Archbishop: ‘Fr. Virgil Was Always a Pastor and Shepherd’

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Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller (foreground) and Fr. David Garcia serve Communion to a parishioner with a portrait of Fr. Virgil Elizondo visible in front of the altar. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Editor’s Note: The remarks delivered in Spanish and English by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and Fr. David Garcia, who delivered a bilingual homily at today’s Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, appear on the Rivard Report in companion postings.

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Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller presided at an emotional and uplifting bilingual Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgilio Elizondo at St. Rose of Lima Church on the city’s Westside Saturday, with more than 100 bishops and priests in attendance as concelebrants, and more than 1,000 parishioners and others streamed into the standing-room only service.

Retired priests and nuns, some in wheel chairs, others walking slowly with canes or the help of friends, slowly made their way into the large, contemporary church nave. Recognizable public figures found space alongside others in the crowded pews that were filled 30 minutes before the Mass began. Four candles were lighted on an altar covered with a simple white mantle with two yellow roses embroidered on its front. It took the archbishop and a number of priests more than 10 minutes to serve the sacrament of Communion to the large gathering.

In an extraordinary gesture immediately following the conclusion of the formal Mass, the archbishop moved to the lectern and delivered remarks, first in Spanish and then in English, honoring Fr. Virgil’s memory, words that surely gave comfort to his surviving sister, Anita Valencia, other family members, and friends gathered together in the front pews.

“Father Virgil was literally in the Garden of Gethsemane (in Jerusalem) when he received word of the civil complaint accusing him of sexual abuse of a minor. He had one day left on his trip to the Holy Land and spent that entire day at Calvary, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” the soft-spoken archbishop said at the conclusion of his heartfelt remarks. “In a sense, he remained on Calvary until this past Monday. Then he crossed the threshold from life to death — alone — but with the hope of the resurrection. His passing was one moment in a long and beautiful story of his life. May our all-merciful and compassionate God grant him eternal rest and peace!”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller comforts a woman after the memorial Mass for Fr. Virgil Elizondo at St. Rose of Lima Church. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller greets a woman after the Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgil Elizondo at St. Rose of Lima Church. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Then, donning his gold and white mitre and gripping his silver crozier, García-Siller thanked all those in attendance and joined the long and slow processional of clergy from the church sanctuary to the vestibule, pausing frequently to bless and hug people. If it’s possible to use the word “celebration” on such a sad and somber occasion, it seemed a fitting description of the Mass and the archbishop’s tribute to Fr. Virgil.

Fr. David Garcia, who followed Fr. Virgil as rector at San Fernando Cathedral and described him Saturday as friend and mentor, delivered the bilingual homily. A choir and instrumental section offered a moving number of hymns before, during and after the Mass.

“The final words of Jesus in the Raising of Lazarus in the Gospel today must be our final words as well. After Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb, he says, ‘Untie him and let him go free,'” Fr. David said. “That was what Jesus, the itinerant preacher from the mestizo land of Galilee, did all his life. He set people free. What a powerful command. Today, that is our prayer for Fr Virgil. Untie him and let him go free.”

The outpouring of archdiocese and community support for Fr. Virgil, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Woodlawn Lake home Monday afternoon, soothed feelings among the many Catholics in attendance. From the city’s most prominent citizens to immigrants and people on the street, to the halls of the University of Notre Dame where he served as a theology professor, Elizondo was known simply as Fr. Virgil, a humble, affable, and encouraging figure whose informality belied his deep intellectual consideration of the place of Mexican-Americans in the Church. He was a beloved pastor, a respected theologian who did groundbreaking work on mestizo spirituality, and author whose books were published in multiple languages.

“You can take the boy out of the Westside, but you can’t take the man out of the Westside,” the archbishop said during his remarks, drawing smiles as he recalled that Fr. Virgil would fly home to San Antonio each weekend after teaching at Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.

That life of commitment and accomplishment over a priesthood that stretched 53 years made his suicide all the more disturbing to friends and the faithful who struggled with its meaning. Fr. Virgil’s decision to take his own life came nine months after an individual identified only as ‘John Doe’ filed a civil lawsuit in Bexar County that accused Elizondo of fondling him on a single occasion after the John Doe, then a boy in a local orphanage, came to Elizondo to say he had been sexually abused by Jesus Armando Dominguez, then a student at Assumption Seminary here, for three years.

Dominguez, who went on to become a priest in California, eventually fled to Mexico amid charges he molested a number of boys there, leading to his criminal indictment and an acknowledgment by the San Bernardino archdiocese that the charges were true. His victims were compensated financially, but Dominguez was never apprehended.

Elizondo was never accused of any improper conduct until the John Doe came forward 32 years after the alleged incident. Despite widespread new coverage of the lawsuit in much of the San Antonio media, no one else came forward to say they, too, had been mistreated by Elizondo. To date, there has been no evidence presented to support the single charge against him. The lawsuit also names archdiocese leaders as defendants and presumably will go forward.

Former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros converse with Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros converse with Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller. Photo by Robert Rivard.

A few have pointed fingers and judged Elizondo guilty, evidenced by his suicide. Many more, however, have adopted a more forgiving view that the depths of depression that lead to such an act often elude rational explanation or understanding. Saturday’s memorial Mass was about honoring Fr. Virgil, his redeeming work, and about healing.

“The allegations against Fr. Virgil, and now his death, have left us all with a deep sense of loss and suffering,” Fr. David said in his homily. “It is real pain we feel. We will never know all the facts, and the wound that is here today will take a long time to heal, if ever. What we know and the reason we are all here today is that this priest, Fr Virgilio Elizondo, left a tremendous and positive influence on the lives of many people. He especially helped the Hispanic community in this country to articulate a theology that allowed us to feel a part of the story of Jesus in a new and deeper way. He inspired, challenged, taught and led us to new paths of thinking about God, Jesus, La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Church, the world and ourselves. He helped us by calling forth the good in each person, especially the marginalized and the poor, so that we all felt an acceptance and welcome that inspired us to treat others in the same way. Along with many people, I count him as a mentor and give thanks to God for the ways that Virgilio changed my life.”

That sentiment seemed to echo in the large empty space of St. Rose of Lima long after the pews had emptied. A few people lingered near the altar, taking cellphone photos of the portrait of a smiling Fr. Virgil that rested on an easel. Some kneeled and prayed as if they were talking to him.

Photo by Robert Rivard.

An attendee of the Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgil Elizondo takes a photo of his portrait and commemorative altar. Photo by Robert Rivard.

 

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*Top image: Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller (foreground) and Fr. David Garcia serve Communion to a parishioner with a portrait of Fr. Virgil Elizondo visible in front of the altar. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Related Stories:

Arzobispado García-Siller: ‘El Padre Virgilio Nunca Olvidó sus Raíces’

Fr. David Garcia’s Bilingual Homily at Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgil Elizondo

A Meditation on Fr. Virgil and His Redeeming Works

Archbishop to Preside at Mass for Fr. Virgilio Elizondo

Commentary: ‘Father Virgil’ on My Mind

Fr. Virgil Elizondo Takes His Own Life

6 thoughts on “Archbishop: ‘Fr. Virgil Was Always a Pastor and Shepherd’

  1. RR- your beautifully crafted stories all this week about Father Virgil’s shocking suicide death have brought so many of us in the Catholic community haunted by this horrific decision a glimpse of comfort and peace. Thank you. However, the shards of stained glass still cut deeply. My hope is that this terrible tragedy and loss of our beloved Virgil may bring truth to the continuing civil action still moving forward against him and the Archdiocese, including our own Archbishop. Even more so, I hope this heartbreaking incident provides a powerful lesson for many of us in the news media to search our souls on the moral and ethical way to cover stories like this in the future. Would a civil suit, an allegation like this, against the ordinary John Doe ever merit a lead story on our TV newscasts or a front page newspaper article, complete with a color picture? Such was the case with the allegation 32 years after the incident was alleged to have happened, leaving Father Virgil in his own kind of hell and despair these past agonizing nine months. Again, as Father Virgil’s inscribed 1997 Laetare medal translates from Latin, “the truth is mighty and it shall prevail.”

    • I say Amen to that, Karen. It has come as a surprise to some of our readers that a ‘John Doe’ can hire a high profile lawyer and anonymously asert anything about anyone, regardless of the evidence or the consequences of making such charges. Thanks, RR

  2. RR, your writings these past days about Father Elizondo reflect all that we expect exceptional journalism to be. You have provided us with exemplars that there need be no disconnect between truth and graciousness; that dispassion need not displace compassion.

    The RR articles have acknowledged the high regard in which Father Elizondo was held by our community, the Church, academia and the world at large, for his decency, humanity, courage, scholarship and vision. Yet, even above all of that, he is remembered for a compassion and inclusiveness that informed and enriched his extraordinary life, a life lived out in service to others.

    The RR writings have also been unambiguous in stating that Father’s Elizondo’s life, gifts and contributions came to an end under the shadow of unproven allegations of misconduct. You could not have done otherwise and remained true to your high standards of professional journalism. Thank you.

    There have been responses to RR articles which appear to reflect a need – on the part some – that memories of Father Elizondo must be first besmirched and then forgotten. Those focusing on such shadows were once given voice by Shakespeare’s Anthony, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

    Yet, for Father Elizondo, while his body may be interred, innumerable grace-filled memories of him will remain alive with all who experienced him. Past that, the legacy of his thought and scholarship in theology and spirituality will influence generations.

    As Father David Garcia reflected in his homily at Father Elizondo’s funeral Mass, “Darkness does not win. Death does not have the final say.”

    Father Elizondo’s “good” will live after him, indeed.

  3. Mr. Rivard,

    I cannot thank you enough for your kind comments and even-handed way of handling something so tragic. Father Elizondo was a very blessed part of my seminary formation. I miss him very, very much. I am very grateful for the tone you have used and how you have shared about him. Contrary to some tragic comments, God is Father Elizondo’s judge, not us. You have paid the positive aspects of his ministry a beautiful tribute. Thank you.

    God bless,

    Blayne Riley

  4. RIP to one of the most prominent leaders we have ever had. I followed him in San Antonio from San Fernando Cathedral to Saint Rose of Lima my current church. Thank you father for all you have done for me and my family! RIP
    HERE IS A PICTURE TAKEN WHERE I WORK http://www.virgilioelizondo.com/1/index.html
    I feel truly blessed to have known such a great and brilliant theologian. RIP to our beloved father Elizondo!

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