Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Unique Baptism in La Montaña

I wouldn't have identified him if he hadn't stepped in front of me and asked me if I was the Bishop’s secretary. I told him that, no, I wasn't, but that I had been years earlier. When he asked me if I remembered the Bishop baptizing his son in his office fifteen years ago, the scene immediately came to my mind.

I had walked to the diocesan offices just a little before nine in the morning. I noticed the couple as soon as I walked into the churchyard. They were sitting on the steps leading to the office. I could see from their worn, tattered clothing that their life was not an easy one.

As I approached them, I smiled, introduced myself as the Bishop’s secretary, and asked them where they were from. They replied in broken Spanish that they were from Huehuetepec, Municipality of Atlamajalcingo del Rio. Their names were Manuel and Martha. They had walked all of the previous day. Someone had told them that the parish priest in Atlamajalcingo del Rio was away, and they wanted their first child—a boy—to be baptized. They had arrived in Tlapa the previous night and had slept on the sidewalk outside the Cathedral.
Señor del Nicho - Cathedral in Tlapa
Something kept me from telling them that their walk was in vain, that their child had to be baptized in the local parish unless they had a letter of permission from the parish priest. I told them that the Bishop would be here in a few minutes and they could share their request with him. When I asked how old their baby was, they replied, “Three weeks.” The woman opened her shawl and showed me the baby’s face. I was shocked when I realized that the baby wasn't breathing; he was dead.

Upon questioning, they explained that the baby had been sick from the moment of his birth. When they started walking the previous morning, he was still alive, but during the day he had stopped breathing. The couple kept walking because they wanted their first child to be baptized; they wanted to be sure that he was in heaven with God the Father.

I thought to myself, “Oh no! How will the Bishop handle this? He can’t baptize a dead baby. Perhaps he can bless it and sprinkle it with holy water. But that’s not Baptism. And this couple want Baptism. And I know the Bishop never lies to these poor people, so I know he won’t fake a baptism. Poor family! Poor Bishop, to have to figure out what to do here.”

I invited them into the office. A few minutes later the Bishop arrived. As soon as he heard the couple’s story, he embraced each of them and told them that he would be honored to baptize their child. As soon as he said those words, I could almost see a burden being lifted from the shoulders of Martha and Manuel. The glance they exchanged was not one of joy, but it was definitely a look of relief.

As the Bishop put on his vestments and asked me to get the baptismal registry to write down the information about the baptism, I was thinking that this can’t be a real baptism. How can you baptize a dead person? But the Bishop carried out the complete ceremony in his usual gentle manner and then signed the baptismal certificate. I still remember the name that the couple chose for their firstborn son: Jesus.

As the Bishop passed the certificate to Martha and Manuel, he added a one-hundred-peso bill and suggested that they get something to eat and then use the rest of the money to return to their village on the back of a truck (the local “bus” to Huehuetepec).

After Martha and Manuel left, I expressed to the Bishop my dismay that he had baptized a dead child. He smiled and asked me if I had studied theology. He knew that I had. He then asked me, “What are the three types of baptism?” I had forgotten this “minor detail,” but when he mentioned the three types, I remembered and replied, “Water and blood and desire.”

“And how much desire do you have to have before your child is considered baptized?” he asked. “Do you think walking all day and sleeping outside all night might count?” Embarrassed, I responded, “Yes.” The Bishop then added, “That child was already baptized. All I did was to formalize that and offer comfort to a grieving family. I don’t think God minds too much that maybe we stretched the rules a little bit. The Sabbath was made for the person, not the person for the Sabbath.”

It was a blessing to encounter Manuel fifteen years later. He has more children; he still struggles to get by in life. But the baptismal certificate, he says, occupies a place of honor above a candle that he and Martha have in their home to remember their firstborn son, Jesus.

And I’m not forgetting the undeserved blessing of being allowed to be personal secretary to this incredible Bishop for ten years. There are many more stories I can tell about his life and witness, but they can await another occasion. Have a great week, readers of this blog. Pray for us here in the mountains of Mexico. Thank you.

PS: I also met this week a woman from Ixcuinatoyac, who asked me if I had contact with Patricia Flores (who, I believe, lives in Calgary with her husband, Luis). More than thirty years ago, during a time that she was working with Father Lawrence Moran, CSB, here in Mexico she was a “madrina” (godmother) of a child in Ixcuinatoyac. The woman’s name is Florentina Pastor Abelino; her son (Patty's godson) is Luis Miguel Romero Pastor. If a reader of this blog knows Patty (or Luis), please let her know that she is remembered in Ixcuinatoyac with much affection.

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