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!”
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.
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.
*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.