Home Catechetical Corner Question Corner: Finding emergency baptismal records, and the mystery of Purgatory

Question Corner: Finding emergency baptismal records, and the mystery of Purgatory

Jenna Marie Cooper writes Question Corner for OSV News (OSV photo)

Q: My cousin is getting married soon and will need to obtain a copy of her baptismal certificate for inclusion in the pre-nuptial enquiry. As a newborn baby, it wasn’t clear if she would survive and so 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 tells us that: “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 c. 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 register the baptism.” Therefore, the hospital’s local parish should have your cousin’s baptismal record.

Granted, sometimes it can be hard to determine exactly which parish’s territory the hospital was located, especially if it was part of a large urban area with several nearby Catholic churches. If your cousin runs into this issue, 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,” as 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, Ind.)

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 they have been able to skip purgatory altogether. Purgatory isn’t about “serving time” for sins committed so much as it 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 which is only truly known between that soul and God.

That being said, the church does teach that suffering in this life can be redemptive. As we hear in one of the prayers which a priest might use to conclude the sacrament of penance is as follows: “May the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the saints, whatever good you do and suffering you endure, heal your sins, help you to grow in holiness, and reward you with eternal life.” 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 their time in purgatory at least shortened — though it’s important to still pray for the repose of their soul, regardless.

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 CatholicQA@osv.com.