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For Elizondo, Jesus is metizo, Our Lady is first American

By Timothy Matovina, editor
Orbis Books, 308 pages, $25


Sixty years ago I was a member of a parish in New York in which half the Catholics were Puerto Rican. At Sunday Mass one seldom saw more than one or two Puerto Ricans. When I questioned the priests, they would say: “The church door is open. They know their duty.” In the 1950s Ivan Illich challenged this attitude. He persuaded the archdiocese to send its young priests to Puerto Rico to study both the language and the culture. The result was a substantial increase in the participation of Puerto Ricans in the sacramental life of the church.

Thirty years later I moved to the Southwest, close to the Mexican border. Again, I found a context in which the Catholic community was experiencing the clash of two cultures. The roots of one half, the survivors of the Spanish conquest now known variously as Mexican-Americans or Chicanos, had sunk into this soil nearly five centuries earlier. The others had arrived with the U.S. invaders in the middle of the last century. The new arrivals controlled the church structures. Their priests, most of them imported from Ireland, provided the sacraments. They learned Spanish and made allowances in their pastoral practice for local customs.

This was close to the Illich solution, and most Mexican-Americans -- twice conquered -- accepted it as the best they could hope for. But Virgilio Elizondo, a native of San Antonio and a priest of the San Antonio archdiocese, had different ideas. In his doctoral dissertation at the Institut Catholique in Paris (1978) he developed what he called a theology of mestizaje, discovering a vital connection between the socio-historical process of the twofold mestizaje of Mexican-Americans and the socio-historical identity and mission of Jesus. The mestizo, being biologically and culturally mixed, becomes -- in Teilhardian terms -- “a new phylum of humanity.” For Elizondo, Jesus the Galilean is the prototypical mestizo, a borderland reject from a region of mixed peoples and languages who was caught between the Roman occupation force in Palestine and the Temple elite.

The other foundational faith source for Elizondo’s theology is Our Lady of Guadalupe. “She is neither an Indian goddess nor a European Madonna. She is neither Spanish nor Indian and yet she is both and more. ... She is the first truly American person and as such the mother of the new generations to come.” Devotion to her is the most meaningful sacramental for Mexican-Americans who have been sacramentalized but not evangelized by the “Anglo” church.

Beyond Borders, a tribute to Elizondo on his 65th birthday, brings together 14 articles and lectures, previously unpublished in a book, that express the essence of his mestizo theology, together with 15 commentaries and analyses of these articles by his theologian friends. Elizondo, as this book makes clear, was no armchair theologian. His life has been one of praxis, the systematic testing and application of his theoretical illuminations.

For 15 years Elizondo was president of the Mexican American Cultural Center, which he founded in 1972, and which continues each year to add to the thousands of Hispanic leaders it has prepared to become religious educators and pastoral ministers. The first native of San Antonio to become rector of the cathedral, he introduced to the city’s main church the popular rituals that previously had flourished only in the west-side barrio. The grand posada in Advent enacts the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem, the strangers being denied entry at the city hall and the courthouse before being welcomed to shelter at the cathedral. The Good Friday proclamation of the passion and death of Jesus begins in the public market, with the Way of the Cross in the streets leading to the cathedral, where the crucifixion is enacted. The internationally televised bilingual Sunday Mass highlights popular traditions, such as the Magi (los reyes) and All Souls Day (Dia de los Muertos).

Simultaneously with these teaching and pastoral activities, Elizondo continued graduate work in Paris and Manila, lectured all over the globe, published 15 books and countless articles and book chapters. For Concilium alone, between 1980 and 1999, he edited 15 volumes, with such co-editors as Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Sean Freyne and Jose Oscar Beozzo.

Beyond Borders is obviously an important challenge for Hispanic Catholics. But I would suggest that it is an even weightier one for other U.S. Catholics whose church has for Mexican-Americans been -- in Elizondo’s words -- “more an obstacle to faith than an invitation to Christ.” This is no peripheral issue. Today Mexican-Americans number more than 14 million. Their relative importance is growing, not only by the higher birth rates that are characteristic of less affluent groups, but by the inflow across the border. Since people, like water, find their own level, the militarized border patrol and the steel fences will no more stop this flow than did China’s Great Wall or Caesar’s legions on the Rhine. The Catholics for whom Elizondo speaks will be an even bigger part of the Catholic church in the United States tomorrow than they are today.

Gary MacEoin, a longtime reporter of events in Central and South America, writes from San Antonio. His e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000