Death Before Baptism
by Paul Turner

The death of a child brings untold grief to a family anticipating the joy of new life. Hopes and dreams seem suddenly and impossibly shattered. For the Christian family, if the death occurs before the baptism of the child, faithful parents lose the opportunity to share the church’s sacramental life with the one for whom they wanted it most. Oftentimes, even parents with confident faith wonder if God will show mercy and grant salvation to their child. The church offers its consolation through the funeral liturgy.

Death before baptism has long puzzled believers. If salvation depends on baptism, what happens to those who die before its celebration? Some medieval theologians proposed that such infants entered a place called “limbo,” a place “at the edge,” neither heaven nor hell. Although the theory attained some popular support, it never found its way into official Catholic teaching. Since Vatican Council II, we have acknowledged more openly that even those who are born, live and die in non-Christian religions are eligible for salvation. The same is true of a baby who dies before baptism.

Our funeral liturgy includes prayers for a child who dies before baptism. One of our official prayer books, Order of Christian Funerals, presupposes that such a child is part of the Christian family and deserves a place within our rites for the dead. We make the same assumption in the case of catechumens who die before baptism. They are part of the Catholic family, and we provide a funeral for them.

Sometimes the grieving parents just want a simple graveside service. However, we can offer the full funeral rites, complete with Mass, for the unbaptized child. We try to consider the emotional state of the family, as well as the memory we want to create for them in the future. We simply omit the sprinkling of the coffin and we pray that the God of all consolation may comfort the parents “with the knowledge that the child for whom they grieve is entrusted now to [God’s] loving care.” 

Emergency Baptism

by Paul Turner

Parents of a newborn sometimes discover that their child, tragically, may not live long enough to be brought to church for baptism. In the sadness of this moment, the church longs to comfort parents by keeping baptism as close as a cup of water.

We offer several options for baptism, depending on the circumstances. If a priest or a deacon is available, he may lead the entire rite of baptism in the hospital or home of the child. If the minister is a priest, he should also confirm the child. If some other minister comes, she or he may lead an abbreviated rite of baptism. Ideally, parents, godparents, friends and neighbors should attend. 

If there is no time for that, anyone may baptize the child. Even you. Get one or two witnesses if you can. Obtain water; it need not be blessed. You recite the creed (or omit this if there is no time). Then you pour water three times while saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Every Catholic should memorize that formula.

If the child should recover, we rejoice with the family. We invite the parents to bring the baptized child to church. There, in a rite resembling baptism, the church receives the child, the parents and godparents profess their acceptance of responsibilities, we listen to Scriptures and offer prayers. Then we anoint the child with chrism, give him or her a white garment and light a candle from the Easter candle. We do not pour water again. You can be baptized only once.

Some parents, nervous about the spiritual welfare of the child, have baptized their baby at home if they fear a long delay between birth and baptism. Ideally, the baptism should take place only at the church with the full ritual, as soon as reasonably possible after birth. A parent who has baptized the child at home should inform the parish so the child will not be baptized again. The parish should keep a record of the child who received an emergency baptism.