Baptized in the Sistine Chapel
By Delphine Allaire
The sixteen young children who are scheduled to be baptized by Pope Francis on the morning of Sunday, 9 January 2022, are the newborns of Holy See and Roman Curia employees.
The baptisms take place during Holy Mass celebrated by the Pope amidst the splendour of Michelangelo’s frescos, keeping up a tradition established by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1981.
Thus, in the past forty years, hundreds of children have entered Christian life, receiving the Sacrament of Baptism by a Pope, in a place where beauty and sacrality come together as one.
It is a timeless and solemn place, a place where the sacred transcends the centuries... It’s where the Holy Spirit descends on the College of Cardinals during the Conclave to elect the future Successor of Peter: The Sistine Chapel.
The grandiose setting of papal elections, a Renaissance masterpiece that receives nearly five million tourists every year, also discreetly and intimately becomes the venue for a completely different kind of audience on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ at the beginning of January: a dozen infants and their families.
Children of Holy See employees
The babies who are given the privilege of receiving the first Sacrament from the Pope himself are children of employees of the Holy See and the Roman Curia. The tradition was established by Pope St. John Paul II, on 11 January 1981. Initially, the ceremony took place in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, and then since 1983, in the Sistine Chapel close by.
Originally, the Sistine Chapel baptism ceremony was reserved only for the offspring of the Swiss Guards but was then extended to the children of lay officials of the Curia.
The Pope: a “parish priest” for a day
"For one day, Michelangelo's chapel becomes our parish. The atmosphere is very family-like, pastoral, and the Pope feels very comfortable in this role of parish priest. He even gives advice to young mothers," recalls Mario Galgano, a Swiss employee of the Holy See's Dicastery for Communications.
Mario speaks from experience as his own baby daughter, Sofia, was baptized by Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel in January 2014. It was a “first” for the Argentine Pope who had been enthroned the previous year.
Rule and regulations
The process is supervised by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, and is offered to children of couples married in the Church according to the Catholic rite. In order to be eligible, the child must be under one year-old.
Each child can be accompanied by four guests: the two parents, the godfather and the godmother; the rest of the family can follow the ceremony live through Vatican Media and partner television and radio stations.
From cardinals to infants
After a dress rehearsal in the absence of the Pope, the actual ceremony is quite a sumptuous and solemn affair, thanks also to the wonderful musical accompaniment provided by the Sistine Chapel choir.
This splendid, five-century-old setting is filled with the warm, youthful atmosphere of the happy families. The gurgling of babies resounds under Michelangelo's vault, and a pile of strollers occupies a corner of the chapel.
And as Mario Galgano reveals, there is even a line of baby-changing tables set up for the occasion close by in one of the rooms of the Apostolic Palace. After all, he adds, this is what Pope Francis wishes, as demonstrated by his words of reassurance to the parents of the newly baptized in 2020 when he told them “to let their children cry and scream” during the Mass.
“They have a choral dimension," said the Bishop of Rome on that occasion. "It’s enough for one of them to start to ‘sing’ and everyone follows and there will be a concert. (…) It’s a beautiful homily,” he said.
Giving visibility to the children
According to Mario Galgano, such moments are also an occasion "to give visibility” to the children of the Vatican.
"People think of the Vatican as a big convent. But there are families who live and work here, and their children are present and participate in the life of the city," he said.
Sofia Galgano is now 8-years-old and, of course, does not remember her exceptional baptism, but she is well aware of it as she prepares to receive her First Holy Communion in the German parish in Rome.
As for the sixteen children of this 2022 “vintage”, their spiritual life begins under great auspices.