In a move that will most certainly set tongues wagging among Catholic theologians everywhere, Pope Francis baptized the infant daughter of a couple that has not yet been married according to Catholic rites. On January 12, following a tradition begun by his predecessor John Paul II, the pontiff personally baptized a number of children at the iconic Sistine Chapel. These constituted the first baptisms of his pontificate, even while as a priest and archbishop in Argentine he baptized numerous children. Speaking to the group of parents assembled for the baptisms, Pope Francis told them “It is you who must transmit the faith to these children. It is the most beautiful legacy that you can give them.”
The baptisms were celebrated along one of the walls of the famous chapel so that the participants could better appreciate the murals painted by Michaelangelo Buonarotti during the 15th century. It is in the same chapel that cardinals select each new pope.
He recalled the observance of the feast of Epiphany, which among Eastern Christians is known as Theophany, in which is commemorated the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan by St. John. As the parents of the 32 newly baptized children stood in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope said that Jesus did not need baptism, “but early theologians explained that this baptism happened so that all water should have the power to baptize.” In his homily, he added “The Lord, before going to heaven, invited us to go out into the world and baptize.” Starting on the day of the baptism of Jesus, there has “been a chain that has never broken,” said the Pope, who noted that each child is “a link in that chain.”
Smiling broadly, the pontiff explained away the cries of the children who wailed throughout the ceremony when he said that they were “the most beautiful choir” of the day. “Some of them cry because they are uncomfortable or hungry,” said the Pope who urged the mothers present to feed their children. “Be at ease! Give them something to eat, today they are the stars!,” he exclaimed. Among the girls receiving the sacrament of baptism from the Pope were two named ‘Francesca.’ The Pope had no namesakes among the boys he baptized.
Among the 32 children baptized by the Pope was Giulia – the six-month-old daughter of an Italian couple who have been married according to civil law. Pope Francis agreed to baptize their baby when the couple met him on September 25, 2013, during one of his general audiences.
Giulia’s father is Ivan Scardia and her mother is Nicoletta Franco. Both of them serve in the Italian army and have another daughter, Giorgia, who is five years old. Scardia said that there was a “slight problem” when they sent their documents to the Vatican and it was discovered that they were not married according to the rites of the worldwide Church. The problem, said Scardia, was quickly resolved.
Pope Francis said on January 8 that baptism, nonetheless, is “not a formality,” and that “a baptized child or person is not the same as someone who is not.” He has asked that Catholic clerics should not shut the doors of the Church on anyone and that no one should be denied baptism for any reason.