CHICAGO -- It's Easter Week, Holy Week in the Catholic faith, prime time for St. Agnes of Bohemia in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Typically, the church's live procession along 26th Street enacting the Stations of the Cross draws 5,000 worshippers alone to the South Side enclave. It has for generations. "It's like a whole season really, of confirmations, of first communions," said the Rev. Don Nevins, the church's pastor. "Families wait until Easter, for nice weather, for baptisms. We'd do 15 every weekend in April. Sixty a month! Now because of coronavirus, it's on hold."
Joseph Santos, not quite a year old, was scheduled to be baptized on April 25 at St. Agnes. His parents, Isabel Rodriguez and Ivan Santos, planned a party and dinner; they picked out his Bible, his rosary and a cloth used to wipe baptismal waters from his face. They bought a ceremonial candle and a devotional necklace of the Virgin Mary, then they made sure it was blessed. They bought him white pants, white shirt, white shoes.
"Now I'm starting to wonder when he'll get baptized at all," Rodriguez said.
Her mother, who lives with them, is a Chicago police officer. "She's really the only one who leaves the house now. We're healthy, we're good. Still, it's hard not to be worried. As a Catholic, I want my son baptized should anything happen to him. It's important."
Further south, in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood, Lauren Doig was planning also to have her two-month-old Nicholas baptized on April 25. She grew up Catholic in Oak Forest, her husband grew up Catholic in the very Irish community of Beverly. Baptism, and the celebratory party that traditionally follows, meant bringing together two large families, "but you do it because it's the way you're raised, it's part of Catholic culture. It's a happy thing. And it's a sacred duty, one that you want to do soon as you can. You're born into this world with sins, the church says. And there's always a chance something happens. Now, because of everything, I'm thinking -- I'm hoping -- I really don't want to baptize a two-year-old."
Baptism is one of Catholicism's seven sacraments.
If you're not familiar, these sacraments -- confirmation, communion, marriage, anointing the sick, being ordained as clergy, confession and baptism -- constitute the centerpiece of Catholic theology, "public moments when the church comes together to witness God's power," said the Rev. Robert Casey, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. "We are a community through sacraments. Now we don't have an opportunity for public moments."
Of course, a large part of most religion is community and ritual, and yet in the top-down theology of Catholicism, there is something uniquely cruel about this crisis: Each Catholic sacrament requires -- even insists -- on physical touch, personal intimacy or the proximity of a community, all of which are rendered nearly impossible by a pandemic.
"Everyone is suffering," said Keara Ette, director of ministries at Old St. Patrick's Church in the West Loop, which was founded Christmas morning in 1856. "But sacraments are the first layer of understanding that most Catholics have. They are distinctly tangible. You touch and feel. There is a closeness in a congregation, this essential togetherness."
A pastor pours holy water over heads during baptism.