UNBAPTIZED BABIES: YOUR SAINTS IN HEAVEN
I’d like to emphasize a category of saints not well understood. They are babies who die in miscarriages or infancy before they can be baptized. Many Catholic parents have experienced miscarriages. Most of us know relatives and friends who have felt the shattering loss of a child. They may wonder if they will ever see those children.
They will! To understand how and why, we must first address the confusion that originated in ideas about a place called "limbo." In Catholic teaching, the word limbo has referred to a state of being after death which is not heaven, hell, or purgatory. It has been used in two ways: first, limbo was where good people who died before Christ went until Christ’s death and resurrection. Second, limbo was where unbaptized infants were thought to go.
The first meaning of limbo is generally accepted in Catholic theology. The second meaning of limbo as the home of unbaptized infants was commonly taught until the 1960s, but it was never defined as dogma in the way heaven, hell, and purgatory are defined.
Even though this limbo was never Catholic dogma, some theologians proposed its existence. They thought it was the only possible explanation for what would happen to children who died before baptism. The Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism, No. 3, for example, stated: "Infants who die without baptism of any kind do not suffer the punishment of those who die in mortal sin. They may enjoy a certain natural happiness, but they will not enjoy the supernatural happiness of heaven."
The New Testament says that Baptism of water is necessary (John 3:5), but Catholics have always believed that God does not demand the impossible. That is why we accept Baptism of "blood" (martyrdom) and of "desire." Some theologians taught that water, blood, or desire were the only possibilities for Baptism. And since deceased unbaptized infants would not have any of these, they could not go to heaven.
But God is not limited to these kinds of Baptism. Since Christ’s death and resurrection, babies who die without Baptism don’t just go into the darkness. They go through death into a new life where Jesus is present to them, and their death is a baptism in the sense that Jesus spoke of his own death as a "baptism" (Luke 12:50): It is a real participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus because they walk through the valley of death into the loving arms of Jesus. They have not rejected Jesus by personal mortal sin, and it is not possible that Jesus would reject them.
I have been a priest for over 47 years, and have often talked with parents whose babies died in a miscarriage before Baptism could be administered. They may have been taught that such babies went to limbo, but deep down they still felt that their children were with God. When I explained that limbo was not official Church teaching, and that unbaptized babies do share in the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, they would say, "I knew it! I knew Jesus would take care of my baby." In my opinion, the feelings these parents had in their hearts came from the Holy Spirit. Their children are indeed with God in heaven.
Now the Church’s official teaching gives them added reason for confidence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the burial Mass for unbaptized infants entrusts them to God’s care. God’s mercy and Jesus’ tenderness toward children allow us to hope there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism (C 1261). We trust that Jesus who said, "It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost" (Matthew 18:14), welcomes the little ones with the same warm embrace he gave the children of his time.
Infants will not be infants in heaven, but fully-grown saints unconstrained by the limits of infancy. Old people won’t have arthritis or cataracts in heaven. Babies will not be little babies in heaven. This fact is based on several Scripture passages.
The first is 1 Corinthians 15. In verse 37 Paul explains that in planting wheat we sow seed which develops into fully grown stalks of grain. In verses 42-48, he compares this to the resurrection of the body: "So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.... It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body." The perishable, physical body is sown, but it is raised a "spiritual body." This spiritual body "will bear the image of the man of heaven," Jesus Christ (verse 49).
The second is Revelation 21:3-5: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people.... And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See I am making all things new." Heaven is beyond space and time. There is no imperfection, as would be the case if there were infants who needed care and direction. In heaven, one does not grow up, or grow old, or die. God has made all things new.
Parents whose children die in miscarriages or infancy should realize, then, that their children have gone before them into the presence of God. One moment in God’s presence gives them more knowledge and love than we can gain in a lifetime. They know and love their parents, pray for them, and watch over them. So parents should name those children, count them as members of the family, and pray to them often. One day the children they surrendered in sorrow will embrace them joyfully and welcome them to a home where there will be no more parting or pain.
“O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
NAMING YOUR SAINTS IN HEAVEN
My column, "Unbaptized Babies: Your Saints in Heaven," states that parents should name their children, count them as members of the family, and pray to them often. When I’ve given this advice to parents whose child died in a miscarriage, they sometimes mention their uncertainty about whether the child is a boy or girl. I suggest: "Ask the child." Often the parents return later with the child’s gender and name!
A few months ago I gave a presentation on naming and praying to unbaptized babies, then led a guided meditation on
the joy of parents when they meet their children in heaven. After the meditation, a gentleman told me about a child he and his wife had lost in a miscarriage many years before. During the meditation, he received
assurance that the child was a boy, James.
The next day I received an email from a mother who had attended the presentation. With her permission I’d like to share Julie’s email with you:
“I am the mother of seven children (five biological and two adopted). Each of my five pregnancies were risky as I suffered several miscarriages at various times. Four miscarriages were confirmed because I had been to the doctor or saw the baby on ultrasound before losing them. However, there were times when I believed I had miscarried but had not been to the doctor yet. It has always bothered me that I didn't know how many children I had, whether or not they were boys or girls, and where they were. I needed to connect with them, but they didn't have names. I decided to pray a novena to St. Therese. I asked her to ask God to reveal to me the number and genders of my lost babies. I knew it was a strange thing to pray for and I wondered how I could know the answer and be sure that it was real and not my imagination, so I also added to my request that the answers to my questions would be obvious to me.
The day after I completed my novena is when you gave your talk. It was to be about the Mass, but was I ever surprised and moved that your first topic was about people who have lost children! You mentioned all of the questions I had carried in my heart. God told me, through you, that they are in heaven! When you talked us through the meditation at the end of the evening, you asked us to see the people we love in heaven, including children who were lost in miscarriages. In an instant, I saw six children, four boys and two girls. Before you had finished the prayer, I had named all six of my saints in heaven. Today when I went to work, on my desk was a vase with two pink roses. It was a gift from my boss for Administrative Assistants Day, but I knew it was MUCH more than that.
Now when our family attends Mass together, I will be aware of six additional souls joining us in the celebration...My children in heaven: Justin, Joseph, Andrew, Michael, Philomena, Felicity. How awesome!”
We celebrate the communion of saints on All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Jesus gives us communion with our saints. As Julie said, "How awesome!”
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