Words matter: On Christ, clerics, and the sacraments

We clerics must use the matter and form given to us by Christ and handed down to us from the Apostles. If we fail to do this, we will not have a complete picture of God’s plan of salvation and will be unable to help Christ finish what he started.

(Image: Josh Applegate/Unsplash.com)

My wife loves puzzles. She has been working on a thousand-piece puzzle since last December and is determined to complete it by herself. As she nears the end, I noticed that several pieces of the puzzle are missing (most likely due to our cat, Harriet, who has a tendency to recline directly on top of the game). Without those pieces, she does not have a complete picture and will be unable to finish what she started.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has equipped his Bride, the Church, with everything she needs for salvation. He gave us a complete and perfect picture to which nothing need be added or taken away. This is particularly true of the sacraments that are sensible signs instituted by Christ that confer grace, and by the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they convey what they signify and transmit what they contain.

Therefore, as clerics (bishops, priests and deacons)—to whom the authority to administer the sacraments has been entrusted—we must use the matter and form given to us by Christ and handed down to us from the Apostles. If we fail to do this, we will not have a complete picture of God’s plan of salvation and will be unable to help Christ finish what he started.

In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul does not deny the reality of Christ’s complete and perfect sacrifice as the sole means of salvation, but acknowledges that clerics are called to participate in the continuing work of Christ in his Church on earth:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office, which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known. (Col 1:24-25)

We see a foreshadowing of this participation through the action of Christ himself when he raised the twelve-year-old girl from the dead (“Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi’, which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ And immediately the girl got up and … [he] told them to give her something to eat” [Mk 5:41-43, my emphasis]), and when he raised Lazarus from the dead (“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’ [Jn 11:44, my emphasis]).

In both cases, Christ did the primary work of bringing the dead back to life, but he left—and continues to leave—work for us to do.

Bishops, priests, and deacons are ordinary ministers of the sacrament of baptism. Deacons receive the faculty to baptize solemnly, and are tasked to “assist the bishop and the priest during liturgical actions in all things” (Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, 21.1). The Acts of the Apostles chronicles two occasions where the deacon Philip baptizes those to whom he preached the Gospel:

… when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. (Acts 8:12)

Then Philip opened his mouth and … told him the good news of Jesus. […] And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:35, 38)

Through Jesus Christ, all of us who are baptized are welcomed into God’s family as His adopted children. “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons and daughters of God; we become members of Christ and His Church, and participate fully in her mission of sharing the Good News of God’s love by our words, actions, and witness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1213).

In order for sacramental grace of baptism to be efficacious, all of the pieces—the constitutive elements of the sacraments—must come together. “By [Christ’s] power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes” and, because this is true, “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos.7, 22.3, my emphasis).

This means, in accord with the command of Christ and the authority of his Church, clerics must use the correct matter and form in order for the sacraments to be valid. If the priest does not use the words of Christ in the institution narrative (“This is my body … this is my blood”) there is no Eucharist. If the priest does not use the words “I absolve you” in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the sins are not forgiven. If the cleric does not use the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” there is no baptism. Words matter.

The aberrations that have occurred in the last few years regarding the misuse of the baptismal formula most likely stem from a significant misunderstanding of the four-fold presence of Christ in the liturgy. As articulated by the Second Vatican Council, Christ is present in the Word proclaimed, in the assembly of the faithful, in the person of the priest, and in the sacraments, most especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist (see Sacrosanctum Concilium, no.7).

Although Christ is truly present in the liturgy, he is not equally present in all aspects. Jesus is not present in the Scriptures at Mass in the same way he is present in the priest, and Christ is not present in the worshipping community in the same way he is present in the Eucharist. By creating a false equanimity among Christ’s presence in the Church’s liturgy (whether innocently or deliberately), clerics create a dichotomy between the action of Christ and his Church in order to “level the playing field”.

In other words, by their actions, these clerics are saying, “I recognize the priesthood of all believers as being equal to my ordination. Therefore, since I’m not greater than the worshipping community, we all should be allowed to participate in the sacraments. After all, we are the Church.” This distorted ideology and complete failure to appreciate the vital yet distinct roles of clerics and laity in the Church has led, either directly or indirectly, to the negligence we have seen in the administration of baptism.

Through baptism, Jesus shows us that “God is rich in mercy. Because of His great love for us, God brought us to life with Christ when we were dead in sin, raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavens” (Eph 2:4-6). Jesus’ baptism is a foreshadowing of His perfect and complete act of self-giving, self-emptying love on the Cross. The same Holy Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended on Christ as a prelude of the new creation brought about by his death and resurrection. The Word became flesh because, in the work of salvation, he wanted to touch us with his own hands and love us with his own heart. Through the sacraments, the cleric represents this reality on behalf of Christ.

If we are to be truly Church, truly the Body of Christ, we must not be afraid to follow Jesus, to truly live our baptismal call to holiness wherever we are on our life’s journey. As clerics, we must allow the flood waters of baptism to destroy own selfishness, egotism, and sinfulness which prevent us from fulfilling our obligation to administer the sacraments in accord with the heart and mind of the Church. We must open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that, like Christ, we may not do our own will, but the will of God the Father.

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About Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers 6 Articles
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers is a Catholic speaker and evangelist and the founder and director of DynamicDeacon.com. He is the author of five books, including The Mass in Sacred Scripture, Behold the Man: A Catholic Vision of Male Spirituality, Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest, and Our Life of Service: The Handbook for Catholic Deacons. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame, and a Master of Theological Studies Degree from the University of Dallas.


  1. I think messing around with the given formulas and texts of the sacraments is silly. Clergy have ample opportunity to speak off the cuff. They have homilies, bulletin articles, as many classes as they want to teach, and numerous opportunities to speak with groups, counsel couples and individuals, etc..

    That said, the CDF messed up in 2020. We Roman Catholics accept the validity of Orthodox sacraments. Orthodox ministers of baptism do not use “I.” Orthodox baptisms are totally … orthodox. And valid.

    When a priest or deacon goes off the silly end and uses “we,” it is illicit. Not invalid. Not only is the 2020 Q&A needlessly upsetting to many Catholics, but it is damaging to both the public perception of the Church as well as our relations with the East.

      • Meiron, would the Latin Church then be obliged to declare Orthodox baptisms from time immemorial invalid. I don’t believe so.
        Furthermore, not every statement issued by the CDF is by nature of that office infallible doctrine.

        • The responsa from CDF applied to those performing baptisms within the RCC.

          The Pillar discusses the magisterial ranking of the confusion.

          It would seem that the INTENTION of the baptism should be taken into account. A priest trained and ordained in Latin rubrics knows or should know what he may and may not say in administering sacraments. A parent or parents who baptize a child near death may err in their administration of the sacrament through inadvertency in use of inappropriate form.

          Although I have no reference, I recall that the RCC formulates its acceptance of Orthodox baptisms not as “invalid” but as “recognized.” A clear difference exists between the Orthodox wording of: “This child is baptized in the name of the Father…” from “We baptize thee in the name of the Father…”

          • Meiron, it doesn’t suffice to say, not invalid, rather recognized, or a clear difference in Orthodox wording. Orthodox baptisms are either valid or they are not. Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no.

          • Also, from the Council of Florence in the words of Pope Eugene IV. “The form is: I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. We do not, however, deny that the words: Let this servant of Christ be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; or: This person is baptized by my hands in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, constitute true baptism; because since the principal cause from which baptism has its efficacy is the Holy Trinity, and the instrumental cause is the minister who confers the sacrament exteriorly, then if the act exercised by the minister be expressed, together with the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the sacrament is perfected” (Decree for the Armenians Exultate Deo Pope Eugene IV Council of Florence 1439). The CDF 2020 proposal of invalid baptism for other than use the personal pronoun by the minister of baptism is theologically ill timed. It would have had better effect if those baptisms were to be declared unlawful but valid.

          • To Fr. Morello,
            I said: “Although I have no reference, I recall that the RCC formulates its acceptance of Orthodox baptisms…” IOW, the RCC accepts baptisms by the Orthodox! I reported what I had recalled. I said what I meant, and I meant what I said.

            I appreciate your reference. It is noted that Pope Eugene IV did not call Orthodox baptisms ‘valid.’ Rather, he said: “We do not, however, deny that the words…..constitute true baptism.” He clearly said something more/other than yes or no.

          • Meiron, know that I respect and admire your faithfulness. However,Pope “Eugene IV did not call Orthodox baptisms valid” is continued waffling. Follow this formal Magisterial teaching, “Since the principal cause from which baptism has its efficacy is the Holy Trinity, and the instrumental cause is the minister who confers the sacrament exteriorly, then if the act exercised by the minister be expressed, together with the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the sacrament is perfected”.

      • The CDF appears to be wrong. Unless they’re prepared to widen the schism with the Orthodox.

        “We baptize” is a stupid, needless alteration. But it remains a Trinitarian baptism that aligns with the Church’s Eastern tradition.

        This indulgence for scrupulosity masquerading as theology opens all sorts of silly potential consequences. Want to get out of the priesthood or a marriage? Just dredge up some old home movies of a baptism. Or cast doubt on a minister. Seems a lot easier than getting a laicization or going through a canon law tribunal.

        • Todd,
          There are distinctions between baptisms performed by RCC priests or deacons under the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff and baptisms by Orthodox priests or Protestant ministers; the Orthodox and Protestant both deny any right to a Roman pontiff to govern the/ir Churches.

          The RCC recognizes baptisms of Orthodox persons and of Protestant persons. It further recognizes baptism by desire or by blood. It does so to signal its understanding that God’s grace is generously munificent; the RCC is not ‘scrupulously’ bound to staunch the flow of God’s grace to persons not baptized within the RCC. It also signals the RCC recognition of these baptisms as related to its own, alluding to the One Church which has continuously handed on and made available the practice of baptism to believers born into faith in other churches.

          The RCC hands on what it received. Who developed and instigated the sacrament of Baptism? Who handed on the scriptures which speak to the need for baptism? The apostolic Church. The successors of the apostles are today’s RCC hierarchy, the pope, the bishops, the priests.

          The RCC hierarchy does not recognize any right of any individual RCC priest to determine for himself what words he chooses to use to administer Baptism (or any other sacrament, for that matter).

          Sure, some persons may see the CDF’s guidelines as ‘rigid, authoritarian, rule-based scrupulosity-masquerading as theology’ and ‘silly.’ Others see them as reasonable, just, appropriate, and reflecting the order, unity, holiness, and universal apostolic order endowed the Church by its Creator and Founder.

          • Fair enough.

            However, the Orthodox also claim the mantle of apostolic succession. You make a good case that “we” baptisms use an illicit formula. I would agree with that. But the view that they are invalid is shockingly naive.

  2. A couple of years ago, it was discovered that a Deacon was also baptizing using “we” instead of “I”, and one of the babies he baptized became a priest. But that priest had to be baptized, Confirmed and ordained again. Now I don’t know about you, but in my mind, this practically destroys the credibility of the Curia–that they are unable to figure out a better, more thoughtful and more creative resolution to this.

    What intrigues me about the baptism issue is its many possible implications. Of course, changing the words is just silliness. But the Deacon in question did change the words 30 years ago (as well as the priest who has been in the news recently). That’s a lot of baptisms in those 30 years. Let’s assume he had the best intentions–that it wasn’t to be different, hip, etc., but to be more inclusive, or make the people feel they are a part of this, active participants, not just passive participants (something Vatican II urged with respect to liturgical reform). Great. It’s done. Now we have this priest who was ordained in 2017, was a priest for over 2 years, celebrated Mass, heard confessions, possibly confirmed young people, anointed the sick and the dying, etc. It turns out his ordination is invalid. He has to be baptised, confirmed, receive first communion, be ordained a deacon and then a priest. His baptisms are obviously valid, because he did not change the wording. However, let’s focus on the deacon of 30 years. His many baptisms, it is said, are invalid. Hence, those he “baptised” were not validly confirmed either, and if they were married, they do not have a sacramental marriage. If any one of those became a priest, then they are not genuinely ordained priests.

    Now, the issue has to do with “We baptise you in the name of the Father, Son….” instead of “I baptise you…” Clearly the words are the form. But the formal cause always coincides with the final cause: “that for the sake of which there is coming-to-be” (Aristotle). The definition of formal and final cause is the same. The end is the final cause of an action, and the species of an action (formal cause) is determined by its end. In language, the formal cause refers to “that which is said or asserted”. What is asserted is identical to what is intended (the end). That’s why we can have many different translations of the bible, or the lectionary, as we do in Canada vs. the U.S. As long as what is being asserted is not altered or is clearly communicated, the fact that there are different propositions is not relevant, at least not entirely. The distinction between a proposition and an assertion is all important here. And so if a Spanish priest were to say Mass, and his English is not that great, and he says “Here is my body which will be given up for you…” (as opposed to “this is my body”), it is hard to make the case that the Mass is invalid. We know what he was asserting, we know what he intended, that is, we know what he said. Now the formula “We baptise you…” is a bit more complicated, but it seems to me–I’m not entirely sure–that a case can be made that what he asserts is the same. Let me explain. As St. Augustine says so often, not to mention other Latin Fathers, it is the Church who is Mother, begetting sons and daughters of God through baptism. We know it is Christ who baptises, but the Church baptises, for the Church is his Mystical Body–just as we know it is Christ who is the priest who offers himself at every Mass, but as DeLubac points out, “the Eucharist makes Church, and the Church makes Eucharist”. When I say the words “I baptise you….”, it is indeed “I” (me), who shares in the ordination of the bishop, and at the same time it is the Church who is baptising, and at the same time it is Christ who baptises. But this Deacon said “We baptise you…” He didn’t change the designation of the three Persons of the Trinity, which would amount to a different assertion. He just changed the “I” to a “we”. Now, the “we” refers to the faithful who are present, at least immediately so. Those faithful have brought their children to be baptised. In an emergency situation, any one of them could baptise that child. They share in Christ’s threefold office of priest, prophet, and king, assuming they are baptised. The “we” may also refer to the entire Church (Mystical Body), who is Mother, and who generates sons and daughters of God through baptism. But the Church cannot generate sons and daughters without Christ, and so Christ is working through the Church, for they are a one flesh union, so if the Church baptises, Christ is baptising.

    Now let’s switch to the optics. It is declared that those baptisms are invalid, and all that came after, such as “matrimony” are also invalid, etc. This priest ordained in 2017 went to Mass throughout his life, responded to God’s call to priesthood, was called by the Church to ordination, went to Mass and fostered a devoted prayer life through his seminary years, etc. It would seem that divine grace was operative in his life. One commentator in the U.S made the point that God is not limited by the sacraments, which of course is very true. However, let’s stick to the actual baptism. Imagine telling all these people, whoever they are, that despite the life you lead, the prayer life you might have had, the marriage, etc., you were never a Catholic, you did not have a valid sacramental marriage, you were not confirmed, the Church was not your mother, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity were not infused into your souls, etc. We leave them with the impression that God is helpless in the face of this, that his hands were tied, so to speak, that He would have liked to infuse their souls with sacramental graces, but He just couldn’t do it, because the “I” was changed to a “we” (a change that could possibly be salvaged theologically). I don’t know about you, but I can see a good number of them shaking their heads and turning permanently away from Catholicism, dismissing Catholicism as so contrary to common sense–whether they would be in the wrong is irrelevant at this point. That’s what I mean by “stretching the credibility factor”. Could one not argue that God knows what is intended by the deacon, He knows what the deacon is asserting, knows what the deacon intends–that this child be freed from Original Sin, given the grace of regeneration, given the infused theological virtues, etc.,? Isn’t there a Canon that speaks about Ecclesia supplet? I believe it refers to issues of jurisdiction, but isn’t the idea somewhat the same?

    My good friend, a priest, was telling me that one time he was in the confessional and they ended up getting side tracked by conversation relating this man’s confession, and it was quite lengthy. Then it was over and the man left, but he said that he wasn’t sure whether he actually gave him absolution, sort of like a cashier forgetting to take your money. He thinks he might not have given him absolution. Is that man really not forgiven for his sins, which he came to confess with contrition? Is God really dependent upon the words of the priest? Aren’t words employed to express audibly and outwardly an interior word? Couldn’t we make the case that my friend actually did have the interior word of “absolution”, it was just not expressed outwardly?

    Finally, the Eastern Orthodox formula does not state I or we but simply “The servant of God (name of person being baptized) is baptized in the name….” or “This person is baptized with my hands…” (which would be the hands of the celebrant, not Christ). Are Eastern Orthodox baptisms valid?

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