Last month we began to describe the incredible gift that Baptism is, showing how Baptism both forgives us from sin and gives us new birth in the Holy Spirit.
But it’s also important to look closer at precisely what is required for the Sacrament of Baptism to occur. This is because there are some elements of Baptism that allow for some “wiggle room” with regard to how they are incorporated into the Sacramental Rite - but there are also some essential elements of the Sacrament which are absolutely necessary.
The Sacraments, as we have said already, are gifts from God to give us grace. And because they are given to us by God, the Church is what we could call a “steward” of the Sacraments. In other words, the Church is not the Lord and Master over the Sacraments. She merely is entrusted with the task of distributing them to God’s People according to the instructions that He left us.
In order to safeguard them - to ensure that we, the People of God, have rightful access to the Sacraments - the Church recognizes two key components to every Sacrament which are required to make them valid.
These two components are called “Form” and “Matter.” Each Sacrament, including Baptism, has a certain Form and a certain Matter. It is critical that the correct Form and the correct Matter are used because without them, the Sacrament is not valid.
Since the terms “Form” and “Matter” may not be familiar to us as they are understood here, an example may be helpful: If we were to speak about a table in terms of its form and matter, we could say that that form of a table is that it is a flat surface that is raised up off the ground, and the matter of the table is some kind of hard, sturdy material (wood, granite, etc.), as tables aren’t much use if they’re made out of something soft, like cloth or pillows. The proper form and proper matter combined are what make it a table.
And so, for Baptism, the proper Form consists in using the words, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So too, the proper Matter for Baptism consists in the washing with true water which can be done either through a threefold pouring on the head or through a triple immersion (sprinkling is technically a third option but is strongly recommended against).
Considering all of this, if you attend a Catholic Baptism, you will see that there are other actions that are done within the Rite of Baptism, (greeting, reading from scripture, anointings with oils), but the real core - the essence - of Baptism is when the priest or deacon pours the water over the person’s head and says the words, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
As complicated and detailed as all of this may sound, the key thing to remember is that the proper Form and Matter are upheld as necessary for the Sacrament in order to ensure that God’s People are able to receive the grace from the Sacraments that He established for you. As we move on to discuss the other Sacraments, we will continue to circle back to this idea of Matter and Form. If it is not clear now, stay with it and we will work to make sure that it will be soon.
By Father Michael Bovino