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A Catholic priest performed thousands of baptisms incorrectly. What happens next?

Rev. Andres Arango performed thousands of baptisms over 20 years, all ‘incorrectly,’ according to church leaders at the Diocese of Phoenix.
baby with a golden cross on a chain on the head. Christian faith.
Rev. Andres Arango performed thousands of baptisms over 20 years, all 'incorrectly,' according to church leaders at the Diocese of Phoenix.Andrey Sayfutdinov / Getty Images

A pastor of a Catholic church in Phoenix, Arizona has resigned after learning he had incorrectly performed thousands of infant baptisms over more than two decades.

Rev. Andres Arango, who conducted thousands of baptisms in Phoenix, Brazil and San Diego, regularly said “we baptize” instead of the correct "I baptize," according to the Vatican. After learning Father Arango had been baptizing people using the word "we," church leaders investigated and found that the many baptisms he had performed over more than 20 years were all "incorrect."

What does that mean for the children he baptized, and their parents? The good news is, a botched baptism doesn't mean anyone's going to hell, according to Catholic doctrine. But it is a confusing and stressful time for parents and children who now need a baptism re-do.

"We are saddened to announce some difficult information regarding baptisms performed by Rev. Andres Arango, a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix, who also had been a member of the Eudist religious community," an online statement from the Diocese of Phoenix reads. "After careful study, it has been determined that the form (words) Fr. Andres used for the sacrament of baptism has been incorrect, and all of the baptisms he has performed until June 17, 2021, are presumed invalid. Any baptisms performed by Fr. Andres after June 17, 2021, are presumed valid and do not need to be repeated."

TODAY Parents reached out to both Arango and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication.

"It is with a heavy heart that I find myself writing... I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry. I deeply regret my error."

Rev. Andres Arango

Arango has since resigned as pastor of the parish, writing in an online statement:

"It is with a heavy heart that I find myself writing this letter of notification to a wonderful parish family that I once served.

"It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula. I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people in your parish and elsewhere. With the help of the Holy Spirit and in communion with the Diocese of Phoenix I will dedicate my energy and full time ministry to help remedy this and heal those affected. In order to do this, I have resigned from my position as pastor of St. Gregory parish in Phoenix effective February 1, 2022."

The Diocese of Phoenix does, however, say that Father Arango "has not disqualified himself from his vocation and ministry" and is still "a priest in good standing." The Catholic News Agency was the first to report on the incorrect baptisms earlier this month.

What does it mean?

The same teachings that describe the importance of baptism also say baptism is not entirely necessary to avoid damnation.

“Does that mean that everyone who is not literally baptized in a Catholic parish goes to hell? That is not actually the teaching of the Catholic church,” Peter Casarella, a professor at Duke Divinity School at Duke University, tells TODAY. "The Catholic church has said, for over 100 years, that that’s not the teaching.”

"There is still salvation for them."

DUKE DIVINITY SCHOOL PROFESSOR Peter Casarella

So even if the most horrific outcome of this mistake is true for some parents — they had their child “improperly” baptized and later had to endure that same child’s death before that child was able to be baptized properly — they should know that an incorrect baptism does not mean their child is damned.

According to Catechism of the Catholic Church passage 1260, “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.”

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“If I understand the facts of this case where the priest had been using the ‘we’ instead of the ‘I’ and these were not sacramental baptisms, I think those were parents of children who wanted and had a firm desire out of a real faith to have their children baptized,” Casarella says. “So to read the Catechism, such persons would ‘have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity,’ so they would be ‘covered’ under that, so to speak. So there is still salvation for them. There’s a direct link between the baptism of a child and the desire and attainment of salvation, in Catholic teaching.”

Why does it matter?

“People may ask, what’s the big deal about the words, but for us in sacraments — and in culture, too — words are important,” Rev. Thomas J. Scirghi, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University who specializes in the theology of sacraments and liturgy, tells TODAY. “So while it’s a simple slip there, to go from ‘I baptize you’ to ‘we baptize you,’ it makes a world of difference.”

While the error was significant, Scirghi says the parents of children improperly baptized should take heart.

“I want to emphasize to these people, the great love God has for them, first of all,” Scirghi says, growing emotional. “Sacraments are the ways for us to join in relationship with God and follow the path of salvation, but sacraments do not limit the power and authority of God. They’re very good for us, yes, but no way do I fear that because a child wasn’t properly baptized God can’t do anything for them. No. No. Sacraments mediate the presence of God. They’re very good for that, but they do not limit or hinder the power of God.”

“It’s not just an incorrect baptism — there is no baptism. I do not mean to sound cold, but there was never a baptism in the first place."

Rev. Thomas J. Scirghi

“In this case, I would ask parents to focus on their faith in Almighty God and the God who loves them,” he adds. “More than they know.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) responded to questions about the validity of baptisms if any words are changed.

The ruling states that saying “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” does not convey the sacrament of baptism. Instead, those administering a baptism must “allow Jesus to speak through them.” In order to do that, according to the ruling, the practitioner must say “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  

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Scirghi does believe that those who have been “improperly” baptized have not, in fact, been baptized at all, and would need to not be “re-baptized” but actually baptized.

“It’s not just an incorrect baptism — there is no baptism,” he says. “I do not mean to sound cold, but there was never a baptism in the first place. And this is the problem — those poor, innocent folks. Because baptism is the way people enter the Christian community. So because there was no baptism they never technically entered the Christian community, technically speaking. And since they’re not technically Christians, they wouldn’t be receiving Communion or have been married in the church. So this has to be looked at, and I hope it’s done quickly for them.”

The Dioceses of Phoenix has provided an online form for those who believe they were improperly baptized by Arango to fill out and seek a proper baptism, but have asked those people affected not to take Communion until they are correctly baptized. The Dioceses also cautions those same people will need to repeat additional sacraments rendered invalid as a result of their “botched” baptism.


Catholics react

Member of Arango’s former parish created an online petition in his support, arguing that he should remain at his post rather than resign.

“In addition to being a spiritual leader for hundreds of parishioners, Father Andres has positively impacted the lives of numerous children at St. Gregory Catholic School,” part of the post reads. “He taught them the meaning of faith, community and fellowship. As part of his pastoral leadership, Father Andres reinvigorated the church community by renovating its facilities, giving parishioners and faith seekers a spiritual home that is open to all.”

Matthew Travisano, 45, a practicing Catholic and a member of a another parish, says that the ruling to “invalidate” Father Arango’s baptism is “another example of an archdiocese that has forgotten its core mission and has distracted itself with something petty.”

"John the Baptist didn’t have a script to follow when he baptized Christ."

Matthew Travisano, a practicing Catholic

“The wording of the baptismal sacrament is not nearly as important as the intent of the sacrament and the sacrament itself,” Travisano tells TODAY. “The ‘error’ is a single word. If you look at the New Testament, John the Baptist didn’t have a script to follow when he baptized Christ. The act itself was the most important thing. The Catholic Church is very adept at forgetting the true meaning of something, and instead getting lost in the politics or policy of it all. I think of the famous verse from Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ The Archdiocese of Phoenix is embodying this.”

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Travisano, who acknowledges that as a “liberal, gay Catholic” he has a “complex relationship” with Catholicism, says that this ruling makes the Church look “petty.”

“I was baptized and the verbiage is not as important as the act and the intent behind that act,” he explains. “I will not even be ‘checking’ to make sure my baptism was legitimate. It was absolutely legitimate.”

Jessie Notarius, 25, who no longer practices Catholicism, did contact her mom to ask her about her own baptism after learning about the thousands of “botched” sacraments performed by Father Arango.

“I have yet to receive a response,” Notarius tells TODAY. “I couldn’t say what her reaction is going to be like.”

Notarius, who says she left the Catholic church after she came out as bisexual and realized that "it was no longer a safe religion for me” admits that her initial reaction to the news was to “laugh at the absurdity of the situation.”

“Then I took a step back and realized, OK, this is probably going to suck for a lot of people who are still practicing,” she says. “For me, technicalities are not something that should be taken so seriously in religion. The whole situation feels absurd to me.”

She says she hopes the situation will “allow people to consider how strong their personal faith is, and how it depends on what the ‘big wigs’ are saying versus how they just genuinely feel about their faith.”

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“I hope that people who are still Catholic, who are still practicing and who are genuinely kind people and who aren’t part of the reasons that I left — I hope that they know that this doesn’t define their faith,” she adds. “This doesn’t define your beliefs, your faith, your contributions to the community — that’s all you.”

The importance of baptism

"For Catholics —  and for many other denominations, not just Catholics — the baptism of an infant is important because it signifies being incorporated into the body of Christ, which is the Church," Casarella, the Duke Divinity professor, tells TODAY.

According to the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, passage number 1257, baptism is "necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament." In addition, according to Vatican II, what Casarella says is the "modern Catholic understanding," baptism is a "gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation."

Baptism is "validly conferred only by a washing of true water with the proper form of words," the Vatican says. "Through baptism men and women are freed from sin."

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The necessity of baptism stems from the concept of "original sin," meaning all humans are "born into a condition which is not literally of our own making," Casarella explains.

"Some people consider this exaggerated and a little hyperbolic," he adds. "But Saint Paul himself, Romans 5, states we're all born into the condition of original sin, even as a child."

According to Casarella, the same biblical passage, Romans 5, also states that "the universality of grace is even bigger than the universality of sin."

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