On June 3, 2017, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit celebrated a Mass during which he attempted to ordain five new priests, but failed to do so. Only four of the five men were actually ordained that day, since one of them, Fr. Matthew Hood – a young man who had just spent 6 years in seminary formation – had never in fact been baptized. This came as a shock to Fr. Matthew, whose family has a video of his baptismal ceremony that took place when he was an infant. The reality of his situation came to light earlier this month when he read a newly-issued notice from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), that concluded after investigation and deliberation that changing the formula for baptism in certain ways makes it invalid. The words that the minister is supposed to say as he pours water over the head of the person to be baptized is: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” According to the CDF’s findings, the phrase: “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is invalid. Fr. Matthew recalled that, while watching the video of his baptismal ceremony, the deacon celebrant used the invalid formula. Subsequent review of the video confirmed it. And so, unbeknownst to him and his family, Fr. Matthew was never validly baptized.
When he realized it, Fr. Matthew immediately contacted the Archdiocese to let them know. In short order, he was baptized, confirmed, and received First Holy Communion. Then he was ordained a deacon, and finally a priest – after 3 years of living and working in a parish, believing himself to be a priest. An unfortunate effect of Fr. Matthew’s invalid baptism and ordination is that, while done in good faith, the Masses that he offered during those three years and the confessions he heard were also sacramentally invalid, since you have to be a priest to confect the Eucharist and to absolve sins, as well as confirm and anoint the sick. In its statement regarding the matter, the Archdiocese of Detroit addressed the question of confession. It said: “we can be assured that all those who approached Father Hood, in good faith, to make a confession did not walk away without some measure of grace and forgiveness from God.” It also stated, however, that those who remember confessing grave sins to Fr. Matthew should bring those sins into their next confession in order to receive absolution. In cases where they did not remember if they confessed a grave sin to him, people should explain the situation in their next confession in order to be absolved and receive peace of mind. Happily, the baptisms that Fr. Matthew performed are valid since non-baptized persons can validly baptize, and are allowed to do so under certain circumstances. But it is likely that at least some of the marriages over which he presided were also invalid, and will need to be remediated.
So, basically, the fact that Fr. Matthew was not validly baptized created a big, fat mess. Some might argue that the response to the situation was overly legalistic, that we shouldn’t get upset about a slight deviation from the sacramental formulas. But, as the statement from the Archdiocese explains: “According to the ordinary plan God has established, the Sacraments are necessary for salvation: baptism brings about adoption into the family of God and places sanctifying grace in the soul, since we are not born with it, and the soul needs to have sanctifying grace when it departs from the body in order to spend eternity in heaven.” The Lord Jesus instituted the sacraments as the normal way to share His life with us. Of course, God is not limited by the sacraments and can share His life with anyone in any manner He desires. That being said, we can rely uniquely on the efficacy of the sacraments as a means for receiving the grace we need for salvation. If done properly, according to the guidance of the Church, we can be certain that they do what Christ instituted them for. That’s why they are such a great gift to us. The Church’s intervention in this situation serves to protect the faithful, who have a right to valid sacraments, and to remind ordained ministers of our grave responsibility as stewards of the sacraments to do them correctly. The sacraments aren’t just symbolic rituals that are unnecessary in themselves. The sacraments do something. What exactly that is, I hope to write about over the next few weeks.
If you’re interested in learning more about the story of Fr. Matthew Hood, Catholic News Agency has done a helpful job explaining what happened and why it’s important.