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.
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.