Friday, February 25, 2011

Cardinal Roger Mahony: A much-needed voice of reason

By Doris Benavides

From the stay-at-home mom to the immigrant girl-turned-principal of a school in East Los Angeles ... from the farm worker to the chief executive officer of a national civil rights organization ... from the youth living in the shadows and the young adult professionals fighting for their dream to the immigrant boys-turned-bishops....

All of them consider Cardinal Roger Mahony their voice.

"He has spent so much time in Washington, D.C., discussing legislation and the rights people have, and he goes there as a great leader," Msgr. John Moretta, pastor of Resurrection Church in East L.A., told The Tidings.

"We're very grateful for his service, especially to the people that are most needy. He'll always be identified with the most needy," added Msgr. Moretta, chair of the archdiocesan Guadalupana Committee. "He has identified with the marginal --- the people that society not always considers successful, whether it's farm workers, whether it's the immigrant class with papers or no papers; whether it's the low-income students for whom he's made a great sacrifice investing millions and millions of dollars to maintain our schools."

And throughout the years he has become a national institution of courage advocating for the poor.

"Cardinal Mahony has always been a courageous advocate for the Latino and immigrant communities, an outspoken and fearless critic of anti-immigrant sentiment, and a much-needed voice of reason on immigration policy," commented Janet Murguia, president and chief executive officer of the D.C.-based National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "It is why we were so honored to present him with NCLR's Public Service Award in 2007."

Identifying with the less fortunate seems to have been in the cardinal's blood many years before becoming the head of Los Angeles' archdiocese, but it was a sole event that marked him for life.

"One day, 'many years ago,' a ten-year-old boy was working alongside five men of Mexican descent in the poultry processing business owned by the boy's father in North Hollywood, California, when the plant was raided by the Border Patrol," he said in a Feb. 2 lecture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"The officers came running in with guns drawn. It was an extremely terrifying and intimidating moment for those employees, all of whom had papers. As for the boy, a much younger Roger Mahony, I will never forget the terror that those men with their guns created in the workplace that day."

On many occasions since, the cardinal has stated that his ministry to immigrants is an answer to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35: "For I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Those words have also challenged him as he declared in a Jan. 21 farewell letter, "Standing with the 11 Million: Welcoming the Strangers in Our Midst."

And for attending the call, but especially for facing the challenges together with them, the immigrant community and its leaders have a deep appreciation and acknowledge his nationwide leadership.

"Whether it was fighting against Proposition 187, the Sensenbrenner law, Arizona's SB 1070 or any other nefarious and inhumane legislative proposal, he has used his platform as a leader in the Catholic Church to remind us that these proposals stand contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "As an immigrant and a Catholic, I am forever thankful for his leadership."

"He's been there for us in tough times and good times," said Arturo Rodríguez, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW). "He's been truthful, honest and fair. We have a long history with the cardinal."

Rodríguez recalled how Auxiliary Bishop Mahony of Fresno helped bring the parties together during a boycott against table grape growers in 1975 which led to the farmers' right to have a union.

"That was very significant and established a precedent," said Rodríguez, who carried on the work of the organization founded by Cesar Chavez.

"Whenever Cesar and I called him [Cardinal Mahony] to marches or rallies, he was always present and we consulted and received advice and support from him in different issues," the farm workers' leader said. "He has always been indebted to his community despite everything else he has had on his plate."

Validated farm workers' fight

"He has a great understanding that before God's eyes every person is deserving of dignity and respect and he is a firm advocate of the unity of families," said Virginia Nesmith, executive director of the National Farm Workers Ministry (NFWM). "His leadership is critical. He has validated the farm workers' fight for their rights. He never hesitated using his personal time regardless of his position."

"Cardinal Mahony is a leader who knows his mission," said Lucy Boutte, community organizer for the NFWM in Los Angeles. "As for the Catholic community, he challenges us to the extent that we respond to the Gospel message of loving our neighbor to become a more humane and whole country," said Boutte, who was appointed by the cardinal to the Justice and Peace Commission.

"We advocate for farm workers in the churches and cities often far removed from the farm workers," she continued, "but what connects us all is the food we eat every single day. At some point it has been touched by a farm worker and we lift up the struggle, the abuse, the denial of basic human rights so that the average person is aware of the suffering many live to place food on our tables."

While still a seminarian at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, young Roger Mahony visited the farm workers at their workplaces and celebrated Mass at labor camps, recalled Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, who was a fellow seminarian.

"Conditions were not great," Bishop Wilkerson said, "but when you have that experience, that face-to-face exchange with the folks, it changes your approach.

"Catholic gifts include principles and social teachings of the Church, but the heart and mind change when you meet the person and then things start sliding away," he continued. "When you meet the person and listen to their situation with understanding you question yourself, 'How do I respond to this brother and sister? To their circumstances and their family?'"

Time and again Cardinal Mahony has urged Catholics and non-Catholics to make it their point in meeting an immigrant.

"It seems to me that one way to avoid being side-tracked by the heated rhetoric and political posturing that misinforms the immigration debate, is for each of us to listen to the stories of immigrants themselves," he told the UNC-Chapel Hill students, staff and faculty Feb. 2.

Time and again he has repeated in homilies, in speeches at rallies and in media interviews that immigrants are "our neighbors, co-workers, students and friends who contribute greatly to our nation and communities.

"Hear the actual stories of the immigrants themselves," he has often said. "Who are they? Why are they here?"

Meeting the stranger

"I just arrived in Los Angeles three years ago," Maria Felix recently told a group of Resurrection Church volunteers, most of them Latino immigrants. "Just after unpacking myself from Mexico I came here [Resurrection Church] where they embraced me, they helped me with food and clothing. And I was so lucky that I stayed as a volunteer."

Throughout all these years that Cardinal Mahony has led the Church of Los Angeles, "we have seen his valuable efforts, especially supporting people like us, immigrants who want a better life. He has helped us accomplish that," said Angelica Figueroa, principal of Resurrection School, who arrived in East L.A. from Mexico at the age of three together with her parents. She said she could have easily withdrawn from her community after earning a degree in psychology in Minnesota, but instead decided to return and give back to "her people."

"He has supported Catholic schools with financial aid through the Catholic Education Foundation and thanks to him my four children are enrolled in Catholic schools," Resurrection parishioner and volunteer Silvia Bucio commented. "I am always waiting to hear his annual speech for Together in Mission because they help me as a parent and it also helps my kids."

"I recall when the cardinal was named archbishop of Los Angeles and my father --- an immigrant from Mexico --- was a bit disappointed because he was not a Latino," declared Silvia Armas-Abad, an education consultant to the University of Notre Dame.

"It was nice to see that the cardinal has made a great effort to acknowledge not only Mexicans, but all the other cultures within the Spanish-speaking community," she added. "He has done a great job in getting to know our traditions, and the best example is the December 12 Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe."

With very few exceptions over the past 25 years, the cardinal celebrated the archdiocesan Guadalupe Mass at packed venues and processed several miles together with thousands of people from all walks of life throughout Southern California.

"He is very charismatic," Felix noted. "He is very clear and explicit when he explains the Gospel in Spanish. I recall him saying in a homily that God embraces and helps everyone, and I clearly remember when he told us that God had given him the gift of staying and leading the Archdiocese of Los Angeles."

"I have only heard him on the news and haven't had a chance to meet him in person, but I think we all have to thank him because he has done a lot for us," said Irma de Aragon, another Resurrection volunteer and parishioner who arrived in the U.S. 12 years ago from Honduras.

"Fortunately, I was already a citizen when he became the archbishop of L.A., but he has always been open with the people. I recall visiting him at La Placita, where he would talk to everyone," said Hilda Leticia Salinas. "Lo queremos mucho! (We love him dearly!)"

"Es un hombre de Dios (He is a man of God)," said Jesus Ruiz, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Church in L.A. "He has gone through tough times, has been attacked and [during his time] the Church lost a lot of money, but that identifies him with us because we all have faced harsh times as well."

"Cardinal Roger Mahony is a tried and tested leader for immigrants and their rights," Chirla's Salas said. "He sees the human face of God in the immigrant community that is marginalized, attacked and mistreated in this country."

Some of those faces are within the archdiocese's leadership.

"If there's someone who knows about the face of the immigrants, that would be me," Msgr. Lorenzo Miranda, newly-appointed vicar for clergy, told The Tidings.

While growing up in Los Angeles, he saw how his then undocumented father worked hard to provide for his family, but lived in constant fear.

"There are a lot of people who could care less, but I give a lot of credit to the cardinal for taking care of his people, hard-working people who don't mind accepting any kind of job in order to fulfill their families' needs," said Msgr. Miranda.

"He has dedicated much of his ministry to educating Catholics and non-Catholics about our human duty to restore the dignity of immigrants and their families," Salas noted. "Most importantly, he has stood with the immigrant community when they most needed support."

'Will be deeply missed'

Cardinal Mahony will be "deeply missed" in his role as the head of L.A.'s Catholic Church, said leaders, but they welcome his determination and commitment in reaching a favorable response.

"No doubt in my mind we'll see it happen," said UFW's Rodriguez. "He [the cardinal] will continue with his leadership and experience, giving an example with the moral ways he carries himself, until ensuring a comprehensive immigration reform."

Maria Rodriguez, Chirla's youth organizer and a Los Angeles Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act team leader, said she admires his work "and most of all his commitment. Even after his retirement he wants to continue his work for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and that is so powerful to see.

"He is a powerful religious leader that brings hope and brings other people to the table, who otherwise would not be there," continued Rodriguez, who arrived in La Puente with her parents at age five and at 16 became the poster child during the AB-540 campaign to allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. After its approval she enrolled at the University of California Davis and earned a degree in political science.

"He is approachable, easy going and has a very good energy," she said of the cardinal. "He exemplifies faith and action. He not only celebrates Mass, but you see him at marches and policy meetings. If you have faith and couple it up with action then you create change for future generations. Many talk about Jesus, but Jesus is justice and He showed it through His actions."

And throughout the years the cardinal has adapted and adjusted to the socio-political climate and has been open in admitting it.

"We are all aware that human language brings much promise and much peril," he said in his March 2007 remarks when receiving La Raza's award in Washington.

"Especially after several months and after my visit today to senators and congressmen, I have learned that certain words are not to be used. Never used the 'A' word, Amnesty. Do not use the 'C' word, Citizenship. Do not use the 'L' word, Legalization. But rather find other words that don't convey the power of what we are about," said the cardinal not even a year after the 2006 historic immigration march that crowded the streets of Los Angeles, where he was also present.

"The lives of millions of our brothers and sisters are at stake," he continued. "It is not an option for us to find the best politically correct solution to all of the aspects, but if I may use the 'C' word we want, we need and we will get a comprehensive legislation passed."

And he continued.

"Back in 1986 when immigration reform was passed --- the Simpson-Mazzoli Act --- many of us said, 'What about tomorrow? What about next year? What about these other aspects? And Congress leaders said, 'We'll get to that later.'

"On behalf of our church and all the faith communities we are focused on one major goal: legislation must be passed by both houses and signed into law by the time we get to the August recess."

The proposal was not passed then, but that did not deter the cardinal.

Prophetic words

"One of his gifts," noted Bishop Wilkerson, "is his vision, his tireless energy to raise consciousness of folks for a just comprehensive immigration law that everybody agrees is broken, it doesn't work."

"Cardinal Mahony has decided to continue his ministry in speaking on behalf of the least among us, which in many cases includes immigrants and their families," added Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar, archdiocesan director of the Office of Justice and Peace and Ethnic Ministries.

"His is a prophetic role which is right in line with the rich tradition of Catholic social teachings on justice. We can all benefit from listening to his prophetic voice on this issue."

"The cardinal has been by far the most important voice the Catholic Church has had in the country," said Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala. "And for that he has taken a lot of heat and criticism."

Indeed, despite the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the "nastiest letters" he has ever received are regarding immigration, according to Msgr. Marc Trudeau, the cardinal's priest-secretary for the last six years and current pastor of Lomita's St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Church,

"But in the face of all he is always seeking reconciliation and understanding," said Msgr. Trudeau.

"He feels he can argue because the Gospel demands from us to be the voice for those who have no voice and people know how he feels, people [immigrants] know he cares about them, that he speaks for them," added Bishop Zavala.

"Unions see his leadership," said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. "There's a solid core group of unions that appreciate the way he has responded, that really appreciate what he does.

"He has been very courageous. When many in the archdiocese objected his pro-active stance he stayed strong. Very inspirational."