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Thousands of baptisms considered invalid after a priest baptized people for decades using the wrong word

The priest changed a pronoun in the baptism ceremony that could change the lives of countless Catholics.

PHOENIX — A Phoenix priest has resigned from his parish after church officials said they discovered he performed thousands of baptisms incorrectly in Arizona and California. 

The problem? The priest changed a pronoun in the baptism ceremony that could change the lives of countless Catholics.

Father Andres Arango of Phoenix's St. Gregory Catholic Church said "We baptize you," during the ceremonies. 

Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix, in consultation with the Vatican, determined that Arango should have said, "I baptize you."

"We" represents the community baptizing a person, Olmstead said in a statement to the Diocese.

"'I' represents Christ and Him alone... who presides at all of the sacraments and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes," Olmsted said. "If you were baptized using the wrong words, that means your baptism is invalid, and you are not baptized." 

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'I Deeply Regret My Error'

Father Arango submitted his resignation as St. Gregory's pastor, effective Feb.1. He had served the parish for seven years.

"It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula," Arango said in a statement.

 "I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people in your parish and elsewhere." 

Olmsted said Arango would be "dedicating his time to helping and healing those affected."

In Arizona, Arango served as pastor at St. Jerome Parish, in northwest Phoenix, from 2005 to 2013; and parochial vicar at St. Anne Catholic Church in Gilbert from 2013 to 2015

Olmsted revealed the botched baptisms to the diocese in a letter Jan. 14. The Catholic News Agency was the first media outlet to report on the story last week. 

The diocese has created an FAQ section on its web site where parishioners can get more information on what happened and why, as well as documents to obtain valid baptisms.

RELATED: Now 75, Phoenix Diocese's bishop submits retirement request

How the Diocese Was Alerted

According to diocese spokeswoman Katie Burke, parishioners at St. Gregory's heard the error and brought it to the attention of the diocese.

"Lay faithful who were aware of it happening in other places and of the Vatican’s response... knew it to be incorrect when they heard it happen here in Phoenix," Burke said in response to an emailed question.

Two years ago, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled on the language used in baptisms. A similar issue occurred in 2020 in Detroit and in Oklahoma City

'He's Lifted The Community'

Members of Arango's largely Hispanic congregation came to his defense with a petition drive, seeking his reinstatement.

"He has just lifted, grown the community," said Evelyn Ortega, who said Arango had been her pastor for the last 13 years. "He always remembers everyone that he meets by name and just makes you feel special." 

Arango baptized Ortega's infant daughter, Luana, last year.

"As a faithful person, I believe that she is baptized,"  Ortega said. "If it has to be done again for it to be on paper and for me to be able to get her sacraments and be able to move forward then I will do it." 

"I don't think ... that it was something that he did on purpose at all....We support him because he is giving us an example of humility and obedience."

A diocese spokeswoman said she couldn't say whether Father Arango would return to Saint Gregory's. He couldn't be reached for comment. 

'Unforeseen Consequences'

While some might regard the pronoun punishment as nitpicking, an Arizona State University scholar said there could be larger church issues at play. 

"This seems to be an attempt by the very conservative bishop of Phoenix to lay down the law," said Tracy Fessenden, a professor of American religious history. 

Olmsted said he consulted with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, citing its ruling against the use of "we" in baptisms. The Church may have come to view Arango as "going off script" by making services more communal, Fessenden said. 

"This was the Catholic Church applying pressure in a place where it could have some unforeseen consequences," Fessenden said. 

Those potential consequences include:

  • If the baptism of one spouse isn't valid, a Catholic marriage might not be valid.
  • A devout family might say a son who died wasn't baptized. "That could be harrowing for a parent," Fessenden said.
  • Priests in holy orders might come to learn their baptisms weren't valid. In Oklahoma City, a priest had to re-ordained two years ago after learning his baptism as a baby in 1992 had been done incorrectly. 

"This could cause all kinds of stress," Fessenden said.

RELATED: Phoenix church set to reopen after monsoon rains caused extensive damage in August

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