwork turned in, in the nick of time!" Aargh.

But my friend got it worse from our parish. Her godparents, like all of her family, were Cuban refugees. They had no sacramental records, as Castro wasn't going to fax them over. The parish flat refused to allow them to stand as godparents. She is outraged to this day.

Someone needs to talk to Bishop Aymond about this stuff. I came this close to baptizing my baby at the water cooler in the parish office. I could easily understand how someone would walk down the street to the Episcopalians and have it done there.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Wanted to add, regarding the birth certificates: I gather that many years ago, there were problems with people getting baptismal certificates without actually having a copy of the birth certificate (I was told this happened with adults in RCIA), and then using the baptismal certificates (with fake names) to obtain other legal identification, such as drivers' licenses. So they got very gung-ho on not handing out baptismal certificates without the birth certificate in hand.

I wonder if you could make an arrangement where you agreed to pick up the baptismal certificate from the parish office after you've gotten them the birth certificate? If they're really intransigent, I would be very tempted to contact the bishop. Let our good bishop (and I mean that unironically) explain to a tearful, hormonal, pregnant Catholic why she can't baptize her baby. He's a very approachable man.

mrsdarwin said...

Thanks, Audrey. Darwin ran into the good padre this evening, and he seems quite willing to make sure we get into the Sept. class, so I hope that's all going to work out. Perhaps I'm just overly irritable because I bit off all my fingernails this afternoon after my futile visit to the parish office with three children in tow...

Ginkgo100 and Opinionated: you ladies win in the "stuff that's going to keep me up tonight" category (beating out the aching ligaments).

Daddio said...

Sacramental bureacracy makes me sick. I was adamant that we will NOT attend another class to baptize our fourth child, if/when he/she ever arrives. Nor will we ever attend first communion or reconciliation classes (fortunately, these are not recorded sacraments, so all you have to do is show up and receive if you don't mind flying under the radar and foregoing the pomp and circumstance). I don't care what they say. But, we have been asked to be godparents for some friends in another diocese, and I'm afraid their parish may require a letter from ours, and our credentials may have expired.

But, if you think any of this stuff is annoying, just try coordinating a homeschool support group when half of your members refuse to go to "Keeping Children Safe" classes... oy vey... We've basically been banned from parish property. I suspect many will quit tithing altogether.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

I think to have to go to classes for your fourth baptism, when you are as heavily involved in the church as you are, is a real timewaster. I think that there should be recognition that a parent of four young children actually needs time to carry out their parenting role, without having to get stressed out, and having to arrange childcare etc to attend unnecessary classes.
And having said all that.... I hope you are well. I have two friends due in the next couple of months.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Opinionated –

In the event your friends need to establish proof of baptism, they may be able to use the Suppletory Oath, which would be taken by someone testifying that sacraments were received. Occasions arise in which original documents or even old documents cannot be reasonably obtained – perhaps the parish was destroyed in a hurricane or the person would have to travel to another country to acquire them – the suppletory oath is meant to be used in just such occasions.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Interesting--I never heard of that. I suspect the parish bureaucrats hadn't heard of it either. But since they thought Protestants had to be re-married after conversion, I'm not terribly surprised. Maybe if they had dealt with the problem as something that surely had a solution, rather than as a chance to demonstrate what good gatekeepers they were, that solution could have been discovered.

When my friend and I were comparing anecdotes, we both observed that what annoyed the most wasn't the refusal of godparents for stupid reasons, but being treated like cafeteria Catholics who want to get around The Rules for our own convenience, by people who think that skill in filing papers makes them canon lawyers.

mrsdarwin said...

Hi, Kiwi! Good to hear from you. Hope all's been well.

Jenny said...

Wow. And I thought the "No Baptism during Lent" misunderstanding was frustrating. Around here, you just show up (no preregistration) for one 30 minute class, fill out a form with the godparents names, check a box if he or she is Catholic, and show up for the baptism.

There is no investigation as to whether the godparents are eligible as far as I know. They just took my word for it. The only sticking points are that the parents have to be registered at the parish and the baptisms are done during Mass. Which means you have to conform to a preset schedule and the baptisms occur only once or twice a month.

I have an argument with requiring the parents to be registered in the Church. While the parents maybe non-practicing for whatever reason, I do not think the child should bear the responsibility or punishment for it. But that's another post...

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Sacramental bureacracy makes me sick.

Bureaucracy has that effect on people, and sacramental bureaucracy is no exception. Even at its best it still inspires frustrated nail-biting, and how often is a bureaucracy at its best? It's run by people, and people come with all kinds of competency and incompetency.

Perhaps the operative question is why there is a sacramental bureaucracy and whether or not it is necessary. If I may propose one possible answer, I would say it is a necessary structure given the shortage of priests and the consequence that parishes are fewer but bigger. It is not unheard of for one priest to administer several parishes.

The pastor of a parish has the God-given responsibility to administer the sacraments to those in his flock. A pastor of a small parish of a few hundred families and maybe 50 baptisms a year might not need a bureaucratic structure in place to administer the sacrament of baptism. He would likely know the parishioners individually and know their backgrounds and circumstances. A pastor of a parish with say 5000 families and 500 baptisms per year obviously needs a formal structure in place to prepare people for and to administer the sacraments. The larger the parish, the more systematic and bureaucratic the process becomes.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

I have an argument with requiring the parents to be registered in the Church..

The reason for registration has a lot to do with jurisdiction - especially if the person lives outside the boundaries of the parish. If person x lives outside the parish boundaries and is not registered, then technically that person falls under the jurisdiction of another parish; the pastor would not have the authority to administer sacraments to person x (unless it was an emergency or permission was granted). Registration gives him that jurisdiction.

A reason for the jurisdiction is accountability. As Catholics in good standing have a right to the sacraments, the question of who has the duty to administer the sacraments has to be clearly established.

Kyle R. Cupp said...


I'm sorry to hear that was your experience. It's frustrating when people assume the worst in us and treat us according to their unfounded presuppositions.

Darwin said...

I think you're right, Kyle, that it's the size (and thus impersonality) of parishes that results in a beaurocratic approach to sacraments. Looking deeper, it wouldn't surprise me if the size and impersonality of parishes in turn tends to perpetuate the priest shortage -- in that it makes the sacramental life of the parish something "those people" do rather than something of which all parishioners are a part.

Also, once a set of rules is put in and an admin is put in charge of enforcing the rules, there's a curious yet universal temptation for admins to make the rules the end rather than keeping in mind the end towards which the rules were originally formulated. I think this has a lot to do with putting someone who is considered "low level" by everyone in a gatekeeper position. Almost invariably, such people are punished far more frequently for not enforcing "the rules" than enforcing them, and so there is a very strong incentive to be a stickler. (Especially since they are also often punished, or at least given grief, for bringing up possible exceptions with the "people in charge" too often.)

Jenny said...

I agree that there are good reasons for the registration requirement. But if a non-practicing Catholic couple with no real intentions of joining the parish presents their baby to be baptized, I do not think they should be turned away.

To me it is a question of how the Church views baptism. Is it an effective sacrament that gives grace for the good of the baby's soul? Or is it an initiation ritual and just a symbol of joining the parish? It seems that the registration requirement betrays the latter. But that's just my opinion! :)

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

MrsD.....yes, I am well. Recently returned home after walking 1500km across France and Spain to Santiago. Am still amazed I did all that, but somehow you just put on your shoes and your pack everyday, and eventually you reach the end!

Donald R. McClarey said...

No baptism classes required for our three kids. No birth certificates required. We just called up the priest and had the babies baptized.

Jay Anderson said...

Mrs. Darwin,

Fr. Przywara, the priest who (in addition to Baptizing you) Baptized my first 2 kids, is probably the most holy and orthodox priest I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. But he was most definitely NOT a stickler for all the pre-Baptism rigamarole that a lot of parishes seem to put parents through these days.

In fact, he allowed us to have our oldest son Baptized before we even became Catholic (and before we had even entered RCIA). He wanted to make sure the child was Baptized, and he felt confident in our desire to enter the Church, so he went ahead and did it - scheduled on fairly short notice at that.

mrsdarwin said...


The day I was baptized (Jan. 5) was bitterly cold, and I was only a month old, so Fr. Pryzwara came over to my parents' apartment and baptized me at home, over a bowl at the kitchen table. Now that's being thoughtful and accomodating!

mrsdarwin said...

Actually, it was Jan. 4, but the rest of the story is accurate. :)

Jay Anderson said...

He's big on doing what it takes to make sure the kids are Baptized.

I may have already told you this (I think I mentioned it when we met last year), Fr. is also big on making sure the kids have a saint's name (it is called a "Christian name", after all). If the parents have failed to give their child a "proper" name, Fr. Przywara takes it upon himself to add "Mary" or "Maria" during the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism - regardless of the sex of the child!

Anonymous said...

How long does a baptismal class certificate last. If you are going to baptize within a year or two, do you need to take class again?

Darwin said...


It varies from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. In our parish the class certificate is good for one year.

Anonymous said...

Regarding getting church documents from Cuba, it can be done through the Papal Nuncio (ambassador) in Washington, who sends the request to the Nuncio in Havana, who then contacts the Cuban parish, and it gets sent to the US in the "diplomatic pouch" (official mail that not even Castro would interfere with). I know it's too late for Opinionated Homeschooler, but others may benefit from knowing this procedure. It should work with other problematic locations as well.