18 09 2008

On the Death of Baptized Infants in Catholic Latin America

One of the most vivid memories that my mother tells of her childhood in Mexico is that of the death of her baby brother at the age of three. Little Ignacio drowned in a creek when he ran off unsupervised, leaving his parents and young siblings devastated. What my mother remembers most, however, is what is known in the Spanish speaking world as el velorio del angelito, or the little angel’s wake. She always remembers how beautiful it was, how soft music was played by the villagers, and the room was full of bright flowers. My mother in adulthood gave birth to an older brother and sister prematurely. Both lived only a few days, but my mother called the priest to baptize them before they died. We would visit the cemetery as children and my mother would point out the graves of our dead siblings and say to us that they had become angels now. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I found out that my mother’s theological position wasn’t quite right.

The death of a child is always a tragic event. For the outside observer, the idea of having a somber yet bright celebration upon the death of a child may seem morbid and all but grotesque. However, it is the ancient Church herself who tells us that baptized children who die before the age of reason have a sure pass into Heaven to stand at the right hand of the Throne of God. It is the Church herself who commands that the Mass of the Angels be sung at the death of such a child. So my mother’s idea that her brother and her children had become angels was not far from the truth, and she can be forgiven if she came to this conclusion.

Throughout Latin America, many other devout mothers and their children have taken these devotions to heart. Catholic cemeteries even in this country are filled with toys and teddy bears for young children who were seized from this vale of tears before they could sin, particularly in areas with a heavy Latino population. (Footnote: There is nothing sadder than a Protestant cemetery.) In Argentina in particular, there are many makeshift shrines to individual “angelitos” in many cemeteries. For those who read Spanish, this page is an excellent source for finding out more about them. In the coming months, I will translate their stories one by one from this site for the benefit of those who do not read Spanish.

The most popular is little Miguelito, or Miguel Ángel Gaitán, who died of meningitis in the interior province of La Rioja in Argentina at the tender age of one. Seven years after his death in 1967, a violent storm destroyed the above ground tomb of the child. After having tried to build the tomb again, residents found their work leveled and the incorrupt corpse of the child (seen above) still exposed. They realized then that it was a miracle and since that day in 1973, he has had a steady stream of devotees traveling from all over Argentina asking for his intercession to find work, get married, or even do well on their exams. He is still seen through a glass to this day, for the veneration of all, waiting for the resurrection of all flesh. Most come with offerings of toys for the little angel, and if a favor is granted, the mother of Miguelito, still alive, will let the devotee touch the forehead of the dead child. Sometimes it is said that the toys offered him are found to be scattered about in the morning, the “little angel” having arisen in the night to play with them. The New York Times did an article about his cult, which can be read by following this link.  

I was overjoyed to finally find more information about this practice that was passed down to me from my mother. For all of the rhetoric of pre-Vatican II Catholics having been “poorly catechized”, we can ask if we who are “better catechized” have this same attitude towards life and death as they had back then, and that some “less intelligent” Catholics still have.  Even if we read and understand the Scriptures, it would seem to me that most Bible-reading, informed American Christians would find these practices morbid; disgusting superstitions of people who “don’t know Jesus”. I find such attitudes naive and only worthy of pity. This is religion of the rubber hitting the road, and it is one that I aspire to keep.

It is worth contemplating how the modern mentality can only see tragedy in the death of an innocent child, and how other, more “simple” people can see the same phenomenon as an illustration of God’s grace and power.  My grandparents, aunts, and uncles were probably just as broken-hearted as any family at the death of my infant uncle. But instead of Prozac-fueled, tortured, self-absorbed demonstrations of grief, they had been trained to look past this life to the fate that we all face as mortals. And in this case, the triumph was total: as a baptized child who died before the age of reason, little Ignacio, was an “angelito” now, a little angel, who could intercede for his family before the Throne of God. Instead of a funeral, they threw a party. Even if they couldn’t articulate it explicitly, they did this because they knew that this life is merely a meagre shadow of the mysteries that await us beyond the realm of death, in the eternal palaces of Paradise.



5 responses

20 12 2008

Ay, ay, ay, ayayaitay…
suelta el violin su llantito
quiere ayudarme a olvidar
la muerte del angelito

Velay si era chiquitito
sin un pecado solito
que Tata Dios se lo ha llevao
será de verlo solito

Hasta el kakuy del silencio
dolido huyó de las ramas
cuando la caja del alama
por el camino sonaba

Ay, ay, ay, ayayaitay
suelta el violín su llantito
quiere ayudarme a olvidar
la muerte del angelito

Cuando muere el angelito
ay, ay, ay, ayayaitay…
le cantan las alabanzas
será por su alma bendita

Los cirios de los cardones
prenden sus blancos ojitos
azulándose en las alas
que Dios le dió al pobrecito

Y lindo caballo blanco
le va llevando al huahuita
donde arpena rezabailes
pa’ la niña Telesita

18 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez


Those are interesting points. It would seem that in our current “culture of death” (I am fond of those terms, but they are useful at points), people tend to think that “living life” in and of itself is sufficent for the purpose of human existence. Thus, the “more you live, the better”, if living is interpreted as all the things you can do between the ages of 18-35. Thus, our society is obsessed with extending the ability to do those things until later and later (just think of the whole Viagra and other libido inhancing drugs).

Small infants, then, have never “lived life”. Therefore, if they die, it is inexplicably tragic. This is not even just a Christian issue. The noblest of pagan philosophers saw life as a preparation for death. If one lives in a society where death is well-known as something that will inevitably happen to all, then it can’t be so terrible as we think of it now, to the point that we “try not to think about it”. Death and life seem to meld together at points, as the danses macabres and the Mexican altars to the dead seem to testify.

18 09 2008

There seems to be a widespread belief that prior to the advent of modern medicine (let’s say late to early 19th century) nobody cared about their children; since most children died very young, there was no point in getting overly attached to them. And since everyone was apprarently getting married around twelve, you could just have an infinite number of children to replace the ones that died. This view casts pre-modern parents as something akin to alligators, who bury their offspring in the sand and abandon them to be eaten by seagulls. The “pre-modern parents didn’t care about their children” thesis seems to be refuted by customs such as el velorio del angelito, as well as ample photographic and textual evidence of people in developing countries who obviously care about their children very much, even when they living in difficult circumstances.

While parents living before the advent of modern medicine were not unaffected by the premature deaths of their children, such occurrences were not as suprising as they are today. In contemporary societies, the notion that a child might die, either accidentally or from illness, is inconceiable; children are not supposed to die. So if such an event does happen, the bereaved parents and their circle of friends don’t know how to deal with it, except through Prozac. In previous generations, it was understood that many children would not reach adulthood. While they would hate that such a thing had happened to them, there was a built in community and religious support system. The fact that so many people today are irreligious probably also plays a role in how they cope with such tragedies; if you think that all there is is this life, then the death of a baby is terrible beyond words, since the child never got a chance to live. If you think that the temporal life is just the beginning, then the baptized dead child is rather fortunate, since he or she is a saint in heaven interceding for those on earth. It’s really quite sensible.

18 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Fair enough. I have edited it.

18 09 2008
Robert Thomas Llizo

“It is worth contemplating how someone like Dostoyevsky or other writers can only see tragedy in the death of an innocent child, and how other, more ”simple” people can see the same phenomenon as an illustration of God’s grace and power.”

Surely not Dostoyevsky!!!

In the Brothers Karamozov, it is Ivan, the rationalist, who sees only tragedy in the death of children, while the hero of the novel, Alyosha, sees certainly a tragedy, but a mystery that somehow participates in Christ’s passion and triumph. This is born out especially at the end, where Alyosha relfects on the death of the boy Ilyushechka and how each one of the boys were touched by his life and death. “Memory Eternal to the old boy” they all say. Ivan goes mad, while Alyosha and the boys with him rejoice in his memory, and see something divine and beuatiful even in his death. Doesn’t sound a whole lot like despair to me.

Am I missing something here?

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