When the popular priest Fr. Eddie Bernal, who died in May, was studying for the priesthood, he almost got kicked out during the first semester. His sister-in-law, 2015 Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla, knows the story well.
“He got into a very heated debate in class that was later reported to Archbishop Flores,” Tafolla said. “When they told Eddie the Archbishop wanted to see him, he thought, ‘My brief but distinguished life as a seminarian… I’m being kicked out.’
“But when he got there, Archbishop Flores asked, ‘Eddie, I heard you said that Christ was as much in the Protestant Church as the Catholic Church as the Jewish synagogue?’
“’Yes, that’s true,’ he said.
“’Is that ALL you said?’
“’Keep up the good work,’ answered Archbishop Flores, and gave him an abrazo.”
Support, encouragement, and love were the basis of the lifelong ministry of Patricio “Patrick” Fernandez Flores – lifelong because his love and talent for serving God showed themselves from childhood when he taught the Catholic catechism to his siblings and other farm worker children in Ganado, northeast of Victoria.
Flores, 87, died on Jan. 9 after several years of suffering from dementia and congestive heart failure. He served as the first Hispanic bishop and archbishop in the United States after a determined effort to become a priest despite battling discrimination. He retired in 2005.
Funeral services began Monday with a vigil service, and will culminate in the funeral Mass at San Fernando Cathedral and burial Tuesday at San Fernando Cemetery II.
It was Flores’ parents who instilled in him a devotion to God, said his colleague and protégé Fr. David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio and rector of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio from 1995 through 2008.
“They were poor people, but they were very hardworking people who had a strong sense of values in their culture and in their history,” he told the Rivard Report. “They were strict disciplinarians and at the same time they inspired their children tremendously.”
Flores even declined an opportunity to continue his seminary studies in Rome – a way of fast-tracking young priests to becoming a bishop, because his mother was ill and ultimately died. Choosing family over career, he made a sacrifice that Garcia said he never regretted.
Flores’ leadership of powerless Latino Catholics came naturally, as he and his family had experienced discrimination themselves in the 1930s and beyond.
Garcia said Flores would tell stories about standing in line with his brothers to buy movie tickets. The woman in the ticket booth pointed to Flores, who was light-skinned, and declared, “You can go in, but they (his darker skinned brothers) have to go in the back door.”
“It was just pure skin color,” Garcia said. “He realized it was so stupid and discriminating and segregating that he began to develop in himself the belief that this has to be confronted, this is something we have to do something about.
“He had lots of these kind of stories of personal discrimination, of seeing injustice and poverty and so when he became a priest, he wanted not only to serve people spiritually, but he saw that it gave him the opportunity to lift people up in many other ways, giving them the advantages of having a better life. And that stayed with him all of his life.”
Flores succeeded in institutionalizing his social beliefs such as initiating the Office of Social Concerns, now called the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. Its first director, Fr. Mike DeGerolami, now priest for St. Timothy on the Westside, said Garcia didn’t hesitate to call out clergy and lay people to do the work of social justice, setting an example for clergy and laypeople.
“With the Vatican Council II social policy, Pope John XXIII said ‘Let in the fresh air,’” DeGerolami said. “Archbishop Flores did, too. He opened a window, he never forgot where he came from, and the people loved that ‘He’s one of us.’”
Despite the example Flores set as bishop and archbishop – establishing scholarship funds, committees and empowering his flock for social advancement – Garcia stated flatly that his mentor never wanted to be a bishop, nor an archbishop.
On the day Flores was ceremoniously installed as archbishop, Garcia was by his side, his chosen assistant.
“I remember telling him during the procession how excited I was about it,” Garcia said. “And he said, ‘You know, I’m not excited about it.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘What?’
“But for him the honor and glory, all the trappings that go with the office, that was not even a consideration. For him it was just another opportunity to see if he could help people because from the very beginning he used his position for helping the poor and that’s the way he thought.
‘If this can help the poor, then let’s do it.’”
As early as 1970, when Flores was ordained as the first Mexican-American bishop in the country, he proclaimed his intentions telling the assemblage in HemisFair Arena, “The church cannot remain neutral or passive since she is both the teacher and mother to all people. And as teacher and mother, the church wants all of her children treated with justice – and afforded their dignity befitting all sons of God.”
Those who think needing to gussy up for church services is unnecessary will appreciate Flores’ own views about the trappings of Catholic office. Garcia explained that the protocol for an archbishop directs him to carry a staff and wear a mitre on his head.
“Someone holds the staff and the mitre goes on and off at different times during the liturgy,” Garcia explained.
“For him,” he continued, “he would walk in, lean the staff against a corner and take off the mitre and it would not go back on until he walked out the door. That was just typical of him. That’s part of why so many of us loved him so much, because he was archbishop, but all the trappings are not part of who he was. It was a moment to serve, a moment to inspire, a moment to lift up people, and that’s what he decided he was going to use it for.”
While Archbishop Flores’ legacy will rightly celebrate his long, fierce, and innovative inroads for social justice, he also reached out to a wider community, and not just geographically.
Garcia said the Catholic Archdiocese grew tremendously through new parishes, ministries and organizations, but that the archbishop was open to the business community and interfaith community as well.
“He was widely respected by them, (his role) was not just a Latino thing,” Garcia said. “He was loved by all. Though obviously he was a symbol and a source of hope and inspiration for Hispanics, he never really saw himself as just for one group.”
At the same time, Archbishop Flores served as a source of hope for millions of people beyond San Antonio.
“As a young bishop in the 1970s he was getting invitations from all over the United States,” Garcia said. “He was the de facto bishop for the millions and millions of Hispanic Catholics around the country because they had never seen a bishop who looked like them, so that made a big difference. He grew into that role, but he always tried to get more bishops like him because he knew he couldn’t do it all by himself.
“I think as he grew to understand his role, he understood it was going to be difficult, it was going to involve a lot of sacrifice, work, and criticism. And yet at the same time he knew he was called, he knew he was the first, and said ‘I accept my call.’”
The people noticed, and a crowd of thousands is expected at San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza and along the processional route to the cemetery Tuesday.
“People have intense feelings for him,” DeGerolami said. “He touched so many personally. He embodied the role of servant leader to the ‘nth’ degree.”