Pope Clarifies: John’s Baptism NOT “sacramental”

Occasionally the pope makes a comment on something which, while not hugely important in the schemes of things (ie. not needing a special definition or encyclical), we still need to be reminded about.

In his homily for the feast of the Baptism of our Lord this year, he included this reminder:

According to the story of the Evangelist Matthew (3:13-17), Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John; in fact, all of Palestine flocked to hear the preaching of this great prophet, the announcement of the advent of the Kingdom of God, and to receive baptism, that is, to submit themselves to this sign that called to conversion from sin. Although it is called “baptism,” it did not have the sacramental value of the rite that we celebrate today; as you well know, it is in fact by his death and resurrection that Jesus instituted the sacraments and brings about the birth of the Church. [The baptism] administered by John was rather a penitential act, a gesture that invited people to humility before God, for a new beginning: Plunging into the water, the penitent acknowledged having sinned, he implored God to purify him of his sins and he was sent forth to change his erroneous behavior.

That “as you well know” is one of the Holy Father’s little tricks he probably learned as a professor. It is a way of saying to students “You SHOULD know this well, but I am quite aware that you probably don’t, and so I am trying to remind you without making you feel stupid.”

Thank you, Holy Father. I knew it, and so do all readers of this ‘ere blog, but we do need little reminders every now and again.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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5 Responses to Pope Clarifies: John’s Baptism NOT “sacramental”

  1. adam george says:

    Sorry, but I for one did not know precisely.
    The great theologian and pontiff has calrified this foe me and I expect many others .
    So the ‘baptism’ of John was not a sacramental act, but still the act of the Son of God.
    Is that a contradiction theologically?
    I now feel confused.
    Not quite QED.

    • adam george says:

      spelling errors:
      should read ‘clarified’ and ‘for me’ not foe !!
      Tempus fugit.

    • Schütz says:

      Dear Adam,

      The “Baptism of John” – that is, the ritual of baptism which John the Baptist preached and administered – was not an “act of the Son of God”. Even if it were, not all “acts of the Son of God” are sacramental, eg. the footwashing was not sacramental.

      The Holy Father is quite right to point out that the whole sacramental economy was “instituted” by the event of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection – to which all the sacraments point, and in which all the sacraments participate.

      The Baptism of John, like John’s entire ministry, actually belongs to the “old dispensation” rather than the “new”, that is, to the age of the prophets looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom in Jesus. By baptising the people who came to him, John was not initiating them into the Church (which was only manifested at Pentecost), but directing their hearts toward the coming of the Kingdom.

      Thus also Jesus himself did not receive “Sacramental Baptism” from John – his baptism was not the same as the baptism “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” that you and I receive – although obviously there are connections. When John baptised Jesus, the “old” met the “new”. Something happened when John baptised Jesus that did not happen to everyone else: the Father’s voice was heard in testimony to the Son, and the Spirit descended upon him. Furthermore, Jesus himself took on the “repentace for sins” that belonged to us.

      So there IS a connection between John’s baptism and the Sacrament of Baptism which the Church administers, but they are NOT the same thing.

  2. matthias says:

    Let’s not forget that Apollos ” spoke and taught accurately enough about Jesus, even though he knew only the baptism of John” Acts 18: 24-28. and that when”Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.”[Acts 18:26]”.
    The Mandeans who live in iraq and are now refugees in sydney, revere John the Baptist

  3. Christine says:

    And . . . John himself said that he baptized in order to reveal the One who was to come, which happened when Jesus was baptized and the Spirit rested upon him. By baptizing the people with water for repentance John was preparing them for the baptism that was to come by the Holy Spirit.

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