I have worked as a hospital chaplain in the United States, but on a medical-mission trip to Bolivia three years ago, I was serving as translator, patient transporter, and recovery-room assistant. I was with a team that repairs the cleft palates of poor children, and that’s where I met Maria, an infant who had just come out of surgery.
It proved to be a brief encounter. Almost as soon as Maria arrived in the recovery area, she started bleeding profusely. There was nothing our team of Bolivian and North American nurses could do to stop it. The surgeons, who had never lost a patient, ordered Maria back to the operating room. I accompanied her.
Part of my chaplaincy training had taken place in a neonatal intensive care unit, so I quickly understood that Maria was not going to survive. I suggested to Luz, the Bolivian charge nurse, that Maria’s parents be informed and asked whether they wanted their daughter to be baptized. Word came back immediately: Do anything you can to save her, and please baptize her. “How are we going to baptize the child?” Luz asked irritably. “There is no priest; how are we going to get one quickly?”
“It’s OK,” I said, “I’ll baptize her.” Luz’s eyes widened above her surgical mask, and then narrowed skeptically. How could I, a woman, baptize a child-and by whose authority? With no time for theological debate, I took a vial of holy water and made the sign of the cross on Maria...