A Meditation on Fr. Virgil and His Redeeming Works

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Fr. Virgilio Elizondo explains "The Energy of Christianity." Image via YouTube.

Fr. Virgilio Elizondo explains "The Energy of Christianity." Image via YouTube.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gevUn3R5Ye8

The imponderable death by suicide of Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, a much accomplished, highly esteemed and warmly embraced priest, mestizo theologian, and good shepherd to many, shook people down to their souls in San Antonio and far beyond. Fr. Virgil left footprints in many places in many countries, and the story we published breaking the news of his death and honoring his life and work drew far more readers from more countries than anything else we have published in more than four years.

He is survived by one sister, the artist Anita Valencia, and a body of work as a New World theologian that will live on long after the headlines of his death subside. Fr. Virgil’s work will guide future generations of theologians who will study the son of Mexican immigrants raised in humble circumstances on San Antonio’s Westside whose ground-breaking work will grow in importance with the passage of time.

For now, we mourn Fr. Virgil’s decision to end his own life.

A memorial Mass is scheduled for Saturday at St. Rose of Lima Church, where Fr. Virgil served for many years as parochial vicar. Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller will preside, surrounded by other archdiocese priests. Fr. David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions, former rector of San Fernando Cathedral, and a longtime friend of Fr. Virgil, will serve as homilist at the Mass. St. Rose of Lima is located at 9883 Marbach Rd. A private internment service for family members will take place at a later date.

Many readers of our first story felt compelled to leave a comment or pose a question that cannot be answered. Amid shared feelings of deep loss and emotional confusion, people reached out for the solace and support of community. A very few individuals, secure in their own moral certainty, cast judgment on Fr. Virgil for the single unproven allegation he once fondled a boy, and his decision at age 80 to take his own life with a single horrific gunshot.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller (second from left) during the 2015 reenactment of the Crucifixion of Jesus in Milam Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller (second from left) during the 2015 reenactment of the Crucifixion of Jesus in Milam Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

Most of us move through life with far less certainty, wary of casting stones, aware of our own failings. Many who posted comments prefered to remember Fr. Virgil for acts of kindness and for giving Mexican-Americans their rightful place in the spiritual kingdom. Many found it easier to forgive than accuse, understanding that priests are humans, too. We expect them to be Godlike, not only in their spiritual ministrations, but also in their daily lives. We are content to let them forgive our sins, yet some are unable to offer that same forgiveness in return.

Did Fr. Virgil at one point in his life succumb to his darkest human impulses and, as a John Doe lawsuit alleged last year, take advantage of an orphan boy, the victim of sexual abuse by a local seminarian, and instead of offering comfort, fondle him as the two rode together in a car? We will never know, unless the accuser recants one day or decides it was someone else. Fr. Virgil was convicted on the front page and on local news broadcasts. Many priests betrayed their vows and did terrible things to many boys, and for decades, Church leaders looked the other way, shuffling the bad priests like cards in a deck and dealing them out to other unsuspecting parishes. Many of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, believe the Church has many years of confession to make and penance to pay to atone for such unspeakable moral failure and criminal complicity.

We can thank the tenacious journalists at the Boston Globe, in that most Catholic of American cities, for unraveling the conspiracy of silence, and the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” for taking one newspaper’s work and bringing it to the big screen. Far more people watch Hollywood films than read investigative reporting in shrinking newspapers. Yet we can’t let that good work turn every priest into a suspected child molester, or dignify every complaint with instant affirmation.

Even now, I see Fr. Virgil as the ground-breaking thinker and theologian, the mestizo philosopher who I knew for three decades, the first Mexican-American with roots in the barrio to ascend to the lofty realm of the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame.

Am I the only one bothered by the fact a John Doe can anonymously accuse anyone of anything in a civil lawsuit without presenting any evidence, and can do so 35 years after the fact? In the case at hand, the predatory seminarian Jesus Armando Dominguez had been rendered guilty as charged, first by the state of California where he was ordained and had abused many other boys before being criminally charged, and by the admission of Church authorities, who paid large sums of money to his victims. He was never apprehended after his flight to Mexico. Charges of pederasty followed Dominguez like a shadow wherever he was sent to serve.

Fr. Virgil has never faced another accuser, not before the John Doe lawsuit, not since its filing. No evidence emerged to support the John Doe charge. The case simply lingered and festered, diminishing Fr. Virgil as it would have diminished any of us. Did he do it, or was he wrongfully charged? Did he take his own life in a moment of profound despair, unable to imagine the day when his good name and reputation would be restored? Or did he end his life unable to come to terms with his transgression?

We will never know, any more than we can know whether this week’s outpouring of love for Fr. Virgil, had we been able to harness it one day earlier, might have been enough to pull him back from the precipice. These are questions to ponder in the silence of our own contemplation. If we can never truly know ourselves, can we ever hope to completely know another?

A few who commented on our story expressed certainty that as a Catholic who committed suicide, Fr. Virgil was condemned to hell in all its Dantesque horror and eternity. The promise of heaven and the specter of hell serve an important purpose for many in this world, certain eventualities that guide moral behavior on earth. Judgement Day by an all-knowing deity is a sobering thought. The concept of the afterlife and its implications for the forces of good and evil are not rooted in Christianity. They have been with us seemingly as long as people have painted shamans and symbols in caves. The afterlife, like Elizondo himself, is a mystery, each of us reconciling the unknowable to our own comfort and satisfaction.

As a lapsed Catholic, I wrestle with Church dogma like Daniel in the den of lions, yet I am drawn to the words of Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, whose statement in the wake of Fr. Virgil’s untimely death sounded a decided note of compassion and wisdom. His words, I thought, echoed the compassion of another New World prelate, Pope Francis I:

“I join the priests of the Archdiocese of San Antonio as we are deeply saddened and stunned by the news of the death of Father Virgilio Elizondo on March 14. This is an occasion for great sorrow, as his death was sudden and unexpected,” the archbishop’s statement began.

“Father Virgil had served as rector of San Fernando Cathedral, and pursued scholarly work in Latino theology, evangelization, faith and spirituality, and culture. He had also been a long-time theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, and was the author of several books.

“At this devastatingly sad time for Father Virgil’s family – especially his sister – as well as his brother clergy, co-workers and friends, we offer our most profound sympathies. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all. I pray for all those who mourn Father Virgil and for the repose of his soul. In this Year of Mercy, we now commend him to the saving mercy of our God, who is compassionate and full of mercy and love. This is most fitting and proper.

“Eternal rest, grant unto him O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.”

Archbishop García-Siller’s words, I believe, serve to guide the rest of us in our deliberations. Some of us were good friends of Fr. Virgil and want to believe in his innocence. Some of us have been touched by abuse or by suicide in our own family lives, and are mindful of those memories and their lasting presence.

We are left now to mourn a terrible loss and then rejoin the procession of life, comforted by the words of so many who were touched by Fr. Virgil, certain in our belief that his life’s work will endure.




Top image: Fr. Virgilio Elizondo explains  “The Energy of Christianity.” Image via YouTube.


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31 thoughts on “A Meditation on Fr. Virgil and His Redeeming Works

  1. I’d like to comment on your reference to comments you received in response to your original post about Fr. Elizondo’s suicide: “A few who commented on our story expressed certainty that as a Catholic who committed suicide, Fr. Virgil was condemned to hell in all its Dantesque horror and eternity. ” This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis has declared this year as a Jubilee Year of Mercy, not because mercy in the Church is something new. Rather, he is reminding us that God and the Church are merciful, and he is challenging us to remember that, and practice that in our Church and personal lives. I refer you to the Catholic Catechism commentary on suicide: “Although suicide is always objectionably sinful, one should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to God alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for person who have taken their own lives.” In other words, when someone has reached a point of despair to consider taking, and indeed taking, ones own life, they are no longer free, and in ways “know only to God” are most assuredly received by a loving a merciful God into the arms of eternal love.

    • Great point. Another angle: while the Catholic Church can declare that a deceased person is in Heaven—after receiving evidence of their sanctity, miracles performed, etc., in the canonization process—the Catholic Church has never declared, and probably cannot declare, that a deceased person is in Hell. (Judas Iscariot being the possible exception; see this excellent article about the back-and-forth between two camps of Catholic theologians [those arguing for “universal salvation” and those arguing that most are damned] by Cardinal Dulles in First Things, “The Population of Hell“. It wraps up with this quote, which is kind of an apt description of the comment box on Mr. Rivard’s breaking news article:

      One might ask at this point whether there has been any shift in Catholic theology on the matter. The answer appears to be yes, although the shift is not as dramatic as some imagine. The earlier pessimism was based on the unwarranted assumption that explicit Christian faith is absolutely necessary for salvation. This assumption has been corrected, particularly at Vatican II. There has also been a healthy reaction against the type of preaching that revels in depicting the sufferings of the damned in the most lurid possible light. An example would be the fictional sermon on hell that James Joyce recounts in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man This kind of preaching fosters an image of God as an unloving and cruel tyrant, and in some cases leads to a complete denial of hell or even to atheism.

      Today a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error. Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved. The Mass for the Dead has turned into a Mass of the Resurrection, which sometimes seems to celebrate not so much the resurrection of the Lord as the salvation of the deceased, without any reference to sin and punishment. More education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in hell (cf. Matthew 10:28).

      In other words, stay on the road and let’s avoid the ditches on either side.

  2. The blame for the reflexive assumption that he may have been guilty as charged lays at the feet of the Catholic Church itself. The Church’s choice to shelter sexual predators at the cost of their innocent victims on such an astonishingly large scale has resulted in a reputation of the worst kind amongst the general public. If indeed his suicide was directly or indirectly as a result of a false accusation then I would also lay at least some of the blame for his desperation on the church he dedicated his life to whose actions drove the citizenry of this country and the world at large to disbelieve any claims of innocence. The Church’s choices have almost limitless impact in ways that are still revealing themselves and are perhaps even to blame for this man’s death in his state of anguished but putative innocence. I personally don’t blame some kind of uninformed mob mentality or a traumatized victim who may or may not have gotten it wrong for an absolute environment of skepticism. Actions have consequences and people are watching. He clearly did many great things and we should pray for his mourning family. I hope also that the Church reflects on the ripple effect of this mortal sin, the cover up of brutal crimes against children.

  3. Why isn’t there a story being done on hearing that will be next week? The fact that Thomas J Henry has not dropped the case and will pursue justice for the victim? Come on now, there is something here, there is a story. I wish people would write as many stories on the victims of these predators as they do trying to convince the public that nothing is going on here. It’s a damn shame really.

  4. Reasoned, thoughtful, nuanced. Compassion for both Fr. Virgil and those who have suffered abuse. A non-judgmental piece that will be met with civil discourse by those who truly believe in the mercy of all that is good and holy.

  5. The Church provided a young, highly intelligent young man from a minority background a chance for education and status. A chance he would otherwise not have. The testimonials regarding his compassion, empathy for others and his uplifting message leave no doubt that whatever mistakes he made in his life, he was a good man. This smart, good man recognizing the depravity of an organization that preys on people’s fears and hopes, one of the richest most powerful organizations in the world for centuries whose mission of continued religious, wealth and political control includes covering up the sordid tracks of its own depraved emissaries, may have decided that he could no longer, after a lifetime of dedication, represent the Big Lie. Did he conclude that no supernatural power exists and all we have is each other? Did his despair include thoughts of a lifetime of deception? The anti-humanist, anti-science stance of the Roman Catholic church and its influence is harmful to all of us, religious and non-religious alike. The world needs good men and women grounded in reality. This is so sad in so many ways.

  6. I enjoyed reading your reflections, Mr. Rivard. May Fr. Elizondo rest in peace.

    I would encourage you to do a bit more digging into the true efforts of journalism put forth by the Boston Globe with regard to the sex abuse scandal via some Catholic priests. While you could certainly describe their efforts as “tenacious”, it wouldn’t be in a positive sense. They embellished and even lied quite frequently just to further tarnish the Catholic Church at large.

    I encourage you to listen to this iTunes podcast by Catholic Answers which authentically reports on the specifics of the wrongdoings of the Boston Globe reporters (and the organization as a whole): https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/catholic-answers-focus/id955874270?mt=2&i=360320935

  7. Just saying, Catholics do not believe that suicide is an automatic ticket to Hell. Suicide is commonly a byproduct of mental despair/severe depression. If Elizondo was in such a state, that would diminish his own culpability for the action and would allow for the aid of God’s infinite mercy.

  8. Thank you, RR. Like salve on a festering wound, your insightful words brought some comfort and healing to this painful and jarring episode. Sadly, the scar left behind will be a gaping hole in the hearts of so many of us who knew and loved this kind, loving, humble man of God. Te amo mucho, Father Virgil.

    • Thank you, Karen. A welcome compliment coming from you, knowing your commitment to the Archdiocese and your close friendships with so many there. As our friend John Philip Santos is saying, the lasting salve will be seeing that Fr. Virgil’s ground-breaking theological and evangelical work survives him. –RR

  9. The New York Times (February 1, 1997) recounts the events surrounding the accusation made against then Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. (The accuser later recanted.) “The Cardinal, in his book, recounted undergoing an emotional and spiritual ordeal after being named in Mr. Cook’s lawsuit.

    ”My advisers urged me to issue a statement to the media whose trucks, which I could see from my office window, were already crowding against each other on Superior Street below,” he wrote. ”But how do you say anything about a charge you have not seen from persons you do not know about something you did not do?” He added that he was comforted by Jesus’ words, in John 8:32, that ”the truth shall make you free.””

    Bob, your reflection has provided such truth. Your words have set free the hearts of those of us in pain for the loss of our good friend, Virgilio. Gracias, hermano. You have also been respectful of those individuals enslaved by years of guilt and suffering at the hands of diseased and disordered individuals. I am grateful for this reflection.

    You have lifted our sorrow, with a reminder that Virgilio lived his life in the beauty and truth of God’s love for us, not His judgement. Virgilio sang a life’s song of God’s relationship to our Mexican-American community reminding all Christians of an image of Christ that is “the stranger among us”. Mostly, Virgilio, at all times, listened and responded to those in pain with an unwavering compassion and gentle reminder that what is true will always perdure.

  10. Robert Rivard, you have referred to yourself as “a lapsed Catholic.” Simultaneously, you have received a calling to step forward and help to heal so many people, inside and outside the Catholic Church, affected by Father Virgil’s death. Your call and acceptance of it provide us an opportunity to realize that God does not discriminate in giving gifts. All are invited to share and help to distribute His gifts when and where they are needed.

    The Rivard Report has an instrument of hope, encouragement, positive outlook. Now it served to heal many. Thank you for spending so much of yourself caring about the rest of us.

    • Joan, thank your for your kind words. The events of the past week have left me, like others, questioning many of my own assumptions. Writing what I feel and believe has been a kind of expatiating relief or therapy, or at least it has put me at ease. For everyone who knew Fr. Virgil, who really knew him, this has not been an easy goodbye. Thanks for reading and commenting. –RR

  11. Rober, Thank you so much for the thought provoking meditation on Fr Virgil. I truly appreciate it very much . I have reread it a number of times

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