SAN ANTONIO (CNS) -- Father Virgilio Elizondo "inspired, challenged, taught and led us to new paths of thinking about God, Jesus, La Virgen de Guadalupe, the church, the world and ourselves," Father David Garcia said March 19.
Father Garcia, who is director of the Old Spanish Missions of the San Antonio Archdiocese, made the comments in his homily during a memorial Mass for his longtime friend.
Father Elizondo, a nationally known professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame and founder of what is today the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, was found dead in his home the afternoon of March 14. He was 80.
Late the following day the Bexar County Medical Examiner's had ruled his death a suicide, confirming that the priest had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The memorial Mass for Father Elizondo, who was widely recognized as "the father of U.S. Latino religious thought," was celebrated at St. Rose of Lima Church in San Antonio, where Father Elizondo had served as parochial vicar for many years. Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio was the main celebrant of the bilingual liturgy with priests of the archdiocese as concelebrants.
A private internment service for family members was to take place at a later date.
"He helped us by calling forth the good in each person, especially the marginalized and the poor, so that we all felt an acceptance and welcome that inspired us to treat others in the same way," Father Garcia said in his homily, delivered in English and Spanish. "Along with many people I count him as a mentor and give thanks to God for the ways that Virgilio changed my life."
Father Elizondo never limited his work or friendship to just the Hispanic community, Father Garcia said, because the late priest felt as much at home with rabbis and imams as he did with Catholic priests and university professors.
"He was as comfortable with undocumented immigrants and the homeless as he was with the political and business elites of the city," the homilist continued. "He loved to celebrate popular religious customs as much as he did the most solemn ceremonies in the Roman Missal. In effect, we were all amazed at his depth, his mind and his never-ending creativity which generated more ideas than we could all keep up with."
Father Garcia called on Jesus, "the one Virgilio called a mestizo, who combined in himself all races, cultures and peoples, but especially those from the 'periferias,' as Pope Francis calls the marginalized," to show "mercy to Virgilio and to us."
"Let that mercy be a moment of tenderness and care, of healing and hope, of a promise that this life is brief but the kingdom of God is for eternity," the priest said.
Father Garcia mentioned the allegation of sexual misconduct made against Father Elizondo in May 2015, an accusation the late priest vigorously denied in a public statement and in conversations with friends. He was prepared to fight it legally.
Father Elizondo was named secondarily in a civil suit filed by a John Doe in Bexar County District Court in San Antonio. The suit also named former priest Jesus Armando Dominguez and the San Antonio Archdiocese.
The suit alleged that as a boy, John Doe was sexually abused from 1980 to 1983 while he was living in an orphanage and was being mentored by Dominguez, then a student at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. John Doe claimed that when he went to report the abuse to Father Elizondo, the priest kissed and fondled him.
"The allegations against Father Virgilio and now his death have left us all with a deep sense of loss and suffering. It is real pain we feel," said Father Garcia. "We will never know all the facts and the wound that is here today will take a long time to heal, if ever.
"What we know and the reason we are all here today is that this priest, Father Virgilio Elizondo, left a tremendous and positive influence on the lives of many people," the homilist said. "He especially helped the Hispanic community in this country to articulate a theology that allowed us to feel a part of the story of Jesus in a new and deeper way."
Archbishop Garcia-Siller, in his remarks at the Mass, also given in English and Spanish, said the large congregation at St. Rose of Lima that morning represented "only a fraction of the thousands and thousands of people whose lives were touched by Father Virgil, our brother."
Father Elizondo remained in touch with his roots -- not only in San Antonio but specifically the city's west side, the archbishop said. He also gained "an ever deeper understanding and appreciation of those roots." Being mestizo, he lived "on the frontier" between two cultures -- American and Mexican -- which "sharpened his insights into the richness and diversity of his heritage. ... He devoted much of his life to helping others understand Hispanic culture and religion."
The archbishop also described Father Elizondo as "thoroughly and always a pastor."
"Being a kind, compassionate priest was second nature to Father Virgilio. It was part of his DNA, in the marrow of his bones. He reached out to the homeless and to prostitutes, to civic leaders and to business people. ... As a priest, he lived the vision of Pope Francis: a vision of encounter, dialogue and inclusion."
Archbishop Garcia-Siller ended his remarks by recalling that when Father Elizondo received word that an allegation of abuse had been lodged against him in a civil suit, the priest "was literally in the Garden of Gethsemane."
"He had one day left on his trip to the Holy Land and spent that entire day at Calvary, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher," the archbishop said. "In a sense he remained on Calvary until this past Monday (March 14). Then he crossed the threshold from life to death -- alone –- but with the hope of the Resurrection. His passing was one moment in a long and beautiful story of his life. May our all-merciful and compassionate God grant him eternal rest and peace."