For a man who had just been baptized, confirmed, ordained and catapulted into the headlines in the space of two weeks, the Rev. Matt Hood of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, Mich., sounded remarkably relaxed. I caught the 30-year-old priest on the phone while he and his father drove to Minnesota, where they were going to pick up a puppy named Sherman.
Father Hood’s story is no shaggy dog tale, though. It was only a few weeks ago that he discovered by chance that his baptism in 1990 was not valid, and therefore neither was his ordination in 2017 nor were many of the sacraments he presided over in the past three years, when he thought he was a priest but was not.'
[What is an invalid baptism? Read America's explainer.]
Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit issued a letter on Aug. 22 informing his flock that in light of a recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Hood’s baptism and ordination had been invalid because the presiding deacon at his baptism in infancy had said, “We baptize you” rather than “I baptize you.” Once that was discovered, the archbishop explained, Father Hood had been properly baptized, confirmed and then ordained as a deacon and a priest.
Simcha Fischer speaks with Father Matthew Hood, the priest from Utica, Mich., who recently learned his baptism as an infant had been invalid.
Father Hood’s situation has been remedied, but the revelation of his invalid baptism and speculation about what that means for all the people he interacted with as a priest, are still rippling outward. This record of our conversation, which continued over Facebook, has been shortened and lightly edited.
Can you give me a timeline of when everything happened?
My ordination (I guess) was June 3, 2017. It was the beginning of quarantine this year when my dad sent the video [of my baptism]. He did not know that the words were wrong. He just sent a bunch of old family videos, and that was one of them.
We weren’t sure about the question of validity. We talked to some theologians and canon lawyers, and we thought it was probably valid. Then it was two weeks ago, on Aug. 6, that the Vatican put out their document; and that Sunday I was baptized and confirmed and received the Eucharist, and then that following Sunday I was ordained a deacon, and then the 17th, I was ordained a priest.
Can you describe how you felt when you first realized what had happened and what it meant? Were you scared? Angry?
When I first found out, there was the whole range of emotions. It was very sad and very disorienting, thinking I was baptized and finding out I wasn’t, and knowing right away the other sacraments were not valid.
“I very quickly began to feel more consolation because of how the archdiocese responded.”
I very quickly began to feel more consolation because of how the archdiocese responded. I contacted the vicar for clergy two minutes after reading the article. He said we would remedy this as quickly as possible. It was very consoling to know of their concern and their desire to remedy it as quickly as possible.
Sometimes when married couples find out their marriage isn’t actually valid, they stop and think, “Wow, maybe this is our chance to cut our losses.” Did anything like that cross your mind when you found out your ordination wasn’t valid?
No. In the time between my baptism and ordination as a deacon, I went on retreat, and one of the graces of the retreat was that I knew the Lord doesn’t repent of the call he’s given me. The Lord was still present in my life, showing me in prayer that I didn’t need to call that into doubt.
“This was unexpected, but the grace and freedom to say ‘yes’ again was a joy.”
This was unexpected, but the grace and freedom to say “yes” again was a joy. It was a grace the Lord gave to me, being able to say “yes” to the Lord again, in some ways for the first time.
You mentioned that you had to go without receiving the Eucharist for a time. Did that experience draw you closer to your congregation, who have been separated from the sacraments because of Covid-19?
Before, I would say Mass every day, and there was never a day that went by [without it]. The fact that I was not able to receive the Eucharist was completely disorienting. I was not even able to be a lector at Mass, because I wasn’t baptized. I had a couple of priests who said Mass for me; they came to me, in kind of a private Mass. But I wasn’t even able to assist in any way. There was a sense in which it was alienating, being used to presiding at Mass and then not even being able to participate as an altar server.
“The fact that I was not able to receive the Eucharist was completely disorienting. I was not even able to be a lector at Mass, because I wasn’t baptized.”
I can definitely understand what people felt during that time a lot more, for very different reasons. As a priest during the quarantine, I still said Mass every day. It’s so weird to go back and think about: I guess they weren’t valid Masses.
Your situation reminded me of how Jesus submitted to be baptized, even though it sure didn't look like he needed to be. Any thoughts on that?
When I was on my retreat, I did pray with the baptism in the Jordan, when John says, “You should be baptizing me, I shouldn’t be baptizing you,” and Jesus says it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness. It is what the Lord desires to remedy this, and this is what is necessary to remedy this situation.
Some people are saying the church is being overly legalistic and rigid, even pharisaical in how they’re dealing with this situation. How would you respond?
I think that Jesus was being very risky in entrusting his church to human beings. God is omnipotent, but he allows himself to be limited by our own wills. He won’t impose himself on us. Jesus has given us that freedom to receive the gifts of the sacraments and administer them. It’s salvation. It’s the life of Christ we receive through the sacraments.
“God is omnipotent, but he allows himself to be limited by our own wills.”
It helps me to think about it this way: I wouldn’t have any consolation if someone said, “I made up another sacrament; would you like to receive it?” They’re instituted by Christ. We don’t have the authority to change that. We want to respond to what Jesus has given, not what we’ve created.
It’s possible that something that seems almost absurd is true at the same time. It was absurd that God became man, but he did. We’re not guided by how we think things should be.
Some people have brought up the term “ecclesia supplet,” wondering if it applies here.
The term ecclesia supplet (“the church supplies”) is used to help remedy situations in the church where something might have gone wrong in the administration of a sacrament. How it has been explained to me is that ecclesia supplet refers to jurisdiction (or having the proper authority to perform a certain action), while that is not the problem in my case. My situation is about improper matter and form; more specifically, improper form.
In the Middle Ages, there was a monastery somewhere that was trying to baptize with beer, which is improper matter. The people needed to be baptized again. The church, or anyone for that matter, is not able to go back and change the invalid matter after the fact. The church is given many gifts by Christ, but time travel is not one of them. The Vatican Doctrinal Note that was sent out this month made it clear that the words “We baptize you...” are invalid and that the people who were baptized using this formula need to be baptized absolutely. [Editor's note: Absolutely is in contrast to conditionally. Conditional baptism begins “If you have never been baptized, I baptize you...” for cases where the fact of previous baptism is suspected but not certain. Absolute means without that condition as part of the baptismal formula.]
“The finite reality of mistaken words needs to be remedied through the use of the correct words.”
For those affected by my ministry, I was never able to possess the jurisdiction to administer the sacraments. The church can never go back and give an unbaptized person the faculty to absolve sins or consecrate the body and blood of Christ. With marriages, I was not able to possess the proper jurisdiction to be an official witness at a marriage.
Now, that is the canonical answer, but most people still wonder about where God is in all of this. We cannot play God. God can work outside of the sacraments, but it was God himself who gave us the sacraments. If God has given them to us then we are limited by the sacraments. It is part of the nature of reality that we find meaning and purpose for the deep and most meaningful parts of life in the smallest and seemingly insignificant details—the smile of a small child or the beauty of a horizon. God calls us to love through the finite and limited. It is only through the finite that we can work as human beings. The finite reality of mistaken words needs to be remedied through the use of the correct words.
I’m also wondering about the people who thought they were receiving valid sacraments from you, and weren’t. How are they managing this?
Yes, the much bigger part of this story isn’t me. And the [archdiocese] is working to remedy the marriages and confirmations, and those will be taken care of in the next two weeks. That can be easily fixed. But how many [others] were also invalidly baptized [as I was], which could be hundreds of people? That’s going to be the biggest shock to people. This is 30 years ago. They have to get in contact with all of these people.
And I’m imagining someone who had a hard time working up the courage to confess something terrible, but they did it, when they confessed to you. And how they find out they have to do it all over again!
I would remind him, God is not shocked by any of this. God was active in all of those moments. He was present in all of those moments. If they haven’t been to confession since that point, it would be good to bring it up, and just be honest; but every time you go to confession, all your sins are forgiven, including sins you’ve already confessed.
“I don’t want my story to be a cause of anxiety.”
I don’t want my story to be a cause of anxiety. If there’s something clear that hasn’t been made known to you, you can act on it; but if it’s unknown, Jesus says, “Have no anxiety.” You can’t change anything beyond your control or that you have no knowledge of. Anxiety about that, that’s not from God.
How would you characterize this whole situation? A tragedy? A debacle? A teachable moment? Something else?
Personally, for me, it’s a moment to be extremely grateful to God’s providence. So many factors had to be in place to be able to act upon this. The video, the fact that [my father] sent it to me. One of the craziest things was that the C.D.F. came out with this document [now.] They do things at their own pace, and I don’t think [they were responding specifically to my case]. That was only five months after I saw the video. God is clearly at work in all of this.
Is there anything else you'd like people to know about this situation?
It’s [having] a much bigger effect on the people who haven’t been validly baptized. It’s a moment where, as St. Paul said, all things work together for those who love God. God desired to use this for his glory, whether by making people recognize the importance of the sacraments, or the care the church takes over the sacraments. God can use this in ways beyond my expectations. He desires to.
Can you explain why marriages you presided at might be invalid? I thought it was the couple who conferred the sacrament on each other.
Part of the church’s law on marriage is that Catholics have to follow the Catholic form of marriage. The couple are the ones who make the marriage; their consent makes the marriage. But [historically] they had a problem where people would run off and say they were married, and then come back and say, “No, we didn't actually do that.” So Catholic form is that you have to be married by a minister of the church, a priest, deacon or layperson who was given jurisdiction, and before two witnesses. My problem is I never had jurisdiction to preside.
“God can use this in ways beyond my expectations. He desires to.”
There are solutions in addition to convalidation, in which they come and say their vows. [This other solution] assumes their consent perdures, and it gives them the dispensation from canonical form retroactively. It's called radical sanation “healing the roots [of marriage],” and it's more difficult.
Why can’t they do that for baptism?
It’s because of the nature of the sacraments. Baptism is the gateway to the sacraments. You can’t receive the other sacraments [without it]. For marriage, there’s a natural marriage that’s been raised by Christ to the level of a sacrament, so you have valid marriages that are not sacramental.
Did this experience teach you anything?
I’ve learned what it’s like to go through all of them twice! I’ve learned it takes a lot of work to write a lot of the rescripts and dispensations to ordain someone in a week.
In three years of priesthood, you face a lot of complex situations for different reasons. That's something I’m used to doing, working with couples, walking with them in that process.
And now you know what it's like to be on the other side of that process.
And I did something else. I’m not on Twitter a lot, but I changed my Twitter bio to “I am a validly ordained priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit assigned at St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, MI.” Just to remind everybody!