Interview: Virgilio Elizondo, winner of 2007 International Peace Award

Virgilio Elizondo is pastor of a congregation in San Antonio Texas, a Catholic priest and considered the parent of U.S. Hispanic theology. He is currently professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame. His work explores the idea of Jesus’ origins in Galilee, outside the mainstream of Israelite life, as a source of meaning for Hispanic Americans. His theology has found resonance beyond the Mexican-American community in the many places where movements of peoples happen in a globalizing world. Father Elizondo’s peace work affirms the equality and worth of all persons.

He is interviewed here by Andrew Bolton, coordinator of the Peace Colloquy held at the Temple in Independence, MO.

Andrew Bolton: I was fascinated to hear the story of your parent’s romance and your dad lending your mum, as the bride to be, the money to give to him.

Virgilio: Yeah, right.

AB: And then you growing up in a community where there’s a lot of diversity and yet people got on with each other.

VE: That’s right.

AB: So you grew up thinking it was normal that people who are different got on with each other.

VE: Yeah, that’s right. And they could poke fun at each other.

AB: Yeah, so there was affirmation of difference and acknowledgment of difference, but it was okay.

VE: Yes.

AB: So when did you first experience the pain of separation and division?

VE: Well, I think as I was going to school, that’s where I remember experiencing it. Because I was 100% Spanish speaking and I didn’t know any English, so I think the first time the difference was painful was when I started going to school, in the first grade.

AB: Right, and from then on you sometimes were perhaps intimidated or bullied because you were Hispanic.

VE: Right, and the fact that I couldn’t speak English correctly and because, people couldn’t understand what I was saying or things like that. I don’t think I was ever bullied, some people were, I wasn’t, but people laughing or people asking “What’s he trying to say? Did anybody understand him?” That kind of stuff.

AB: And that as a six-year-old would be quite painful.

VE: Oh yes, definitely.

AB: And yet you had the security of the earlier experience–

VE: Oh, absolutely.

AB: –this other community.

VE: Sure, because the moment I got home things were different. At home everything was fine. People got along and we had all the affirmation we could ever want—a very affirmative community, so that was the positive side of it.

AB: I was interested in the inoculation point. Gandhi, Martin Luther King all had these moments when their world is interrupted by the pain of racism or whatever, then they use this energy to kind of confront that—you’ve done that theologically and pastorally, right?

VE: Right. I don’t think there was a “one moment” thing, just a growing sense that there was something wrong in this type of relationship, there was something principally wrong. Just like there was a lot of things to admire in the culture of the United States—my parents were never negative about the US, they always had a great respect and a great gratitude for being here, so I never grew up with any empty feelings but a feeling of pain that there was something wrong with this type of relationship. And also the fact that I grew up with a great love and respect for my own mix of heritage and so therefore if people put us down, I’d think “Well, there’s something wrong, they’re not understanding.” So it was kind of that and that expanded to everything including church worship, church music, and even the theological understanding of who we were. So that’s what gradually formed my theological process, that experience that rather than this encounter with people that was painful, rather than it be negative, that there was something very positive about it. And that had to be developed. That inherent there is something beautiful and positive, but it has to be given birth to.

AB: Tell me about your call to ministry. How long have you been a catholic priest? How did you perceive that call?

VE: I was ordained in ’63 so that means I’ve been ordained 44 years. I was ordained at the beginning of a lot of these movements in the country, the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement. I was a priest during the height of the Vietnam crisis.

AB: And of course things are beginning to move later on about the great workers and so on.

VE: Sure, the farm worker movement, Cesar Chavez. I was ordained at that moment which was a lot of very healthy unrest—I considered it very healthy. And yet as you remember in all those movements it was not a call to violence, but it was a call to change. It was a call to change and a call to be willing to challenge, but not a call for violence to eliminate violence. And I think that was a very important thing that emerged. Cesar Chavez was, in my mind, was as important as Martin Luther King for us Latinos and he always objected to any type of violence. He went into a fast, he went into prayer and so forth, but not violence. So I think the ideas, like Gandhi—he was more distant, but nevertheless an important figure—and as a Christian, certainly, Jesus himself—who accepted the cross rather than to call forth violence upon others. So I think all those things were important for me.

AB: That’s very helpful to hear that. So, in our movement, we have a personal story about our calling to priesthood.

VE: I think my personal story—again, I don’t think there’s any one moment where I had a revelation from heaven or anything like that—I think it gradually built up. I had a very healthy childhood church experience, where church was the center of activity, where we met people, and we enjoyed going to church. It was fun. I sometimes get in trouble because people that church was the best carnival in town. There was always something exciting happening. Whether it was a procession or a crowning or something. So you didn’t have to tell people to go to church, people wanted to go. It was the center of life in our community. Then on the other hand, gradually, we had an archbishop, Archbishop Lucey, who was one of my great mentors—Robert E. Lucey—who already back in the ‘40s was working along with the Jewish Rabbi and the Episcopal bishop—who were all working together for desegregation already.

AB: So that was reinforcing the earlier childhood values of building coalition.

VE: Yes, very definitely. Seeing those three—at a time when most religions didn’t speak to each other, to see these three great religious leaders working together on common issues was a great source of inspiration.

AB: So what was that archbishop’s name again?

VE: Archbishop Robert E. Lucey. He was the archbishop of San Antonio and the archbishop who ordained me.

AB: He was an Anglo, then?

VE: Oh yes. He was an Irish American from California.

AB: Well the Irish had their own story.

VE: That’s right. But they also understand the story of struggle.

AB: That’s right. That’s what I mean. I’m an Englishman so I understand that. So, that’s very interesting. So he worked with Rabbis?

VE: He worked with Rabbi Jacobsen. I remember him very well, he became a close friend of mine—David Jacobsen. The Episcopal bishop was Everet Jones. They were three great leaders. They were way ahead of their time. It was way before the civil rights movement and they were already working for desegregation of the city, for just wages. In fact, Archbishop Lucey made a lot of enemies because he was calling for—in Texas—he was calling for unionization and just wages.

AB: But that’s very much in the Catholic tradition, isn’t it?

VE: Yes, but it’s not emphasized everywhere. It’s definitely part of our traditional social teaching. But its given different emphasis in different places. Some places it was given major emphasis.

AB: So I read in a bio that was an article from 2004 that you still serve as parish priest in San Antonio.

VE: Yes, that’s correct. In Saint Rosa de Lima Catholic church.

AB: So here you are this brain box of a theologian if I can put it so rudely, and on the other hand, you’re with the common people every weekend.

VE: Oh absolutely. They nourish me.

AB: So you do theology informed by the pastoral conversations that you have.

VE: Well, I think informed or rising out of. To me, I really believe, in theology in the classical sense, that theology is faith seeking understanding, and that faith exists primarily in the living faith community. Books are good and helpful, but the primary source of theology is the living community of faith.

AB: The living community of faith.

VE: Right.

AB: So I’m getting a theological message for free, here. You have to be with the people.

VE: Yeah.

AB: When have you felt Jesus closest?

VE: I think at various moments. I don’t think there’s one moment. I think certainly in many ways in some of the struggles of Cesar Chavez. I think some of the stories, some of the painful stories of some of the undocumented immigrants that I’ve dealt with. I really sense the saying of Matthew 25: “when you it for one of these, you do it for me.”

AB: Yes, that’s the mandate.

VE: Yes, I really think I really experience that in the faces sometimes of people that feel—at least in their own opinion—have been failed unjustly. But I think also sometimes in moments of prayer. As a Catholic I have a deep sense of the presence of Christ in the sacraments. Which in Spanish, by the way, we called it differently. We called it “Jesus sacramentally present.” I love that expression in Spanish. Instead of saying bless the sacraments for us its Jesus sacramentally present. I think sometimes in deep mediation—when I was in the cathedral in San Antonio, I used to love at the end of the day when everything was finished, just to go in there and sit in the silence of the night, in the presence of the blessed sacraments, and just be there. Like sometimes in the company of a good friend, you don’t have to speak, you’re just glad to be together.

AB: That’s right, I used to be like that with my dad.

VE: You just have that beautiful feeling of being together—of being close to someone that’s special to you. I think in those moments—I think in the liturgy—I read Sunday liturgy with the people and it’s really just a moment of experiencing Christ in the community.

AB: As the body of Christ.

VE: Yes. So I think moments like that—I wouldn’t reduce it to any one moment, but moments like that have been very special to me.

AB: That’s really lovely to get that. What’s your biggest contribution as a minister theologian? As you’re self-assessing, and that’s hard to do.

VE: I don’t know what to answer. I think maybe to stimulate others to move in directions of making theology relevant to the people. Helping the people to find meaning and direction in their life which moves so fast and rapidly in this country. And now I think my biggest excitement is helping young Latino theologians to move ahead in their studies and their publications and so forth. That’s what I would say—at least I hope that I could say—I think maybe one that because of my own love for the religious expressions of the people—and I always thought that the religious expressions of the poor, not just the religious expressions of anyone, the religious expressions of the poor are a very privileged place of experiencing God. Because, in a way, they are the people that have nobody else to turn to but God. So in a way those are very privileged places. So I think one of the contributions is to bring out the positive value of those expressions that many others consider to be inferior and unworthy and not for real.

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