Offering respect: Theologian emphasizes acceptance of differences

by John J. Shaughnessy

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Time magazine has hailed the Rev. Virgilio Elizondo as one of the leading spiritual innovators in the United States. Yet when the University of Notre Dame professor shares his beliefs about the connections between religion and people, everything begins with his memories of the grocery store his immigrant parents owned in San Antonio, Texas.p.

The first thing he mentions about the store involves a remarkable story of love:p.

Elizondo’s father had saved money to open a small grocery store. But his future wife had dreamed of wearing a beautiful wedding dress, so he gave her his savings. At a discount shop, his bride-to-be found an inexpensive gown that needed repairs. After their honeymoon, she returned most of the money to her husband so they could buy the small store.p.

“Maybe it was because the prices were good, but we had customers who were white Baptists, African-Americans, Jews and Catholics. And they were all friends,” recalls Elizondo, now 68. “The thing I remember most was, everyone had the best jokes about their own churches and ministers. We were laughing with each other. I grew up believing we were all religious, but not enemies.”p.

“There is nothing uglier than religious hatred and wars,” he says. “Instead of looking at our opposing differences, we have to find new ways of combining differences so each one can enrich and complement the other.”p.

Appeals to the marginalized p.

He has spent most of his life trying to turn that belief into reality — first in Texas and now also at Notre Dame, where he is a theology professor and associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies. p.

Time magazine considered him a spiritual innovator for developing a theology that speaks to the faith of mestizos — people who come from blended backgrounds, such as Mexican-Americans, and who often face rejection.p.

Elizondo believes that Jesus Christ came from a similar marginalized and blended background in Israel. He also believes that Jesus showed how hope could arise from rejection.p.

“Virgilio is the most well-known Hispanic theologian in the United States,” says Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, associate director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. “He has been very involved in promoting a pastoral approach to ministry that is respectful of people’s cultures.”p.

Elizondo often splits his week between Notre Dame and San Antonio, where he remains a parish priest, hearing confessions, saying Mass and visiting the sick and the elderly.p.

“He never loses the common touch, even though he’s called to speak at Harvard and the Vatican,” says Timothy Matovina, a Notre Dame theology professor who directs its Center for the Study of American Catholicism.p.

Learning to celebrate p.

“He has a tremendous international reputation,” says Gilberto Cardenas, director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. “He inspires people when he talks about faith. He talks about blending the Latino people into the larger culture and creating better relations in the public world as well.”p.

Elizondo says Latinos view life as a pilgrimage marked by both suffering and celebration.p.

“There’s the notion that life is suffering,” says Elizondo, who speaks seven languages and has written 12 books. “Not that you go looking for it, but that suffering is an element of life. You’re going to have disappointments and failures but you don’t let that destroy you. You rise above it and you celebrate. Life is a gift.”p.

Elizondo’s latest book is called “A God of Incredible Surprises.” He looks at his life as one of those incredible surprises.p.

“I came from a neighborhood where no one thought I would make it out or amount to anything,” he says. “Even as a boy, I knew I wanted to do something good for the world.”p. (related) %(kicker2) The Rev. Virgilio Elizondo % %
%(related) • Age: 68.

(related) • Distinction: Considered “the father of Latino theology in the United States.”
(related) • Profession: Catholic priest, author of 12 books, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.
(related) • Quote: “Nothing can be so bad that God cannot bring something good out of it.”

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