Baptism of the dying

Question: If a person expresses a desire to be baptized on his or her deathbed, how should one respond? I learned that if a priest is not available, the ordinary Catholic or even a non-Catholic nurse can perform the baptism. What about receiving Communion after the baptism in these circumstances? 

— G.H., Toledo, Ohio

Answer: As long as a person who is dying is serious in his or her desire to be united to Christ, then baptism may be administered either by a priest, deacon, member of the family or, indeed, any person who is able to perform the basic rite — the pouring or sprinkling of water and the Trinitarian formula. Normally, the first choice for administering baptism is a priest or deacon, but if one of these is not available, anyone willing and able may perform the baptism. The official Introduction to the Christian Initiation of the Dying states: “Anyone, catechumen or not, who is in danger of death may be baptized ... as long as such a person is not at the point of death and is able to hear and answer the questions” (No. 276). A dead person isn’t baptized; he or she is entrusted to the mercy of God. If a priest is performing the baptism and has sacred chrism with him, then he should confirm the person as well. 

It is entirely appropriate that the baptism (with or without confirmation) be followed by the reception of the Eucharist if the dying person is able to consume the host or a portion of it. The introduction states: “Also, whenever possible the priest or deacon, as well as a catechist or layperson having permission to distribute Communion, should give the Eucharist to the newly baptized” (ibid.). 

In the case of a dying child, the sacraments of initiation should be administered as well. The introduction states: “As far as possible, the Rite of Baptism for Children and the Rite of Confirmation are celebrated in the usual way. The Eucharist completes the sacraments of initiation. A dying child with the use of reason shares the common responsibility of receiving viaticum [Communion before death].” (No. 280). 

A Shorter RCIA 

Question: My husband is in his 80s and in poor health. He has never been baptized, but has always come to Mass with me and knows Catholicism fairly well. He now thinks he would like to be baptized. However, my parish friends tell me that he will have to go through a yearlong process of catechesis and wait until next Easter. Is there an easier way to get him baptized than this? 

—Name and address withheld

Answer: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which includes baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, is flexible enough to cover any situation, including your husband’s. Those who are elderly or in poor health do not need to go through a whole year of preparation. The documentation of the RCIA states that in extraordinary circumstances, “The bishop may permit [a] simpler form [of the RCIA] to consist in the abbreviated form of the rites ... that is carried out in one celebration” (No. 331). The circumstances in question “are either events that prevent the candidate from completing all the steps of the catechumenate or a depth of Christian conversion and a degree of religious maturity that lead the local bishop to decide that the candidate may receive baptism without delay” (ibid.) Talk to your pastor about this. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.