On Sunday, January 9, 2022, at 9.30 a.m., 16 babies will be baptized during a mass celebrated by Pope Francis under the dazzling vault of the Sistine Chapel. The tradition of baptizing newborns was established by John Paul II in 1981. In forty years, hundreds of children have thus entered the Christian life, baptized by a Pope in this place where beauty and sacredness are one.
Delphine Allaire – Vatican City
It is a timeless and solemn place, whose soul transcends the centuries … Where the Holy Spirit descends on the College of Cardinals in each conclave to elect the future Successor of Peter. The Sistine Chapel, the grandiose theater of the papal elections, a Renaissance setting that receives nearly five million tourists a year, also quietly welcomes, in the privacy of the month of January, every Sunday after the Epiphany – the feast of the Baptism of Christ- to a completely different audience: a dozen children surrounded by their families.
These babies, children of employees of the Holy See and the Roman Curia, have the privilege of receiving the first of the sacraments at the hands of the Pope himself. This tradition was established by the Polish Pontiff, Saint John Paul II, who instituted this practice on January 11, 1981, first in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, and then, starting in 1983, between the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
At first, under the pontificate of the former Archbishop of Krakow, the baptism ceremony in the Sistine Chapel was reserved for the children of the Swiss Guards, before being extended to the children of the lay officials of the Curia.
“For a day, the chapel of Miguel Ángel becomes our parish. The atmosphere is very familiar, pastoral, and the Pope feels very comfortable in this role of parish priest. He even gives advice to young mothers”, recalls Mario Galgano, Swiss employee of the Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See. In January 2014, he baptized his daughter Sofía, the first ceremony of its kind for the Argentine pope, who was enthroned the previous year. For Mario Galgano, the choice to baptize his son in this privileged way, available to employees, was an obvious choice due to his professional status.
In the Vatican, this process, supervised by the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, is offered to the children of couples married by the Church, in the Catholic rite. To be chosen, the newborn must not have blown out his first candle. Four guests are allowed per child: the two parents, the godfather and the godmother; the rest of the family can follow the ceremony live through the media of the Holy See and associated televisions and radios.
After a dress rehearsal in the Pope’s absence, under the frescoes of the Last Judgment, the ceremony is usually sumptuous, solemn and musically rich thanks to the accompanying Sistine Chapel choir. This five-century decorum contrasts with the warm and youthful atmosphere of families gathered in a joyous hubbub: that of the cries of babies that echo under Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, that of a pile of strollers piled up in a corner of the chapel, and even the changing rooms installed for the occasion not far from there, in the Apostolic Palace. This is how Mario Galgano tells us, still amused by these shocking scenes, unusual in these sacred places. After all, that is what Pope Francis wants, who reassured the parents of the baptized in 2020, advising them to let their children cry or scream during Mass. “The crying of children has a choral dimension,” said the Bishop of Rome, “one gives the ‘la’ and then the concert begins. It is a beautiful preaching,” he summarized.
According to Mario Galgano, these moments are also important “to make visible” the children of the Vatican. “People think that the Vatican is a great convent. But there are families that live and work there, and their children are very present, participating in the life of the city.”
Sofía Galgano, who is now 8 years old, does not remember this exceptional baptism, but she is very aware of it. As he prepares to make his First Communion in the German parish in Rome, the effect is assured when he presents his baptism certificate, a scroll signed by Francis. And as for the sixteen children of 2022, their spiritual life begins under great auspices.