The following is part of a reflection delivered at a memorial vespers service that Oblate School of Theology organized on March 30 to commemorate Fr. Virgilio Elizondo. Fr. Virgilio, one of the founding fathers of U.S. Hispanic theology, died on March 14. This reflection has been lightly edited for style.
The day after Father Virgilio Elizondo died, a close friend wrote to me saying that he was the spark that brought us together. As we can see tonight, that rings true. We are Fr. Virgilio’s friends and his death has shaken many of us. We will never understand why he took his own life. Janie Dillard, a close friend of his, said that Fr. Virgilio died of a broken heart. That also rings true. With other friends I find solace and hope when I look back at the man whose life continues to be a blessing to many. I find solace because Fr. Virgilio was a theologian whose teaching gave witness of a faithful, merciful Father who chose the stone that the builders rejected. I find hope because he was a priest whose ministry gave witness to a loving Son who proclaimed a kingdom where rejection itself is no more.
Like many of his students and readers, Fr. Virgilio helped me grow in love with a God who is much closer than I ever dared imagine. When I read his book, Galilean Journey, I began surrendering to my vocation as a lay theologian. Up to that point, theology seemed so abstract at Notre Dame, so distant from the joys and sorrows of the immigrant and poor—the rejected—whom I had befriended and served in Mexico, whose lives were pregnant with the presence (and at times what felt like the absence) of God. Theology seemed removed from the rejection I felt as a child for being too Mexican for some and too American for others. The moment I finished reading Galilean Journey I went looking for Fr. Virgilio at his office. Luckily, he was there. Our meeting quickly turned into a bit of a fiesta because I felt cherished by a God who loves those who, like me, are ni de aquí ni de allá, neither here nor there. I felt fully at home among the people of God, as one of God’s beloved. Tonight we prayed Psalm 118, a royal song of thanksgiving for a military victory that evokes in me the sense of grateful joy that I felt that day because I felt blessed to belong to those who are “The stone which the builders rejected.” That day I rejoiced in gratitude with Fr. Virgilio because theology became the language of a love I felt anew.
Fr. Virgilio’s vocation as a theologian was intimately related to his ministry as a priest in San Antonio. Through his ministry, he introduced us to the Galilean who proclaimed a kingdom where rejection itself is no more. In Galilean Journey, Fr. Virgilio helped us understand our share in Jesus’ mission “to confront, transcend, and transform whatever in the oppressor society diminishes and destroys the fundamental dignity of human nature.” The kingdom entails a struggle that took Jesus, as St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians reminds us, to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2:6-11). While some read Paul’s beautiful hymn as an instruction on doctrine, I join those who read it instead as an instruction on Christian living. Paul’s hymn professes that in the kingdom of God humility leads to exaltation for Christ and all who live like him. In the years immediately after the Galilean’s death, Paul’s claim must have been senseless to Jews who prized a legalistic understanding of their faith and morals. It must have been foolish to Greeks and Romans who valued the attainment of knowledge above all else. I think that Fr. Virgilio was faithful to that way of life. He did not pursue an ecclesial career or an academic one, for that matter (a decision that may have been senseless to many in the church and the academy). He simply aspired to be close to his people and to all others who, like them, are rejected. He tried his best to do good by them. Based on the stories that I have heard these last two weeks, I think that Fr. Virgilio succeeded.
Fr. Virgilio was humble and joyful. While living up to the Galilean’s friendship entails struggle, fiesta is called for because the resurrection of Christ assures us that the kingdom of God will come into its fullness. If one word could describe Fr. Virgilio’s ministry, it may well be fiesta. Appropriately enough, the reading in tonight’s vespers service is the resurrection principle from Fr. Virgilio’s Galilean Journey: “only love can triumph over evil, and no human power can prevail against the power of unlimited love.” I believe that Fr. Virgilio exercised his ministry to the best of his abilities, in light of that principle. He did so as rector of his beloved Cathedral of San Fernando, where he hoped, as he recounts in Galilean Journey, that “everyone without exception would experience welcome, dignity, and acceptance, real expressions of the unlimited love of God.” Fr. Virgilio exuded a sense of joy and acceptance that reflected the spirit of the kingdom of God. That is cause for grateful joy.
Fr. Virgilio introduced us to the Galilean and one another. Therein lies our solace. He may have died of a broken heart, but Jesús can mend all, even Fr. Virgilio’s heart. That is our hope. Padre Virgilio, gracias por tu amistad. Padre, te damos gracias con alegría por la vida de Virgilio.
Victor Carmona teaches at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Tex.