A friend died this past week. He was 80 years old.
He took his own life.
I do not know if there is a more horrible sentence that one can write about a friend. It writhes with despair.
His name was Father Virgilio (Virgil to many of us Anglos) Elizondo.
Father Virgil and I worked together for many years on the advisory board of the Our Sunday Visitor Institute. Often called “the father of U.S. Latino religious thought,” he was my "Virgil" as I sought to learn more about Latino Catholics and Latino Catholic cultures in this country, and as we reviewed a growing number of initiatives aimed at this emerging majority of U.S. Catholics.
Unfailingly helpful, Father Virgil was also both humble and wise. One need only read his biography to understand that this was a remarkable man: Author of many books, educated and honored at some of the top Catholic institutions in the world, a professor at Notre Dame and a co-founder of the Mexican-American Cultural Center (recently renamed the Mexican American Catholic College). He was also a peripatetic traveler. If you emailed him, you never knew what country or time zone he might be answering you from. In the years I knew him, he had a particularly strong bond with the Holy Land and would lead regular pilgrimages there for theologians and theology students.
He was a man of the world, but he had a powerful sense of place. He lived in the same house his entire life, the house in San Antonio where he was raised by his immigrant parents, who were grocers. I think this connection with his roots shaped his entire theology and informed his religious insights. He defended the popular religiosity and devotions of Hispanic Catholics at a time when many academics were embarrassed by them. He had a powerful devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Father Virgil was a remarkable man who influenced three generations of students, scholars and leaders. That is why so many of us were shocked when allegations were made by an anonymous accuser last year that Father Virgil, 30 years ago, had molested him when he was a youth. It seemed impossible to believe, and Father Virgil adamantly denied the charge.
Yet he submitted to all the requirements in our post-charter age. He no longer taught at Notre Dame. He no longer served on the OSV Institute Advisory Board. He ceased public ministry. He went back to his house in San Antonio, and at age 79, he waited.
He wrote to me earlier this year: “It has been a difficult time but at the same time it has been a time of very personal prayer and reflection. I am still in limbo as to what is going on, so keep up the prayers.”
Limbo, it turns out, was a death sentence.
Arturo Chavez, the president of MACC, issued an eloquent statement on the death of Father Virgil: “The recent allegations against Father Virgilio and now his shocking death have triggered deep emotions and left us with many questions. Undoubtedly, the answers will take time and we pray for all concerned. Today, however, we focus on what we do know — Father Virgilio was deeply loved by many and his personal and professional contributions have borne good fruit that will remain.”
I did not know Father Virgil 30 years ago. I knew him for the last 15, and he was a compassionate and generous priest. I do not know what the truth is regarding the allegations. As a Catholic, I have only one response: To pray for his accuser, and to pray for the soul of Father Virgil, who died in such despair. May the God of mercy be merciful to both.
Greg Erlandson writes from Indiana.