ROME – Pope Francis baptized more than 30 babies inside the Vatican Sunday and issued a clear defense of infant baptism, saying it gives children the grace and assistance to grow in the faith as they get older.

During a Jan. 12 Mass for the Catholic feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which commemorates Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan River, Francis administered the sacrament on 32 infants, 15 of whom were girls and 17 were boys.

In his homily, he told parents that “to baptize a child is an act of justice,” because through baptism “we give them a treasure, in baptism we give them a pledge: The Holy Spirit. The child leaves with the strength of the Holy Spirit inside, the Spirit which will defend them, help them, throughout their whole lives.”

“This is why it is so important to baptize them as children,” he said, “because they will grow with the strength of the oly Spirit.”

Though debated among Christian denominations, historians believe infant baptism dates back as early as the 1st and 3rd centuries.

In modern Christianity, the bulk of denominations practice infant baptism, including Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the Assyrian Church of the East, as well as the 23 Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with Rome.

However, there has been some resistance to the practice since the Protestant Reformation, with a number of denominations opting for adult baptism or “believer’s baptism” instead, including Baptists, Pentecostalists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Critics of infant baptism often argue against it on grounds that there is no scriptural basis for it, and that at such a young age the person is incapable of belief in the faith they are baptized into. Some also argue that the practice, while it has become traditional in many churches, is no longer necessary given that infant mortality rates are not nearly as high as they were in the early Christian centuries.

In his brief homily, which lasted less than five minutes, Francis told parents that his primary message was the importance of getting their children baptized, because “you bring your children today (so that they will have) the Holy Spirit inside.”

He urged them to take charge of their children’s growth in the faith, ensuring “that they grow with light, with the strength of the Holy Spirit through catechism, help, instruction and the example you give them at home.”

As he has in the past, he also urged parents not to be afraid to attend to their children if they become fussy or upset during Mass.

“They are not used to being closed in a space that’s also a bit hot, they are not used to being dressed like this for a special occasion,” he said, telling parents not to be anxious if their child cries or whines, but to make them feel comfortable and to nurse them if needed.

“It’s a beautiful preaching when a child cries in church,” he said, and urged parents not to forget that “you carry the Holy Spirit inside your children.”

Francis’s Mass for the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of his busy holiday marathon of Masses, speeches and liturgies, officially closing the Christmas season.

As a liturgical footnote, given the design of the Sistine Chapel, the baptism Mass is generally the lone occasion each year when the pope celebrates ad orientem, “towards the east,” meaning with the priest facing the altar rather than the congregation. It’s the style associated with the older Latin Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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