Archbishop Alberto Suárez-Inda, 75, has been a bishop in the Mexican state of Michoacán for nearly 30 years, and Archbishop of Morelia for nearly 20.
Located in the southwestern part of Mexico, the state of Michoacán has been through decades of violence both from local drug cartels and responding federal forces and citizen-formed militias. Over 70,000 Michoacános have died since 2006; many others have fled. In 2013 Archbishop Suárez and the other bishops of the state wrote their acting governor demanding intervention: “There is a permanent feeling of defenselessness and desperation, plus anger and fear because of the complicity, forced or voluntary, of some authorities with organized crime.”
Known as a welcoming, soft-spoken man, Suárez has long worked for peace and reconciliation. He has also challenged the 2.3 million Catholics in his diocese to be more than cultural Catholics: “For many, Catholicism and Christianity is simply a tradition...The most important thing for me is to train the laity with a social consciousness. That it not only be a devotional Christianity of prayer, of fiestas, but also work in the society.”
A priest for 50 years, Archbishop’s episcopal motto is “Vivimos para El Señor”—“We live for the Lord.”
How do you feel about being named cardinal? How has your family reacted?
First, I am very surprised. I was never expecting it, especially when I was waiting for the acceptance of my resignation as Archbishop of Morelia, having reached the age of 75 years.
Second, I feel overwhelmed because the work has multiplied: interviews, invitations, calls. I certainly feel grateful for so many tokens of affection and congratulations and mainly grateful for all the prayers so many people have offered me: brother bishops, religious and so many lay people I meet on the street.
Finally, I want to recognize that through the pope the will of God is manifested. I have always repeated: “Take, Lord, and receive my freedom, give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.” Trusting in God's mercy I begin this new phase. I respond to this new call.
My family have responded with great joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, love. My remaining two older brothers, my sisters-in-law and so many nephews and nieces have rejoiced. Many of them are diligently preparing to travel to Rome. They feel very close to me—I was the youngest brother, I have celebrated more than 50 marriages of my nephews and nieces. I know four generations of my family, which is like a large tribe scattered across the country, some of them even abroad. My family lives with much unity and fraternity, and they have seen my appointment as a blessing from God.
What do you hope for the church today?
My hope is that the church today may be truly a sign and instrument of reconciliation, of peace, of hope; and that the church, beginning with my diocese, can renew itself according to the demands posed to us by the Gospel, the teaching of Pope Francisco: a church close to those who suffer and above all that lives in communion and joy.
What is one message you feel the church should be offering to today’s world?
A message primarily of closeness to the lives of people, of men and women, and respectful to those who do not believe. A message that may be truly good news, that gives meaning to the lives of young people. A message that convinces, that is accompanied by a lifetime of coherent witness, adapted to the culture of these generations but at the same time always a message in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ; a message which is not a hindrance but on the contrary facilitates the meeting with the Lord; where the church is not the center, is not the protagonist, but is truly the servant.
What are the most pressing issues facing your region and community?
There are many, but the roots of the problems are what we need to address. First, the disintegration of families: the fragility of people, young people’s lack of preparation to make commitments for life. The family is the first school of the virtues, transmitter of the culture and the faith, and it remains the priority.
Another pressing issue is peace and justice. We have a very serious problem of corruption, of excessive ambition, of lack of respect for life, where a person is killed for any price. In this regard we need a government that provides justice that is reliable and impartial; but above all we need the true education of citizens, that is to say holistic, as there is an abandonment of that on the part of the school system, principally in schools we call official—federal schools—where the unions pursue other interests before attending to their vocation as educators.
I also believe that the church in its institutions, in its parishes should be more missionary and not only cater to those who come, to those who draw near, as they are a small percentage of the baptized. Thank God our temples are full, but many, above all young people, are left on the margins.
Another pressing issue that the new evangelization urges is the participation of the laity, where they are the true missionaries and priests make a new kind of pastoral plan, less clerical, less based on the cult exclusively but rather directed towards evangelization and the formation of people.
What has your work and your community taught you about God and the church?
Through dealing with the people, with the priests, with this church that has a great tradition, I have learned to discover the fatherly face of God. The first bishop of this diocese (which was previously called Michoacán) was Don Vasco de Quiroga, who was called “Tata Vasco” (Tata = Father). I have learned from him that I must be a father who is merciful, called to form a fraternal family that is a model for all families. The church should not obscure the face of God, should not stand in front of the sun, but should be a true moon, which does not pretend to be the sun, but reflects its light.
We need a church with a more lay face, where the priests recognize the significance of the parishioners’ baptism, making room for the responsibility of the laity but above all throwing them into society, not wanting to put them to the service of the ecclesial structure but sending them out as a leaven for society.
What’s an image of God, passage from Scripture or figure from church history that you look to for support and encouragement?
The image of God that the first books of the Bible give us, especially Exodus and Deuteronomy: a God who cares and is concerned for his people, who hears the cry of his people. He is a father who educates and takes the hand of the little one through the walk across the desert, protecting them so that their feet do not swell nor their clothes wear away. God is a father who knows how to correct his child in a loving way.
Of people from the history of the church, when I was a seminarian, I had the grace to meet Saint John XXIII. He inspires me a lot for his spontaneity, simplicity and especially for his courage and audacity to summon a council seeking renewal of the church, knowing that this renewal is above all a work of God. He knew well the history of the councils, the history of the church, and what to some seemed ingenuousness—the convening of the council—was in reality an act of faith, as he advocated through the renewal. I welcome his protection.
I would also mention St. Therese of the Child Jesus, who taught us a path of spiritual simplicity, of sacrifice. She knew suffering but never lost her serenity and confidence.
Finally: What are your hopes for next October’s Synod?
Primarily, that all the dioceses in the world prepare themselves to take on this great commitment in favor of the family, marriage and life; that at the level of the presbytery, the parish, groups or small communities we will all study the major topics raised at the previous sessions of the synod, as well as the instruments for the work now proposed. So a meeting that is not domed (self-enclosed), but where the pastors really carry with them the sensus fidelium, the sense that the Holy Spirit gives the church to respond to the serious pastoral problems—while being faithful to the doctrine, sensitive to the needs that real families live with.
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