Caring for the Flock in the Breadbasket of the Nation: An Interview with Bishop Armando Ochoa

This week in the print magazine Jim McDermott, S.J. writes about the unique character of the "The Church in the West." As part of that project he had the opportunity to interview a number of bishops about their experiences in their own dioceses and within the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series of six presenting those interviews.

Bishop Armando X. Ochoa,72, has been the bishop of Fresno in Central California since 2011. Originally from Southern California, Bishop Ochoa previously spent 15 years as Bishop of El Paso, Texas and 9 years as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles under Cardinal Roger Mahony.


The diocese of Fresno is one of the fastest growing dioceses in the country, and at nearly 1.1 million Catholics spread over 35,000 square miles, one of the largest both in population and in area.

What’s been your experience of the USCCB as a Western bishop?

When I first got into the conference, the issue was they didn’t know we existed. The issues that we would have as bishops in California were so unlike the rest of the church.

But over the years as they were dealing with the Hispanic presence more and more,  I would go to committee meetings, and within a minute my brothers from the Midwest and the East Coast were asking me, Where do you send your seminarians to learn Spanish? What kinds of things are you doing for the Hispanics? So there was an awareness that grew that this was a whole different world.

Like the Quinceañera, the girls’ coming of age, they’re asking, What do you guys do for these kids? And we can sit down during the coffee break and say, This is what I do. [In Fresno] Our guys are by themselves, so once a month they have a big communal Quinceañera. It is the only way they can do it. A guy might have three weddings, plus maybe one Quinceañera, and maybe he’ll get a baker’s dozen of girls and have a Mass.

Or bishops are asking, What do you do about funeral Masses? And some of our guys do evening funeral Masses, with the Vigil late in the afternoon, because in the mornings the people are out in the fields. [The pastors would see] The people would be there for the Vigil, but they could not get to the funeral Mass. So now we’re having funeral Masses in the evening.

So I see an openness in many of my fellow bishops. Within a minute and a half they’re asking what do you do for this kind of thing. The younger bishops especially have an openness, in the spirit of Pope Francis, that we have to go out to the peripheries, what we call the campo, the corners. To get the smell of the sheep, what better way then to go out there and be present, and make sure that their priests are trying to reach these emerging populations that are becoming a real presence in the Church.

And I really see that as one of the things that we [Hispanic bishops] can do, offer immersion in our committees so others don’t forget the Hispanic presence in our church.

How would you say that the Hispanic bishops have gone about trying to raise awareness?

We [Hispanic bishops] knew that on a Conference level we wanted to do everything we could to surface names that would be suitable for conference offices—as bishops, committee members, committee chairs, things like the committee on vocations, the committee on Peace and Justice. And I think that’s really continued. There are wonderful fellows like Bishop Cantú [of Las Cruces, NM] who are just so involved. He just picked up his doctorate in education, and he’s really working with our Catholic schools. Some of our younger Hispanic bishops, too, like Archbishop García-Siller [Archbishop of San Antonio], he’s a strong strong presence on migration, immigration issues.

Before he was elected president of the Conference, Cardinal Dolan gave a kind of “State of the Church in the United States.” And part of that was the Hispanic presence and how we have really dropped the ball over the years. And I can see that. When I came on board, we had eleven Hispanic bishops. Now we’re 31, 32 bishops including our retired guys. But that’s such a small number out of the three hundred plus in the conference. And if the Hispanic presence is still one of the unresolved challenges of the church in the United States, what are we going to do to feed into our committee memberships? We’ve tried to work on that, and to do what we can to surface names of Hispanic priests that might be potential candidates for bishop in the foreseeable future.

But I think that’s what we need to continue to do. Even those who might be retired, we need to be able to be present and make those oral interventions. Because we have something to share with the church.

I also notice that in my time in the conference the vast majority of the guys who weren’t Caucasian were from religious orders. And thanks be to God for them—our black priests, there was discrimination in the Church, who would take them? Thanks be to God there was an openness in our religious orders, where they were out in the community, in the campos, and they would surface and work with potential vocations.

What would you say are some of the major issues in the Diocese of Fresno?

One of the biggest issues that my priests keep seeing is the breakdown of family life. It’s one of the issues of the undocumented, they come over and they’re living in the shadows to a certain degree; even in our monolingual Spanish-speaking parishes, they’re looking over their shoulders.

And many of them bring their culture with them, but they’re picking up the worst parts of our North American culture—divorce, free unions, the drugs, the easy money, all these kinds of things—so we’re losing many of our young people. They come over looking for jobs, many times living seven or eight in a garage, and consequently it’s anything and everything goes. And the wonderful formation they received in their little pueblos, their countries of origin fall through the cracks through peer pressure, the availability of drugs. They’re out there day in day out in the fields, then they come back at 4:30 or 5:00 and they’re drinking, and Grandma is no longer there to look over their shoulders. And that faith formation falls through the cracks.

We’re also losing a sizable amount of our Hispanic people to our separated brothers and sisters, the fundamentalist Christian denominations. They’re small communities and they’re reaching out to these families, and many of our churches are just too big—it’s standing room only in many of our Spanish-speaking Masses. Many of our families want something smaller, more intimate.

One researcher in San Antonio says we’re losing four hundred thousand Hispanics every year. How are we going to continue to reach out? Because our priests are really only one guy to a parish. How are we going to get the smell of the sheep on us? You have to get out to the peripheries.

We’re in the fourth year of the drought, especially in the central valley of California. It’s affecting my parishioners, who are not the dairy owners but the dairy workers. They are all our people. There’s hundreds of acres that are not being farmed because there’s no water to do that. That means cutting back on farm workers. There was one weekend I couldn’t believe it, seventeen ma and pa dairies got auctioned off, which means all their dairy workers lost their jobs, which also means the ma and pa gas stations down the road a piece were losing the money coming in. It’s the trickle down effect.

This is really affecting our priests, too. How do you live with that situation?

We are the breadbasket of the country—I didn’t realize that, the richness here, the orchards, the grape vines, the corn, all of the different crops that we have. Every time I go for a confirmation, at the end they always have a basket of freshly picked fruit for the bishop. The first time they gave me a box of sweet potatoes that was so heavy these two guys who looked like they played linemen for Notre Dame had to lift it for me. It’s such a touching thing—these are the fruits of the land that they’re bringing up.

Another big issue I’m sorry to say is the restorative justice mission. We have forty thousand inmates in my diocese, more than any other place on the continent. The vast majority [of inmates] are people of color, most of the people of color are Hispanics, and most of the Hispanics are Catholic in name only. Those are my parishioners. And when they’re not from here, they’re coming from other dioceses in our regions. We have seventeen women on death row in Chowchilla.

I left the capitol for the most executions, Texas, and I come to this place where we’re the capitol of this, where they have the most detainees. After my Masses I get people asking, "Please pray for my son, he was just sent to Avenal," a humongous maximum security place. That’s a real area of concern, because it affects our families, now it’s grandma or Grandpa raising one or two of the children.

So how do we reach out to this particular population? There are a minority of wonderful people in restorative justice—they’re out there every Wednesday working with the inmates and praying with them, listening to them. I’m so deeply  moved; these are wonderful, faith-filled people.

But what happens when the inmates are released? There’s not that same presence and connection with the church. When they come out, do they feel comfortable looking for that in the local parish? I’m sorry to say more times than not, we don’t do that very well.  We’re not good at being a receiving community. We need to sensitize our clergy more about being more open to bringing those people back.

What do you think U.S. immigration policy should look like?

I really and truly believe that there is a case for an updated bracero program, like we had for farm workers when I was in high school, with a living wage connected with it and an opportunity to go back to their country of origin. And a credible pathway to citizenship for others who want to become a part of the American dream.

[FDR instituted the bracero program as a guest worker program in 1942. It ran until 1964 and allowed 4.5 million Mexicans to work in the States, some of whom obtained residency and stayed.]

My own father and mother came from Mexico but not to work in that sense. They came over in 1911, during the persecution [of Catholics in Mexico], my mother from outside Guadalajara, my father from outside Michoacán, a tough tough place. My grandparents said We can’t raise our children in an environment like this, we’re seeing the priests hanging from light poles. So they came as children. Dad enlisted and became a naturalized citizen.

What advice would you give a new bishop?

For me the important thing is a pastoral presence. I’m sorry to say that one of my priests here said, Why are you wasting your time going to these little missions? And I took him aside – it was in the setting of a meeting—and said to him, I hope you understand what you just asked me. Why am I wasting my time? These people are praying for me every time they have Eucharist. The least thing I can do is go one time to each of these 44 little priestless communities, go with them after Mass, have a cup of coffee and ask them what do you do here in this little piece of Tranquility, this little place of Buttonhook. To be a pastoral presence to the people in my care. 

They see my mug shot on the wall. How much better is it to sit there after Mass and chitchat. Last week we went out to pizza at this little place where there were 24, 25 people after Mass. They apparently do that every Saturday after Mass. It was wonderful to sit there and listen to the needs of that mission. It’s a priestless parish, might seat one hundred fifty. The pastor is pastor of three missions.  So he’s breaking the speed limit dodging deer during the hunting season to celebrate Mass, then going seventy miles the other direction to celebrate Mass. By 6:15 he’s home to another place to celebrate Mass.

I was almost going to say to that guy, You have a problem with this? Maybe I can do something about that. The people of God can do better than that attitude. 

He was concerned about taking care of the parishes with means, but I wasn’t called to that. I was called to be bishop for all of God’s people, whether they’re the Hmong population, the Filipino population, the Hispanic, the Portuguese, the Catholic Korean community, the Vietnamese—I was called to try and meet their needs.

The people of the soil, they’re very merry, they come from large families and have a wonderful work ethic. They’ve really touched my ministry. I think that’s what you have to know [as a bishop]: To whom am I being sent? And what better way [to find out] than by making those pastoral visitations and simply listen. That’s the best advice I would ask of anyone, to just sit and listen.

You can’t take the parish priest out of this bishop. I certainly admire those in specialized ministry, but all I wanted to be was a parish priest. I saw growing up in Oxnard these wonderful young priests, reaching out—they used to come and take us out of school, we would be spread-eagled over a U-Haul with food for the poor. That really attracted us. So many of us feel we were called to follow the example of many of those priests who really lived their ministry.

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