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An Arizona priest used one wrong word in baptisms for decades. They're all invalid

An Arizona priest quit after learning he had used the wrong word while performing baptisms throughout his career. The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix estimates thousands of people were affected by the mistake.
Jane Khomi
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An Arizona priest quit after learning he had used the wrong word while performing baptisms throughout his career. The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix estimates thousands of people were affected by the mistake.

A Catholic priest in Arizona has resigned after he was found to have performed baptisms incorrectly throughout his career, rendering the rite invalid for thousands of people.

The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix announced on its website that it determined after careful study that the Rev. Andres Arango had used the wrong wording in baptisms performed up until June 17, 2021. He had been off by a single word.

During baptisms in both English and Spanish, Arango used the phrase "we baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." He should have said "I baptize," the diocese explained.

"It is not the community that baptizes a person and incorporates them into the Church of Christ; rather, it is Christ, and Christ alone, who presides at all sacraments; therefore, it is Christ who baptizes," it said. "If you were baptized using the wrong words, that means your baptism is invalid, and you are not baptized."

Diocese spokesperson Katie Burke told NPR over email that Arango is believed to have used the incorrect word since the beginning of his priesthood in 1995.

"I do not have an exact number of people affected, but I believe they number in the thousands," she added.

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Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said in a statement that the error was first reported to him and confirmed after an investigation by diocesan officials in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. He noted that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith affirmed in 2020 that baptisms conferred with the phrase "We baptize you" are not valid.

Similar discoveries were made in 2020 in Detroit and Oklahoma City, Burke said. She added that Arango's error "was brought to the attention of the diocese by lay faithful who were aware of it happening in other places and of the Vatican's response, and who knew it to be incorrect when they heard it happen here in Phoenix," which she estimates must have been around June 2021.

As far as the diocese is aware, all of the other sacraments that Arango conferred are valid. But because baptism is the "sacrament that grants access to all the others," a botched baptism could invalidate any subsequent sacraments, including confirmation, marriage and holy orders.

"What this means for you is, if your baptism was invalid and you've received other sacraments, you may need to repeat some or all of those sacraments after you are validly baptized as well," the diocese said.

Arango — who first joined St. Gregory Parish in 2015 after decades of religious service in Brazil, California and Arizona — apologized for the inconvenience his actions had caused and told the community that he resigned as pastor effective Feb. 1.

He said he would devote his energy and full-time ministry "to help remedy this and heal those affected." He remains a priest in good standing, according to the diocese.

"I do not believe Fr. Andres had any intentions to harm the faithful or deprive them of the grace of baptism and the sacraments," Olmsted wrote. "On behalf of our local Church, I too am sincerely sorry that this error has resulted in disruption to the sacramental lives of a number of the faithful. This is why I pledge to take every step necessary to remedy the situation for everyone impacted."

Olmsted is seeking help in identifying those in need of the sacraments and encouraging anyone who believes their own baptism was affected to call their parish for more information. The diocese also has an online form for people to fill out if they or their child was baptized by Arango.

Officials said they are working closely with Arango and his former parishes to notify anyone who may have been baptized invalidly. It advises people who are unsure about Arango's involvement to check their files for a baptismal certificate or refer back to photos and videos from the ceremony.

The diocese said that while the situation may seem legalistic, the words, materials and actions are crucial aspects of every sacrament — and changing any of them makes them invalid.

"For example, if a priest uses milk instead of wine during the Consecration of the Eucharist, the sacrament is not valid," it said. "The milk would not become the Blood of Jesus Christ."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.