Q. A friend of mine had a child who was stillborn. The priest on duty declined to baptize the baby because, he said, baptism is only for the living. But I have heard of many stillborn babies who were baptized. Can you explain why this has changed? (Annapolis, Md.)
A. It is true that the sacraments of the church are meant for the living. Their purpose is to put us in touch with the power of the risen Christ in our daily lives. Baptism signifies the entrance of a person into the faith community of Christians, with the intention of putting that faith into action. A priest would never think of trying to give the eucharistic host to someone who had died nor could the baptism of a stillborn indicate the start of a lifelong effort to live out the Gospel.
And yet the grieving parents of a stillborn are dealing with such sadness already that a priest may well find it difficult to deny their requests. Since one is permitted to baptize conditionally if there is any doubt as to whether the moment of death has occurred, pastoral instincts would lead a priest to baptize a newborn on the slightest chance that there might be some life remaining. There are other situations where the child has clearly died, and these call for special tenderness.
What parents really are asking when they request baptism for a stillborn is whether their child is now with God. I find it helpful to reference the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1261, which suggests that we can confidently entrust that child to God’s mercy, knowing from the Scriptures that God wants all people to be saved and that Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.”
It can also be helpful, in the case of a stillborn, to use (from the church’s Book of Blessings) the “Blessing of Parents After a Miscarriage.” If the body of the child still is present, those prayers could also be combined with the parents naming the child and tracing the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead, as parents would do at a baptism.