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Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Holy Baptism and the Symbol of the Scallop Shell

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Holy Baptism and the Symbol of the Scallop Shell

In the case of all the Sacraments of the Church, according to the Roman Catechism (1566), there is an essential part—described in the terms of the doctrine of Saint Thomas Aquinas through the concepts of “matter” and “form”–and certain ceremonies added to it. If the elimination or improper use of the essential part invalidates the sacrament, the omission of any other part is also strictly prohibited–except in exceptional situations:

“To (the matter and form) are added certain ceremonies. These cannot be omitted without sin, unless in case of necessity; yet, if at any time they be omitted, the Sacrament is not thereby invalidated, since the ceremonies do not pertain to its essence.”[1]


In normal situations, however, the ceremonies associated with the sacraments must always be preserved and observed carefully. The Catechism clearly explains why this is imperative. The first reason concerns the reverence that is due to sacred things. The second and third reasons are of particular interest to us:

“Secondly, these ceremonies serve to display more fully the effects of the Sacraments, placing them, as it were, before our eyes, and to impress more deeply on the minds of the faithful the sanctity of these sacred institutions.

Thirdly, they elevate to sublime contemplation the minds of those who behold and observe them with attention, and excite within them faith and charity.”[2]

Concretely, all the elements belonging to the ceremonies of any sacrament, in general, and the Sacrament of Baptism, in particular, serve to highlight its effects on the person receiving it. At the same time, this involves an act of contemplation, lifting the mind from the sacred words and symbols to the heavenly realities to which they refer. In this way, we grow and strengthen our faith, awakening in our hearts the love for God who bestows the sanctifying grace necessary for salvation. To understand how these ceremonies—which are not essential to the Sacrament of Baptism—help us, in this article we will meditate on the meanings of a symbol that, at first glance, may seem more like a purely aesthetic object. This refers to the vessel, shaped like a shell, which the priest uses to pour water over the one being baptized.

The shell shape represents a symbol that speaks even more than a thousand words. The most common interpretation refers to the famous shells from Santiago de Compostela associated with pilgrimages made to the shrine of Saint James the Great.

As I have stated in some of my previous mystagogical articles, nothing in the Holy Sacraments is accidental. No gesture, no word, no object, no material—in a word, nothing is left to chance. This very precise codification is the result of the influence of the Holy Spirit on those saints who have contributed to the transmission of the Sacraments and the Liturgy within the context of the Holy Tradition. This holds true for the small vessel used by the priest to perform Baptism through the pouring of water.

The shell shape represents a symbol that speaks even more than a thousand words. The most common interpretation refers to the famous shells from Santiago de Compostela associated with pilgrimages made to the shrine of Saint James the Great. The idea of pilgrimage derived from these shells is also linked to the destiny of those baptized, who are pilgrims in this transient world. At the same time, however, there is another symbolic significance that, although the most important, is usually forgotten or unknown.

Every sacred symbol is connected to the concrete nature of the object used. For example, if we all know that ordinary water, used by us daily, has a cleansing function, we easily deduce from this that the exorcised and blessed water of Baptism indicates, first and foremost, the “washing” of souls from original sin and, in the case of adults, from personal sins committed until the moment of rebirth. All these are indicated by the very hygienic function of natural water that we use in our everyday lives. In other words, the value and natural meanings of the aquatic element in our daily lives are ennobled and elevated by the symbolic value of the blessed water used for Baptism. Similarly, we must proceed when interpreting any other symbolic element of a sacred ceremony—as is the case with the shell-shaped vessel.

To help us delve into the depths of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, the ultimate purpose of our Christian life, Jesus Christ the Savior proposes several symbolic images for contemplation. One of these is that of a precious stone, the pearl:

“Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls. Who when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

The interpretations proposed for these verses are manifold. The one that provided me with the interpretive key I will use, including for the symbol of the shell, belongs to one of the four great Latin Fathers and Doctors, the translator of the official Latin version of the Bible: Saint Jerome (c. 342–420). In his commentary, he discusses both the pearls in verse 45 and the unique, most precious pearl in verse 46. If the former symbolizes the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, the most precious pearl “is the knowledge of the Saviour and the sacrament of His passion and resurrection.”[3] In the same sense, seeking the best interpretation for the symbol of the shell, I can assert—based on the words of Saint Paul—that the priceless pearl is none other than Jesus Christ Himself, whom all the baptized receive mystically when they are baptized.

What the priest carries in the shell during baptism, the “pearl,” is precisely the blessed water that, on one hand, cleanses us from original sin, and on the other hand, bestows upon us sanctifying grace. In more concrete terms, the divine infant is mystically born in our hearts. He, God, is the priceless pearl offered to us in holy Baptism.

“For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ” (Galatians 3: 27).

Starting with the symbol of the shell present in the baptismal ritual in the form of the vessel used for the blessed water poured on the one who is baptized, then connecting it to the symbol of the pearl in the parable of Jesus Christ about the Kingdom of Heaven, and finally adding the apostolic teaching about what Baptism offers us, we obtain all the necessary ingredients for understanding our symbol. The pearl grows only inside a shell. What the priest carries in the shell during baptism, the “pearl,” is precisely the blessed water that, on one hand, cleanses us from original sin (and personal sins in the case of the adults), and on the other hand, bestows upon us the sanctifying grace that dwells in our innermost being. In more concrete terms, the divine infant born in the Bethlehem manger is mystically born in our hearts. He, God, is the priceless pearl offered to us in holy Baptism.

At the same time, the way the pearl grows inside the shell is particularly revealing of our earthly condition. According to the interpretation of Saint Maximus the Confessor regarding the prophet Jonah, he symbolizes the fallen human nature, which is found submerged in the depths of the world that, in itself, has also suffered the consequences of original sin. Therefore, Saint John affirms that “the whole world is seated in wickedness” (1 John 5:19). The context in which we, as Christians, live even after being baptized is the same. The world will undergo a complete transformation, through fire, only after the second coming of Jesus Christ:

“But the day of the Lord shall come as a thief, in which the heavens shall pass away with great violence, and the elements shall be melted with heat, and the earth and the works which are in it, shall be burnt up” (2 Peter 3:10).

Until then, however, our lives must be dedicated to our growth in holiness. This involves safeguarding the sanctifying grace, the divine infant, hidden in our souls. Like the shell, we must be a constant protective environment that keeps the pearl intact, allowing it to grow. That is why the symbol of the shell, used to pour the blessed water on the one being baptized, is fitting not only to indicate our pilgrim nature through this world––through its association with the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James the Great in Compostela––but also to teach us that we must strive to protect the most precious treasure we have received in our hearts.

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[1] Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, Issued by the order of Pope Pius V, Translated into English with notes by John A. McHugh, O.P. and Charles J. Callan, O.P., New York: Joseph F. Wagner, London: B. Herder, 1947, p. 152.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] The commentary of Saint Jerome can be found in the famous work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea. Online, the comments on the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew can be read here: [Accessed: 11 November 2023]

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Last modified on Tuesday, November 21, 2023
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.