If you want a perfect example of what Catholicism is in El Paso, allow me to direct you to the welcome page at Sacred Heart- one of the oldest Churches in El Paso- the foundation of Segundo Barrio, sums it up:
“One of the most beautiful things about this city, the aspect I appreciate most, is its openness to people of color --any color. I am not saying this place is perfect. But it is one of the most tolerant, open-minded communities I have ever lived in. A young black man named Tyrone evacuated here from New Orleans after Katrina. He loved El Paso so much that he has decided to make it his home. Countless soldiers from Ft Bliss have fallen in love with El Paso women and have also chosen to sink roots here and call ‘El Chuco’ home. These marriages, usually between a lovely Mexican American woman and a handsome young Anglo have turned into some of the most beautiful families in the world. And now, many people, at least 40,000 to date, have fled the sad violence of Ciudad Juarez and elected to make El Paso their home.
“The great counselor Carl Rodgers speaks of the importance of giving to others ‘unconditional positive regard.’ That kind of attitude is very prevalent here. And as our Country becomes more polarized over every issue imaginable, El Paso continues to show the world that tolerance and mutual respect make for a safe society. We continue to be one of the safest cities in the country. And I believe it goes back to the fundamental attitude of openness to people, whatever their beliefs, whatever their racial background, whatever the color of their skin.”
And as for the Franciscans, well, I was subject to one of the most frank and beautiful eulogies after my friend Esme Barrera’s murder. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was amazingly inclusive- welcoming friends of all faiths, and those with none at all, to partake in a moment of grave fellowship, and remember that justice, love, and peace finds its way. It was the first time I’d ever seen a funeral where the priest or pastor gave so much attention to the non-believer- to give them equal comfort, to make them feel welcome, to make them feel loved. It was such a testament to what the Church should and could be, what it is here.
I was really hoping to get a couple of interviews with well-respected priests for this article, but those who I approached made it clear that their service to their parish predelicted their willingness to air their grievances in print.
I had to tread lightly, because they’re integral to the communities in which they serve. These guys have nothing to do with the larger national picture of corruption and scandal within the church. They work as humble councilors, and most of the priests I’ve met in El Paso have been of the same ilk. Many of our parishes are presided by Jesuits who work in the Barrios of El Paso, advocating for immigration rights, providing comfort to the poorest in the city, and living like their constituency, in humble accommodations and simple, modern means.
Father Rodriguez’ efforts struck me as a deep affront.
I am not Catholic, nor was I raised Catholic. My mother was Armenian Apostolic. My father LDS, and my mother converted to the LDS Church after they married.
But, having been raised in a predominantly Catholic city, where most of my peers were Catholic, and where I grew up, having gone to elementary school in Sandoval Barrio and lived fourteen years of my life on the border of Segundo, I have seen with my own eyes how the Church has been one of the only firm advocates for Civil Rights in this city.
And more importantly, I know in my heart that those who advocate tirelessly here for their parishioners of all stripes, have no taste for political advocacy that would isolate any of their flock.
Father Michael Rodriguez presided over San Juan Bautista as a parish priest for 9 ½ years before his re-assignment to Presidio, Texas, on the basis of his avid participation with Bishop/Pastor Brown’s recall efforts. He wrote a number of Op/Ed columns for the Times decrying homosexuality while the recall was underway. According to KVIA, “One column was titled ‘Every Catholic Must Oppose Certain Things.’ In it, he wrote that, ‘Any Catholic who supports homosexual acts is, by definition, committing a mortal sin and placing himself/herself outside of communion with the Roman Catholic Church… Rodriguez ended the column by calling homosexuality, ‘An unequivocal intrinsic moral evil,’ and ‘frighteningly, if the majority chooses to deny the objective moral order, then we will all suffer the pestiferous consequences.’”
Allegedly, Rodriguez also helped collect signatures and advertise for the recall effort, “Rodriguez wrote four controversial advertisements, which ran in the El Paso Times, speaking out against the elected officials and the gay lifestyle. He also challenged Mayor John Cook and city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega to a public forum.” If that is the case Rodriguez would be in violation of the Johnson Amendment and State Law.
But the real meat of the issue, and what probably sent Bishop Armando Ochoa packing, was Ochoa’s suit against Rodriguez for misappropriation of Diocesan funds. Rodriguez is alleged to have solicited donations signed to his personal account for church repairs and improvements and to have hired his brother to do the work without Diocesan approval.
Per the Times, “The lawsuit gives a detailed account of how the Rev. Rodriguez allegedly inappropriately deposited donations in various accounts to keep them secret, solicited funds and completed building projects without the approval of the bishop and requested checks be made in his name.
“The lawsuit alleges that David Rodriguez was paid $4,000 for unknown work. The suit alleges that David Rodriguez was a participant in some of the priest's fraudulent practices and maintains at least one personal checking account with money meant for the church. David Rodriguez would not comment on the suit.”
As we all know, one can’t really gauge public opinion accurately through the comments section of a newspaper. Even NPR’s comments can find themselves loaded with hate-filled rants that pass by the moderators, but I find them a better gauge than letters to the editor, but let’s allow the comment of one of his former parishioners, Adrían Juárez to speak.
“As someone who's been a parishioner of San Juan B[autista], and received most of my Sacraments, beginning with my Baptism into the Church, I am saddened to hear of this tear in our Church community. But given the ‘Abuse-from-the-pulpit’ that Fr. Rodriguez spearheaded and the manner that he took advantage of his position, caused a great and un-needed crisis in the Diocese.
“Make no mistake about it, what Fr. Rodriguez represented (and continues to represent) is clear and unmistakable hate for a another God-given human life that happens to be part of the LGBT community. Guided by the medium that God speaks to us, our conscience, I will stand with those who are marginalized, just as the Lord Himself stood with marginalized (Luke 7:22; Mathew 11:5). We are not put on this Earth to judge, we are put on this Earth to Love (Romans 5:8). Lest we forget the lessons of our great Catechism, El Justo Juez, is the Ultimate and Final Judge of our actions and short-comings regarding our duty to Love one another (Catechismus 1021-1022).”
As our city’s demographic changes, though, so does it’s religious contingency. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has noticed that megachurches and the Evangelical community have blossomed here. Whether that has anything to do with BRAC, or not, it’s here and it’s a force to be reckoned with. This religious community has made a point of making legal advocacy their next step in doing what they consider to be the “Lord’s Work”, and we’ll just have to brace ourselves as these constituencies and the law work themselves out. If we see ourselves as a community that embraces tolerance, we must actively pursue it for the greater good. And that means our young people need to get off their tuches’ and show their numbers at the polls.