Welcome to the Church, Little One: Baptisms Continue During Pandemic
Small gatherings due to social distancing heighten the appreciation for the sacrament itself, families have found.
While the country has been in shutdown mode, many things can easily wait. Baptism is not one of them. “Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races and sexes: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’” (1 Corinthians 12:13; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1267).
Pope Benedict put an end to the theological hypotheses that unbaptized babies go to limbo with his 2007 document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” noting that it was never officially a part of Church doctrine. He offered reasons to hope in God’s providence for a way to salvation for them, stressing the importance of prayer in asking for mercy on these souls (“We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge,” 102. See also 46, 48, 69 and 96). Yet still, the Code of Canon Law 867.1 states that parents are obliged to have infants baptized in the first few weeks of their birth because it is necessary for salvation. Limitations on gatherings during the pandemic have not altered that.
Many adult catechumens have had to wait beyond Easter, which is traditionally the time for them to enter the Church. In the event that adults should die before baptism, they could receive baptism by desire through their implicit desire to receive it. For infants, however, priests have encouraged parents to still have them baptized at this time, despite needing to take precautions in light of the pandemic, such as limiting the number of witnesses to only 10 people, including the baby and the priest.
Faith a Priority
Father Bryan Jerabek, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Alabama, said in an interview with the Register that he realized some babies had been born in the parish but were not scheduled for baptisms. “It bothered me, so I put information on our parish website that baptism is something we should do within the first weeks after they are born,” he said. “I explained that the church will take reasonable precautions and have as few people as possible. We also will livestream the ceremony for others to watch.”
To add an extra element of safety, Father Jerabek disinfects the baptismal font, fills it with fresh water and blesses it for each baptism, then empties it again afterward. “We are rightfully taking many precautions at this time to protect physical health,” he said, “but we have to keep a supernatural outlook out there, too. Science is important, yet we have to recognize our faith and make that a priority.”
Father Doug Brown, pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cleveland, where Masses are suppressed until May 3, said he has not had a request for baptism during this time, although he has one planned in a couple of weeks with a limited number of people. There will likely be proxies for the godparents, who are from another state.
A family who are parishioners at his parish inquired about doing a home baptism. “Since they don’t live in my territory, I explained that the sacramental recording would have to be in the territory where they reside,” Father Brown said. “Canon law says it needs to be recorded at the local parish. So when a baby is baptized in the hospital, it is recorded in that territory.”
Baby John was baptized on April 18 at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Fredericksburg, Virginia, by Father Michael Kelly in a ceremony dramatically different from the one the infant’s parents, Carrie Gress and her husband, Joseph, had planned. “I had it set up before he was born, coordinating with a priest coming in from Texas and godparents from Florida,” Carrie said. “Instead, it was bare-bones; but under the circumstances, I was so glad it happened. There was so much rejoicing in that.”
John had been born two weeks early on Feb. 13, just a few weeks before Carrie turned 47, another cause for celebration seen with the eyes of faith. “I went on Fox News talking about one of my books and had said I did not mind being barefoot and pregnant — it’s not a bad thing. The next thing I knew, I was pregnant after five years of thinking I could not have any more children,” she said. “It was wonderful.” A writer and author of several works on Catholic apologetics, Gress’ work has appeared in the Register.
Joseph and Carrie had expected there would be 50 or more people and a big celebration at their home. Instead, the godparents were proxies and counting them and the priest, they were at their maximum capacity of 10 people with just their own family.
Without needing to plan for a large gathering, and in the quiet of their small group, the appreciation for the sacrament itself was heightened, according to Carrie. Other familiar touches also helped make the event memorable. Little John had on the same baptismal gown worn by his great-great-grandfather in 1880, which is passed around the family, and his 11-year-old sister served as the photographer.
Christopher and Kristen Desilets had their son Micah baptized at St. Patrick’s in Dickenson, North Dakota, on Palm Sunday, April 5, three weeks after his March 10 birthday. Big brother, 2-year-old Jude, looked on, along with just enough relatives for a group of 10. The baptism was originally planned for Easter Sunday, but since Christopher’s parents and siblings could not travel from Virginia, and the godmother, Kristen’s sister Rebecca, was home from Benedictine College due to the pandemic, they decided to move the baptism up. Normally, many friends and Kristen’s eight siblings and their families would have been there.
“With all the uncertainty and change of plans, we decided to go ahead and get him in the faith so he can become a new member of the Church sooner rather than later,” Christopher said. “There was so much more emphasis on the ceremony and intimacy on the sacrament. It would have been great to have siblings and parents there, but God was front and center — that was irrefutable.”
Kristen’s mother attended, but since her father felt a bit under the weather, he thought it would be better to not come. Kristen noted that it seemed strange to walk into church and just have a baptism without a Mass. “Since we were deprived of other sacraments, I appreciated it on a whole new level,” she said. “There is an inherent hope that comes with baptism. God is pouring down his love on this little human, and he did not know that that this was the most important day in his life. Sometimes God can do his best work when we don’t even know he is working in our life.”
Despite all the restrictions, Kristen said she was very grateful that their pastor, Father Bill Ruelle, did not let fear of the virus stop him from doing the baptism. “You cannot really social distance when baptizing a baby.”