Editor’s Note: This is the bilingual homily delivered by Fr. David Garcia at the Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgilio Elizondo at St. Rose of Lima Church on San Antonio’s Westside Saturday, March 19. Remarks delivered in Spanish and English by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller appear in a companion posting, along with a separate posting of coverage of the Mass.
— — — — —
There is a story about Pope Francis when he was a young seminarian in his twenties. He developed a serious lung disease and almost died. The doctors had to remove part of one lung to save his life. The recovery took months in the hospital during which time he was in constant severe suffering. The doctor who visited him briefly each day prescribed one pill daily for that pain. The nurse who attended him all day long every day was a nun, a woman religious. She could see the one pill was not working as the future pope’s pain did not diminish.
On her own, she decided to give him three pills a day. We know it is not allowed for a nurse to adjust the doctor’s orders. She was risking her job and career, but she saw intense suffering and responded with complete compassion. The word compassion means to accompany someone in their suffering. The Pope has always remembered this critical moment in his life. The Year of Mercy we are commemorating now is his call for all of us to look for the ways, even if they are beyond the norm, to show mercy to each other, especially those in most pain.
The allegations against Fr Virgil and now his death have left us all with a deep sense of loss and suffering. 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.
However, Fr Virgil did not ever limit his work or friendship to just the Hispanic community. He always felt as much at home with Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams as he did with Catholic priests and university professors. He was as comfortable with undocumented immigrants and the homeless as he was with the political and business elites of the city. He loved to celebrate popular religious customs as much as he did the most solemn ceremonies in the Roman missal. In effect, we were all amazed at his depth, his mind and his never-ending creativity which generated more ideas than we could all keep up with.
Today I call upon Jesus, the one Virgilio called a mestizo, who combined in himself all races, cultures and peoples, but especially those from the periferias, as Pope Francis calls the marginalized. I call upon Him who is the very face of the God of mercy to once again show that mercy to Virgilio and to us. Let that mercy be a moment of tenderness and care, of healing and hope, of a promise that this life is brief but the Kingdom of God is for eternity.
The gospel we just heard of the Raising of Lazarus was read in many parishes this past Sunday. It is a powerful human story with a powerful divine message. Jesus is told “the one you love is sick.” How often we have been told this about loved ones and we respond, but sometimes one we love is sick and no one knows or suspects. Jesus especially reached out to the sick of his day, who were not only suffering physical pain but also rejection and alienation. His healing was both for the body and to restore that person to the community of relationships.
Many of us reached out to Virgil these past months, imitating the actions of Jesus. I know he was grateful to all for your prayers, communications and visits. It gave him much consolation and solace. His life has ended but his friendships continue in the connections we all feel through him with each other.
One week from tonight we will gather for the evening vigil of the Resurrection. It begins in darkness, but soon after, the Easter fire burns brightly and the Paschal Candle will take a light from that fire to begin once more the proclamation of the Resurrection. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Darkness does not win. Pain, suffering and death are not the last word. We will try during those most sacred ceremonies to experience the “original moment” as Virgil called it, where we have some feeling and interior connection to the story of Jesus and it becomes our own story. We can then say with faith, “I was there.” Darkness does not win. Death does not have the final say. We are children of light.
Yes, today is preparing us for these mysteries. We believe Jesus died for us all, for the poor, for those on the margins, the aliens, those fleeing civil war and violence, those escaping grinding poverty or the evil grasp of the drug cartels. Jesus’ resurrection calls us to share that light with those in the darkest situations of life and we know today there is much darkness. We are called to replace the anger, fear and bigotry that seems to be on the rise in our world with the light of hope, love and inclusion. The Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mystery. We still do not fully understand it all. We will never grasp in this life everything there is to know about death, and that certainly is true today. Yet, we must go on doing our best to spread the light.
The final words of Jesus 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.” 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.”
VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL
Una vez el Arzobispo Patricio Flores, quien siempre estaba jugando con chistes y bromas, con una sonrisa grande, me preguntó, “¿Quieres ver un retrato de mi madre?” Cuando yo contesté, “Sí”, él sacó de su billetera una estampa de la Virgen de Guadalupe, diciendo, “Esta es mi Madre.”
Recuerdo ese momento ahora en este memorial para el Padre Virgilio, porque él me ayudó más que cualquier otra persona a conocer y apreciar a la morenita. En muchas maneras con sus pláticas y libros, el Padre Virgilio presentó la Virgen a católicos de los Estados Unidos en nuevas formas como de veras familia, como madre, una madre que vino al pueblo mexicano en un momento de mucho dolor y tristeza, un momento en que muchos de los indígenas, desesperados después de la conquista y el fin de su civilización, simplemente querían morir.
El mensaje de la Virgen era una garantía de que una madre siempre está lista para acompañar y escuchar a sus hijos, especialmente en momentos de sufrimiento.
Hoy en el evangelio vemos a Jesús haciendo lo mismo con María y Marta, amigas íntimas de él y hermanas de Lázaro, que había fallecido. Jesús las acompañó en su dolor hasta llorar con ellas. Su mensaje era que su hermano resucitaría en el último día, y después llamó a Lázaro de la muerte a la vida.
Hoy, debemos recordar esas palabras de consuelo de la Virgen a Juan Diego. “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” Jesús da la misma esperanza a Marta y María. Son las palabras que el Padre Virgilio siempre repitió muchas veces. Son palabras de consuelo para todos nosotros en este momento de tristeza y dolor.
Que la morenita, amada tanto por el Padre Virgilio, lo reciba este día y lo cubra con su manto maternal en el reino de los cielos. Así sea.
*Top image: Fr. David Garcia delivers the homily during the Memorial Mass for Fr. Virgil Elizondo at St. Rose of Lima Church. Photo by Robert Rivard.