Mass for Unbaptized Children Who Die

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Mass for Unbaptized Children Who Die


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: In view of what is said in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 1261 and 1283) is it correct and advisable to offer Mass for the salvation of a baby who died without being baptized? — H.D., Melbourne, Australia

A: The texts of the Catechism to which our correspondent refers to say the following:

"1261: As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."

"1283: With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God's mercy and to pray for their salvation."

The question of the fate of children who die before baptism is one of the mysteries that have long perplexed bishops, theologians and, of course, parents.

The problem has received even greater urgency due to the millions of unborn children killed by abortion.

Up until relatively recently some theologians tried to solve the problem by proposing that such children went to limbo, a state of perfect human happiness but without the beatific vision.

This solution was never fully satisfactory, and is now practically abandoned, above all because it is difficult to conceive a genuine and full human happiness deprived of the divine vision for which God created man.

Recently the Holy Father has entrusted the International Theological Commission with the task of studying this problem in depth and clarify Catholic doctrine as far as possible.

With respect to the advisability of offering the Mass for the "salvation" of unbaptized infants, No. 1283 invites us to pray for their salvation.

Since the Mass is also an intercessory prayer, then it should be possible, in general terms, to offer the Mass for such an intention even though we may not yet be theologically sure of what the concept of salvation might be in this particular case.

Because of the mystery involved, the celebration of funeral rites for an unbaptized child usually requires the permission of the local bishop who considers the pastoral circumstances involved (see Canon 1183.2 of the Code of Canon Law).

These rites are usually done more for the sake of the living than for the dead. And this would be the principal factor to be considered in deciding to permit obsequies, especially when the parents clearly intended to baptize the child.

It is also a factor in deciding whether Mass or another simpler rite would be more appropriate.

It is also recommended that catechesis imparted on such occasions in no way confuse the faithful regarding the doctrine of the necessity of baptism.

The Mass formulas do not generally intercede for the salvation of the child but rather implore that God may comfort the grieving parents with the hope of his mercy, acceptance of his will and the consolation of knowing that he takes care of us. ZE05042621

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Follow-up: Mass for Unbaptized Children Who Die [05-10-2005]

A reader from Massachusetts says that he was disturbed by our purported comments (April 26) that "funeral liturgies are now more for the living than for the deceased. The Mass, as the good father knows, is an act of worship, praise and intercession. Our funeral liturgies never assume the deceased is in heaven, but pray that they may be forgiven their sins and enjoy eternal bliss.

"I have heard more than one priest comment on how funeral Masses are more for the living than for the dead. No wonder why so many of our people no longer believe in purgatory but have adopted the Protestant view that one goes straight to heaven or hell upon death."

On rereading the article I can see how our correspondent received the impression he did, although I was referring to the precise circumstances of Masses for unbaptized infants, and not to funerals in general.

Such funeral rites are more for the consolation of the living than the dead due to the great human sadness of the loss of a child, no matter how strong the theological hope of salvation or even the certainty of blessedness, as is the case of baptized infants.

Our reader is correct that adult funerals are very much intercessory prayers for the deceased. It is this power of intercession by the Church's prayer, rather than a presumption of instant canonization, that should bring consolation to those left behind.

Another reader was perplexed by the problem. He wrote: "Why is it that a catechumen who expresses his desire to be baptized but dies before it takes place, is said to have received baptism by desire, and therefore is fully expected to be saved; whereas, when parents fully intend to baptize their baby, but it dies before they are able to do so, we have doubts as to the baby's salvation? I just don't understand this."

The basic reason is that the adult is saved by his personal desire to receive baptism, which was frustrated by death.

The desire and intentions of the parents is insufficient to substitute [for] the infant's incapacity to express any personal intentions and grant the gift of baptism.

However, the question is not totally clear. Some theologians have argued that in some way the parents' desire to have the child baptized does have some effect in the order of grace and the child is in a different situation from the infant of parents who have no knowledge of baptism.

We are before a great mystery, insofar as it has not been revealed if salvation means the same thing for the unbaptized infant as for the baptized, or by what means God exercises his mercy in these cases.

All the same, I would not say that the Church entertains doubts as to the child's salvation, as condemnation can only be received through personal sins.

Other readers, from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and from North York, Ontario, asked about norms forbidding baptism during Lent or to "priests who refuse to administer the sacraments to children of parents who do not attend Mass."

Our Wisconsin reader says: "I can understand delaying adult baptism, first Communions, weddings, etc., during Lent until at least the Easter Vigil, but to me, not allowing infant baptism during Lent seems to be gambling with souls." The reader further illustrates a case of the accidental death of a baby who would have been baptized except for this prohibition.

Regarding the first question, canon law (in No. 868) requires that, before administering baptism, a priest should have some reasonable assurances that the child will be raised and instructed in the faith.

Even if the parents offer few guarantees of being willing and able to do so, the priest may proceed with the baptism if the godparents, some other relatives, or the Christian community in general, will be able to substitute [for] the parents in giving the necessary formation.

Thus, for example, if the parents do not practice but are willing to send the child to catechism classes for first Communion when the time arises, then this is often sufficient. If these conditions cannot be met he has to defer the administration of the sacrament explaining the reasons to the parents.

However, since the variables are infinite, one cannot dictate theoretical solutions and I would be loath to criticize a priest's decision while ignorant of the specific circumstances.

The tragedy of the second case shows that even apparently reasonable norms can lead to unintended consequences.

I am personally less then enthusiastic about the norms forbidding infant baptisms during Lent that exist in several dioceses. To my mind they are not totally compatible with the spirit of canon law in No. 867 and No. 1250 of the catechism which states: "The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth."

It is true that infant deaths are rare in the developed world, but it does not appear to justify a long delay.

I do comprehend the pastoral reasons that often lie behind them, especially in areas where the baptism of a child has become more of a social than a religious event, sometimes rivaling weddings for displays of fashions and festivities and hence incompatible with the Lenten spirit.

All the same, I do believe that priests, and the pastoral norms in general, should accommodate parents who desire to have their children baptized as soon as possible after birth for genuinely religious reasons, especially if they agree to moderate any external celebrations during Lent.

On the theme of infant baptism in general, a California reader asks: "I have often wondered about the necessity of baptizing children since the early Church did not consider it imperative. Certainly we totally submit to the teaching of the apostles. There could be no teaching more clear than their limiting baptism to those who can choose it for themselves."

I am afraid that I do not think that this supposed teaching is so clear at all, although the space available precludes a full treatment of this subject.

In the first place, Christian baptism replaced circumcision as a more universal sign of belonging to God's people, and this Jewish rite was performed eight days after birth.

There is also some, albeit inconclusive, evidence of the presence of infant baptism when we read in the Scriptures that certain persons were baptized together with "all their family" or "their entire household." Such expressions, at the very least, would not exclude the presence of children.

Likewise the scant descriptions of the rite of baptism offered in the Bible, which explicitly refer only to adult Jewish and pagan converts, are insufficient to conclude very much about the pastoral practice of the apostles, for while there is no mention of infant baptism, nor is there any mention of baptism of adult members of Christian families.

Christ's command in Mark 16:16 refers to evangelization of pagans. It is necessary for new disciples to manifest their faith before receiving baptism which implies a radical change of life. Such a change should not be necessary in the children of Christian families educated in the faith from an early age.

There is much stronger evidence in the following generations. The bishop martyr St. Polycarp, who as a young man had been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, affirmed that he had served the Lord for 86 years, which makes it highly probable that he was baptized in infancy.

There is also evidence for the practice in St. Justin (martyred in 165) and other second-century writers, such as Origen, who presents infant baptism as an apostolic tradition.

Finally a correspondent expands on the original topic and asks about "praying for those not of the Catholic faith. Would it be permissible to have a Mass said for a deceased non-Catholic?"

The Church already prays for non-Catholics at Mass when, for example in Eucharistic Prayer IV, we ask "for all those whose faith was known to you alone."

Although a requiem or funeral Mass is usually not offered for a non-Catholic, there does not seem to be any difficulty in offering the intention of a Mass for a non-Catholic living or dead, just as we may pray for them in any other circumstances.

There might be particular situations in which this may not be advisable but, at least in principle, it is possible. ZE05051027

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