Marching orders for new Catholics

In countries less Catholic than Mexico–practically all other countries except for the Vatican–baptism may be an initiation rite into a particular Christian group. Here it’s more like an admission ticket into society, so intertwined are Catholicism and Mexican culture.

In and around San Miguel there are churches everywhere you look, decorated with statues of Jesus and saints, usually in various states of torment, along with the ubiquitous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, its maternal gaze offering hope to people crumpled on the pews here and there, pleading for help with their own personal travails.

On other days, however, you may spot a radiant girl wearing a tiara and dressed in yards and yards of satiny fabric, emerging from the dark church interior after a mass celebrating her Quinceañera, a coming-of-age event for 15-year-old girls. Or it could be a First Communion or a wedding, all of it accompanied by the joyful pealing of bells. Like Hallmark cards, the church is there no matter what’s the occasion.

Edgar, I pronounce you a Mexican Catholic

Mexican Catholicism is not limited to the churches. There’s an elaborate shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, decorated with twinkling lights, in the waiting room of the San Miguel bus station. December 12, her feast day, is practically a national holiday though the government insists it doesn’t recognize any one religion.

Religious processions are not quickie strolls around the block, but epic productions that go on for hours and sometimes days, and may involve cavalcades of studly cowboys wearing their finest sombreros and waving banners signaling where the come from; veiled women chanting and praying; and young people carrying litters on their shoulders with statues of saints or small shrines. A hopelessly out of tune band may serenade the pilgrims. On Good Friday, the somber processions and panoply effectively shut down San Miguel, as they do on the far more cheerful feast of St. Michael the Archangel, the city’s patron saint.

Next month the pope will be visiting a few cities near here and is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of fevered visitors from all over Mexico. The previous pope, John Paul II, showered Mexico with such special attention that Mexicans venerate him as if he had already been canonized.

Sociologists and other cynics may argue Catholicism is a showy but hollow spectacle here, or that the percentage of baptized Mexicans has dropped from the high-90s to the mid-80s over the past 30 years–still a formidable market share–thanks to insistent prosetalyzing by Mormons and evangelical sects.

Despite trends and other realities, even among the poor baptism in Catholic Mexico is a major blow-out, calling for a fiesta with decorations, barbeques, music and rivers of beer, that go far into the night and often beyond the apparent financial resources of the family.

So our past weekend was mostly consumed with the celebrations surrounding the baptism of Edgar Felipe, our gardener Felix’s two-month-old. We were invited in the dual roles of guests of honor and chauffeurs to drive the clan to the church in our pick-up and station wagon. At six o’clock on a Saturday night there was no other way for the family to get to the ceremony held in town, at the Church of San Antonio. I also multi-tasked as photographer.

It turned out to be a mass ceremony involving some 75 babies and a few late-bloomers as old as six or seven, and one definitely reserved for poor families. Any kind of middle- or upper-class finery was missing in this crowd; the dress code seemed to be strict working-class casual, including some tank tops and sneakers. Wealthier folks, Félix explained, have their own private baptisms, photographers and receptions afterward.

The one exception to the plain attire were the babies and young children to be baptized, all dressed in sparkling-white outfits, including knit hats, some resembling tiny baseball caps, for the boys, and Amish-like bonnets for the girls. One girl’s dress had bunched-up fabric on the back to resemble the wings of an angel.

The room where the pre-Baptism orientation was held was equally no-frills: The basement of the church, with the participants exceeding the number of folding chairs and spilling out on to the street. The preacher was not a priest but was described as an “assistant” or lay helper to the real parish priest who was otherwise occupied upstairs with a special Quinceañera mass.

Rather than an introduction to the Catholic faith–in effect marching orders for new recruits–the talk was a bumper-car ride through Scripture with no clear direction. We heard about the Good Samaritan; a woman who had seven husbands; warned about the dangers of homosexuality and lesbianism, followed by repeated admonitions to lazy husbands who drink too much to straighten up and stop being such jerks.

It was only toward the end that the lay preacher brought some linearity to his presentation by focusing on the seven sacraments of the church, which few in the crowd seemed to remember. Two sacraments deal with death, he explained, baptism because it brings us out from the death of original sin, and last rites, when we are, hmm, really dead and headed for either heaven or hell. I had never heard that spin on the sacraments.

The preacher had the earnestness and fervor of a honest tent preacher and peppered his talk with a couple of off-color words and jokes the crowd seemed to appreciate. Otherwise the orientation went on and on, even as the crying and shrieking of restless babies grew louder, adult eye lids became heavier and folks shuffled impatiently in their seats. No matter: The more the noise rose, the louder the preacher preached.

Finally he quit, after almost 90 minutes of exhortations, and distributed yellow passes proving the parents had attended the lecture and were entitled to have their babies baptized upstairs.

The actual baptism in the church was conducted by a middle-aged priest whose weariness helped me appreciate how hard it is to be a priest nowadays, when demand so far outstrips personnel. This man had just conducted a mass for a giggly 15-year-old girl and her family; probably celebrated a mass or two in the morning; sat through a string of confessions and perhaps some pastoral counseling, all the while trying to think of a sermon to deliver in the masses awaiting him the next day.

And now he faced an assembly line of bawling babies waiting to be relieved of their original sin and officially welcomed into the Church.

This he did with amazing efficiency and even a bit of elegance and ceremony. He started down on side of the nave, up the middle aisle and down the other side, imparting a five-second blessing on each infant. After that the parents lined up before the baptismal font, with the the godmother carrying the baby and the godfather holding a lit candle handed to him by an usher.

At the font, the godmother was asked the name of the baby, who was baptized by the priest in all that it takes to say “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Next. Much to his credit, bald-headed Edgar Felipe must have been the best-behaved participant, either sleeping or grinning at anyone who looked at him.

After the baptism the priest did another tour of the church and showered more blessings, with free-lance photographers darting to and fro, capturing the moment and distributing business cards to the parents in case they wanted to buy the pictures.

It was all over in about 40 minutes, an amazing display of taut liturgical choreography. The crowd dispersed, and the priest fled, probably to the rectory to have a double shot of tequila.

Felix’s family climbed aboard the Stew and Al Limo Service and headed home, to start working on the baptism fiesta the next day. That would begin at 8 a.m. with the preparation of a roast lamb, and continue well into the next morning.

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