Questions regarding baptismal records, and earthly sufferings and Purgatory

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: My cousin is getting married soon and will need to obtain a currently-issued copy of her baptismal certificate for inclusion in the prenuptial investigation. As a newborn baby, it wasn’t clear if she would survive; she was baptized in emergency at the hospital. To whom should she write in order to obtain her baptismal certificate? (Ireland)

A: The short answer is that she should write to the parish in whose geographical territory the hospital in question is located.

In canon law, it’s clear that sacramental record-keeping, in general, is intended to happen in a parish context. For example, canon 535 of the Code of Canon Law tells us, “Each parish is to have parochial registers, that is, those of baptisms, marriages, deaths…. The pastor is to see to it that these registers are accurately inscribed and carefully preserved.” Of course, marriages and baptisms can and do happen outside of parish churches. But even when a wedding or baptism is celebrated at a non-parochial space – such as a shrine, university chapel or the chapel of a religious community, or even a hospital – the local parish must be informed so that it can be recorded properly in that parish’s record books.

We read in canon 878 (which actually seems to envision an emergency baptism scenario like your cousin’s): “If baptism was administered neither by the pastor nor in his presence, the minister of baptism, whoever that was, must notify the parish priest of the parish in which the baptism was administered, so that he may record the baptism.” Therefore, the hospital’s local parish should have your cousin’s baptismal record.

Sometimes, it can be hard to determine in exactly which parish’s territory the hospital was located, especially if it was part of a large urban area with several nearby Catholic churches. Parishes may have merged, and the successor parish would have those registers.  If your cousin runs into difficulties, the best thing to do would be to contact the relevant diocese. The diocesan chancery office would have access to maps of parish territorial boundaries, and would also be familiar with any quirks of local sacramental record-keeping.

Q: When I was a kid, I would often hear adults say, particularly at funerals, that when a long-term and chronically ill person finally passed, they would go straight to heaven because God counted their years of suffering as sufficient to pay for their sins, and required nothing further from them. Could you comment? (St. Joseph’s, Indiana)

A: Short of a formal canonization process or a clear case of martyrdom, there isn’t any way to know for sure how long or short a particular person’s stay in purgatory will be – much less whether he or she may have been able to skip purgatory altogether. Purgatory is a time of purification and becoming ready to enter fully into God’s presence. The degree to which an individual needs this kind of purification is something that is, truly, only between that soul and God.

That being said, the Church does teach that suffering in this life can be redemptive. The clear implication here is that suffering, when patiently endured, can help heal the wounds caused by sins. So, I think it’s reasonable to hope that a generally virtuous person who suffered through a long illness could have had his or her time in purgatory at least shortened – though it’s still important to pray for the repose of his or her soul, regardless.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].