SALT LAKE CITY — Eli Staggs, 17, has been dying to see "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" for two years, but while he stood in line to see the movie in Kansas City on Thursday afternoon, he found himself looking ahead to performing proxy baptisms in an LDS temple in January.
"It's a pretty rare opportunity to baptize someone before your mission," said Staggs, a Mormon priest, a priesthood office for boys 16 to 18 in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That's about to change.
The First Presidency announced Thursday that LDS boys and girls will have new opportunities to serve in the faith's 159 temples around the world. The announcement was made through a letter to church leaders that will be read to congregations on Sunday in worship services. It began drawing response from members around the nation and world immediately.
Beginning Jan. 1, young women ages 12-18 will be able to assist with tasks in the temple baptistry currently performed by adult women who serve as temple ordinance workers or volunteers.
"I like this change," said Chloe Hall, 16, a high school junior in Marquette, Michigan, who travels seven hours to attend the Chicago Illinois Temple. "I think it's comparable to church leaders lowering the mission age. Younger people will be introduced more easily into the things older people do."
Hall also liked the idea of added responsibility for priests. Asked why, she said, "You know, boys."
The boys seemed to agree on Thursday.
Priests will be able to perform baptisms for the dead and serve as witnesses for those proxy baptisms. That's a change in church policy. Until now, priests could perform baptisms for the living, but baptisms on behalf of the dead were performed only by adult men.
"This will be great experience for serving a mission," said Ezra Gellert, 17, a priest in Honolulu who has been to the Hawaii Temple 10 to 15 times. Gellert said other Mormons at Kahuku High School, where he is a senior, are excited to provide additional service in the temple.
"I feel like I'm going to have a more spiritual mindset since I'll be working in the temple now."
Staggs had thought the first baptism he would perform would be that of his little brother, who will turn 8 next summer, or maybe a friend he recently gave a Book of Mormon to. Now he expected to be able to perform baptisms in the Kansas City Temple in January.
"Performing proxy baptisms opens up another way for me to serve," he said. "It's more responsiblity, and that's a great opportunity."
Mormons 12-18 long have been able to receive limited-use temple recommends for baptism, which meant they could go to the temple to be baptized as stand-ins for the dead. They have been doing so in record numbers, by the tens of thousands, according to a 2015 statement by Elder Neil A. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Abbie Tibbitts will turn 12 on Sunday. The sixth-grader will make the 90-minute trip with her family from their home in Bath, Michigan, to the Detroit Temple on Tuesday to be baptized for ancestors for whom she personally prepared the paperwork.
"I've done about 300 names, so I've got a lot to do," she said. "I used familysearch.org. I feel like it's cool my brother Hyrum (17) can baptize me for them, and I think it's cool that I can be a helper."
"Temple baptistries are busier than ever," President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, said in the church's April general conference. "Some temples have even had to adjust their schedules to accommodate the increase in the number of young people attending the temple."
The First Presidency noted that activity in its letter on Thursday.
"We are grateful for the increase in temple and family history work being completed by the faithful youth of the church," they said. "In unprecedented numbers, young women and young men throughout the world are researching, finding and bringing family names to the temple to perform baptisms and confirmations."
The Kansas City Temple baptistry is so busy that Staggs said his congregation's youth group has had to pull back to quarterly temple trips. They had been making monthly visits to be baptized for the dead after the temple first opened in 2012.
About 50 young women and young men from the Union 6th Ward in Sandy, Utah, were baptized for 236 of their own ancestors or ancestors of others in their ward during a trip to the Manti Utah Temple as youth conference activity over the summer.
"It was such an incredible experience to see all the youth totally engaged spiritually and emotionally," said Shawna Fillmore, the ward's Young Women president. "They want to be there, which is a miracle in this day and age."
She already had decided Thursday afternoon on a youth temple trip in January.
"For the youth to be able to participate by helping with ordinances or towels or check-in or the locker room I think will be more of an incentive for them to be there," she said.
Hall and Paulina Soto Fuentes, 16, of Concepción, Chile, said they look forward to filling the roles they have seen their mothers and Young Women leaders perform in temple baptistries. Fuentes has traveled six hours by bus with her ward to the Santiago Chile Temple twice a year. A temple is under construction in Concepción.
"I'm very excited because my mom does that work," Fuentes said. "I've been grateful to her and the other women because they do this work with a love for the people and for God. I thought that was something I would do maybe in 10 years. I'm very happy that I can do it now."
The First Presidency also announced a change for 11-year-olds.
The annual priesthood preview meeting to introduce 11-year-old boys to the priesthood will now become a combined temple and priesthood preparation meeting for 11-year-old girls and boys.
According to information now published at primary.lds.org, the purpose of this meeting is to help children understand the blessings of temple service, priesthood service and making and keeping covenants. One topic will be encouraging 11-year-olds to receive a limited-use temple recommend.