Just before his retirement Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI made a small but significant change to the wording in the rite of Baptism

Sandro Magister, the long established blogger on Vatican matters, has given a slightly mischievous twist to the headline of his most recent bulletin: “Pope Benedict’s Parting Shot” (it is reported more objectively on Catholic World News). What’s it about?

It seems that just before his retirement Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI made a small but significant change to the wording in the rite of Baptism. That wording, in effect since 1969, includes the phrase, addressed to the individual about to be baptised, “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy.” If you think about it, this phrase is actually a little vague; the “Christian community” includes any church, Protestant as well as Catholic, where faith in Christ is professed – and there are thousands of Christian groups which are outside the Church.

According to Magister, Pope Benedict celebrated the last baptism of his pontificate on January 13 when, instead of the Italian, “Con grande gioia la nostra communita Cristiana ti accoglie”, he used the revised formula, which in Latin runs: “Magno gaudio Ecclesia Dei te (vos) excipit.” Magister comments that the then Pope “wanted that in the baptismal rite it should be clearly said that it is the Church of God – which subsists fully in the Catholic Church – that receives those who are being baptised, and not generically the “Christian community”.

The new decree on the rite is unambiguous, beginning: “The gate of life and of the kingdom, baptism is a sacrament of faith by which men are incorporated into the one Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” From now on, at the end of the rite of reception, before signing with the cross the forehead of the child or adult to be received, the priest will say that it is the “Ecclesia Dei” receiving the new member.

Thinking about it, and knowing the former Pope’s precision of thought, it seems surprising that he let the old wording continue for so long and only changed it to its more correct theological formula as he was leaving office. The decree is dated 22 February 2013, the feast of the chair of St Peter (itself a date charged with significance), and according to Magister’s report, it came into effect on 31 March, after the installation of Pope Francis.

The act is not so much a “parting shot” from a Pope of gentleness as well as rigour. It is of a piece with Benedict’s pontificate, marked by charity towards other Christian churches and other faiths, but not the fuzzy and false ecumenism that has flourished in the decades since the second Vatican Council. Now, when a convert is baptised, he or she will know they are being welcomed by the Church which, if they are an adult, is the institution they have chosen to join – with all its uncompromising teachings and traditions over 2,000 years which sit so awkwardly in the midst of the world.