Reverend Andres Arango was conducting a baptism at St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Phoenix last year when some people in the pews heard a slight variation in the religious ritual.
“We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Father Arango said, his voice echoing through the church as he poured the holy water.
But there was a problem.
To say “we baptize” was incorrect. The Vatican orders priests to say “I baptize”, and if it is not said this way, the baptism is considered invalid.
Church leaders investigated and determined last month that Fr. Arango had improperly performed thousands of baptisms over more than 20 years, meaning those he baptized in Phoenix and his previous parishes in Brazil and in San Diego were not properly baptized.
The oversight has caused headaches for those now seeking answers as to whether their flawed baptisms spilled over into other elements of their Catholic faith. For example, would it affect those who were married by the church?
“Maybe! Unfortunately, there is no single, clear answer,” the Diocese of Phoenix responded online.
Father Arango, who did not return calls on Sunday requesting an interview, apologized in a statement and said he was stepping down as parish pastor, effective Feb. 1.
“It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula,” he said. “I deeply regret my mistake and how it affected many people in your parish and elsewhere.”
Thomas J. Olmsted, the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, said in a statement that he does not believe Fr. Arango “had the slightest intention of harming the faithful or depriving them of the grace of baptism and the sacraments.” .
The Catholic News Agency reported on the botched baptisms this month.
In the Catholic faith, a baptism is a sacrament in which people, often infants, have water poured on their foreheads, symbolizing purification and admission to the Church. It is a “requirement of salvation”, according to the diocese.
Adhering to the baptismal formula is “extremely important to continuing the tradition of the Church,” said Neomi De Anda, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
“It’s not supposed to be legalistic but about fellowship,” she added.
Indeed, the Diocese of Phoenix has addressed the specific rules by creating an FAQ section on its website regarding Father Arango’s case.
Just as a priest should not use “milk in place of wine in the consecration of the Eucharist” – when the Catholic faith says that wine becomes the blood of Christ – neither should a priest change the wording of the sacrament of baptism, the diocese mentioned.
The milk would not become the blood of Christ, the diocese said, and likewise an improperly worded baptism would not purify a person.
Sandra Yocum, professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton, said if a priest said “we” it would imply that the source of the grace of baptism came from the community, whereas saying “I” would correctly affirm that “it is God who does this work of grace” through the priest.
“In baptism, part of what makes it valid are the words that are used, and so that becomes meaningful,” Ms Yocum said. Church officials might have feared setting a precedent had they suggested that “those words aren’t that important,” she added.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office that interprets doctrine and deals with cases of misconduct, responded strongly when asked in 2020 if it was okay to use “we.”
“Negative,” he said.
This advice from the Vatican caused other priests to wonder if they had been misbaptized.
In 2020, the Reverend Matthew Hood of the Archdiocese of Detroit saw a video of his own childhood baptism and realized the deacon had said “we”. Father Hood, along with others who were baptized by this deacon from 1986 to 1999, were then to be properly baptized.
In Oklahoma City, Reverend Zachary Boazman also saw a video of his childhood baptism and realized in September 2020 that the same thing had happened to him as well.
“It’s very difficult to gauge how often this happens,” Dr. Yocum said.
Father Arango “remains a priest in good standing” and still lives and serves in the Diocese of Phoenix, said Katie Burke, a spokeswoman for the diocese.
“His voluntary resignation allows him to devote his full-time ministry to helping and healing the families who have been impacted by this mistake,” Ms Burke said.
Some members of St. Gregory’s Catholic Church, however, had wanted him to remain their priest, and a petition circulated to keep Father Arango as pastor of the church.
“Rather than give Father Andres the opportunity to stay at St. Gregory and rectify the situation,” the petition reads, “he is being removed from a community that loves and cares for him.”
Video shows dozens of people attending a farewell celebration for Father Arango in January.
In his letter to parishioners, he wrote, “I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience my actions have caused and sincerely ask for your prayers, forgiveness and understanding.”