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To Hispanics, Sanchez is 'pastoral giant.' (Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez) (Cover Story)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- To get a sense of what Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez, 58, has meant to the Hispanic community, one only need listen to a few of the words used to describe him in the wake of last week's revelations of sexual indiscretions: "historical figure," "beloved shepherd," "pastoral giant" and "advocate of the poor."

Born in Socorro, N.M., to an Irish-Hispanic mother and Hispanic father, Sanchez in 1974 became the nation's first Hispanic archbishop--and then the youngest U.S. bishop--at age 40.

His episcopal ordination, attended by 13,000 people, stunned and moved Hispanics with its Spanish-language readings, Native American drummers and Mexican guitar music.

Sanchez has served the 119-year-old Santa Fe archdiocese for 19 years. His tenure, key Hispanic figures told NCR last week, has been characterized by a shift from an activist to a pastoral style of leadership.

As a priest he had belonged to Padres, a group of Mexican-American priests who were part of the Chicago-rights movement and who demanded the church bring Hispanics into its power structure. As a bishop, he has been an enabler who, while uncomfortable with confrontation, has been known to quietly back those on the front lines.

But even though Sanchez's style has changed, say observers, his goal of advancing the cause of Hispanic Catholics has been unwavering.

"Archbishop Sanchez always has projected a youthful and enthusiastic vision of the Hispanic in the church," said Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

Deck said that Sanchez, one of the two Hispanic archbishops (the other is Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio, Texas), was the most prominent bishop associated with the largely grass-roots encuentro process, which included major gatherings i 1972, 1977 and 1985 and resulted in the bishop's National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry in 1987.

Deck, noting there are only 23 Hispanic bishops, said he hoped there would not be backlash against Hispanics in the wake of Sanchez's troubles.

"It would compound the tragedy if the Vatican or fellow bishops would not continue looking for leadership among Hispanics," he said.

As secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops since 1991, Sanchez is the U.S. bishop's first Hispanic officer.

According to Moises Sandoval, editor of the Spanish-language magazine Revista Maryknoll, "Sanchez, who began as an activist, was a model for the bishops who call themselves the pastoralists instead of the activists."

Preferring consensus-building to confrontation, Sanchez forged ahead in his advocacy of Hispanics, said Sandoval, author of Onn the Move, A History of the Hispanic Church in the United States (Orbis Books).

One of the Sanchez's most significant legacies has been his support of the bishop's Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, the engine for Hispanic ministry, said Sandoval.

As head of the bishops' ad hoc committee for Hispanics from 1975 to 1988, Sanchez backed then-director Pablo Sedillo, who was often embroiled in controversy as he lobbied bishops and legislators on behalf of Hispanics.

Said Sedillo last week, "Few people really know what expense Sanchez underwent in the face of silent opposition" by the hierarchy to demands for Hispanic empowerment. Sedillo noted that the Secretariat was born of a 1969 confrontation in which Chicano activists in San Francisco accused U.S. bishops of ignoring Mexican-Americans.

Sanchez's contributions have also been of a cultural nature, Sandoval explained.

The prelate is held in esteem among Hispanics for having revived defunct religious traditions in remote archdiocesan villages. He also reformed St. Mary's Seminary in Santa Fe to make it more responsive to Hispanic and Native American cultures.

He has understood -- and spoken through -- symbols important to the area's people. For example, he changed the name of an ancient Spanish statue of Mary, who was known as La Conquistadora, to Our Lady of Peace at the request of Native Americans only last summer (NCR, Aug. 14, 1992).

Sanchez reconciled a lay group known as the Penitentes to the church. Banned by New Mexico's first bishop, the Frenchman Jean Captiste Lamy, the group virtually ran the church in areas that lacked priests.

Some Hispanics last week said they hoped Sanchez's troubles would be viewed through a broader church lens.

"I think the issue is much bigger than Hispanics," said Yolanda Tarango, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate World and former national coordinator of Las Hermanas, an organization of Hispanic Catholic women.

"It calls for a real self-reflection for the church in terms of the demands celibacy makes on its leaders and (the need for) support systems," said Tarango.

Said theologian Father Virgil Elizondo, rector of the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio: "It touches on the deeper question that the official church still doesn't want to look at: the problem of the ultimate loneliness of the priest or the bishop. It's not a question of Hispanics, but of companionship."

Elizondo said he trusts the Hispanic community will judge Sanchez fairly. "Hispanics have a different way to looking at human frailty. . . . We are very aware of the human weakness and God's mercy."

He speculated that people might respond to Sanchez's troubles as they did to those of Archbishop Eugene Marino (see accompanying story). "Poeple asked what's the problem with the church rather than what's the problem with him," Elizondo said.
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Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 19, 1993
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