LOS ANGELES – When in mid-March California authorities ordered the closure of all churches to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the biggest concern of Father Arturo Corral was that his congregation would drift away. Now, after the reopening, his uneasiness comes from not being able to fulfill all the requests for baptisms.
“We’re doing up to eight community baptisms a day, and we’re still not able to get through the waiting list we have,” Corral told EFE.
The clergyman is the main figure at the Church of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, a church built in 1784 in downtown Los Angeles, just a few streets from the City Hall, and which traditionally has been a meeting place for Hispanic Catholics from throughout the region.
According to Corral, the church draws whole families for baptisms not only from Los Angeles but from all over California, and even from Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Mexico.
“This church has always been the meeting place for immigrants and residents from many parts of the country and from abroad,” he said.
On March 19, when California authorities’ order for residents to remain in their homes went into effect and many businesses and institutions had to shut down, the church had about 350 baptisms scheduled for the upcoming Saturday, and a similar number of Catholic families hoped to be able to have the rite performed the next week.
The spread of the coronavirus cancelled all those plans, but some parents continued calling the church to ask when they could baptize their children, Corral said. From the initial list, at least 600 families still want to go through with the ceremony at some point.
“It’s been very comforting to see how many Hispanic families … continue calling and insisting. They’ve got a lot of determination, but they’re also putting us in a bind because conditions don’t allow us to attend to everyone,” the priest said.
One of the hundreds of insistent parents is Victor Garcia, a Mexican who works in the food sector and is the father of three, the youngest of them just having turned one year old and as yet unbaptized.
“I’ve known people who have died from the coronavirus and this also happens to kids, so my wife and I have talked about it and the best thing would be to have everything arranged with God because we don’t know what’s going to happen with this virus,” he said by way of explanation.
Javier Pinto Contreras, with a degree in theology and a Master’s in religious studies from the Catholic Institute in Paris, told EFE that although in the past baptism was considered a requirement for the religious faithful if their souls were to be saved, now children born into Christian families but who die before being baptized can enjoy the fruits of religious communion, be saved and be considered full members of the faith.
Garcia said he did not know that the Catholic Church in 2007 had changed its stance on baptism and insisted that he still wanted to make sure that his son was baptized.
“My wife and I have looked at many churches, but still none of them will give us a date,” he said.
Corral and his two fellow priests at the church are having to battle the orders of California Gov. Gavin Newsom regarding the holding of open-air gatherings.
The church has had to use its patio to perform the ceremonies, with family members maintaining social distancing and wearing facemasks.
And the priests have had to increase the number of ceremonies they perform, and to clean all chairs and other common accoutrements after every baptism, keep the baptismal oil and the holy water stored so that it does not become contaminated, and see to assorted other additional tasks.
The number of people attending a baptism has also been reduced and now just the parents, the godparents and the child may be present and only 25 percent of the almost 400 families that used to come to the baptismal ceremony on a Saturday before the pandemic can attend.
“It’s a little bit sad because (baptism) is a sacrament that the whole family wants to witness and to participate in,” Corral said.
Although exhausted by all the work involved nowadays, Corral said that he feels joyful because no complaints have been made and because families are insisting that their children be baptized.
“The kids are in their best outfits, there’s a lot of love and faith in these families. It’s something that brings happiness in these pandemic times,” he said.
California is the US state that has suffered the most confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 640,000 being tallied to date and at the beginning of this month the Los Angeles Archdiocese ordained eight new priests in a ceremony on the patio of the Los Angeles Cathedral.
“These are the times of the coronavirus and we have to adapt. This disease is not going to destroy our faith,” Corral said.