An Interview with Bishop Armando X. Ochoa
Taken from from the Central California Catholic Life Easter Edition
Fr Rude.: Thank you very much for participating in this interview. The first question I’d like to ask you is: you were ordained a bishop back in 1987. What was your reaction when you were first told that you were going to be called up to be bishop?
Bishop Ochoa.: Well, the Cardinal had to tell me twice and my first reaction was I don’t know how to be a bishop. All I’ve been is a priest, in four different assignments. And he said that there was no school for young bishops, maybe after the fact there might be. But I was trying to wiggle out of the thing. I told him, “I don’t know how to be a bishop.” Then Cardinal Mahoney with a half smile on his face said, “Is there any reason that you would like to tell the Holy Father, now that he’s appointed you to be one of my three auxiliary bishops, that you would like to resign from doing that?” And I said, “Well, no, if you put it that way, I guess there isn’t.” Basically, I took a promise of obedience to my bishop and to his successors, so that when you get hit between the eyes like that, it makes you think twice.
Fr.: Did the Cardinal as Metropolitan Archbishop have a part to play in the choosing?
Bishop: I would think so. As Metropolitan Archbishop, when they have a terna
, making three choices, I’m sure he had something to say about it.
Fr.: Do you have the same power as a bishop, or ordinary? When you come upon a priest here in your diocese who really impresses you, do you have the ability to recommend him to be bishop?
Bishop: Absolutely. But anyone can do that. When the time comes, a bishop doesn’t have to go through the nuncio himself, but he can surface one, two or three names without going through Archbishop Gomez, who is now my archbishop. You can do that as well, if every now and then you can see different priests in different positions, who are special.
Fr.: I’m curious, Bishop, but when you were a priest in Los Angeles, you were also a “chaplain to His Holiness.” Now was that just a local honor, or was it something you did locally or did in Rome?
Bishop: For lack of a better word, it’s what I refer to as a ‘buck private’s monsignor’. There were others that I would consider ‘master sergeant monsignori’. ‘Chaplain to His Holiness’ is an entry level of the monsignor title.
Fr.: Then you don’t go to Rome as his chaplain?
Bishop: No, not really. I go for an ad limina visit as bishop, but not as chaplain to His Holiness.
Fr.: Maybe you didn’t go to Rome, but after being bishop in Los Angeles for nine years, you went to El Paso for sixteen years, and now you’re back here. I am sure there is a lot of similarity between Texas and California, since both are border states with Mexico, but was there a big change for you when you went to El Paso?
Bishop: In one sense, no. And the reason I say that is because in every one of my four parish assignments, prior to being kicked upstairs, I was in a bilingual, bicultural situation. And then as an Auxiliary Bishop, we had a commission known as the Alta/Baja California Council of Bishops and so consequently we would get together twice a year, just as we did in Texas….
Fr.: There it was called the Texas Mexico Council of Bishops?
Bishop: …the Tex/Mex Commission…,and we talked about the common concerns in the border regions, and so consequently the same issues, basically immigration, that we faced. The one area that we did not touch when I was an Auxiliary Bishop in Los Angeles is what is now happening, that many of the families on this
side of the border are really preoccupied because grandma and grandpa are still in Ciudad Juarez and so trying to deal pastorally with families who are really anxious about mom and dad, or grandma and grandpa or aunts and uncles because they are not able to come on over, that’s a different issue, the pastoral outreach to those folks.
Secondly, there were over 200,000 when I left, transplants, Juarences
, living now in El Paso and…
Fr.: Without papers?
Bishop: No, with papers. But the problem is that many had death threats. Many are definitely financially stable, and because of that they can come across the border and if you have, I forget the exact amount, perhaps $300,000, you can get a special visa, open up a little restaurant and so consequently many of these folks have done that, or they have dual citizenship. And because of that, the vast majority of those 200,000 families are now in El Paso, but they have one foot in Juarez and one foot in El Paso. Consequently, reaching out to them is pastorally very difficult. I haven’t seen that here yet. I’ve only been here for a month but I have seen Mejicanos, and every other ethnic group, Basque, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Korean, Hmong and Filipinos…
Fr.: You saw them all on your front page.
Bishop: Yeah, and then there is another group. There is a Thai priest, working with folks from Laos, I haven’t met with them yet. They all have different issues, but immigration here is a very important issue. There were a couple of folks I met in Los Banos, told me that they were working out in the fields, they don’t have papers, but they were happy that I was able to come on over and have Mass with them.
Fr.: In a couple of weeks there is going to be a march here in Fresno put on by a group of four guys who are pushing the Dream Act. I had permission from Msgr. Cotta to work with them, despite the fact that they are undocumented. They’ve been here all their lives, they speak Spanish and English. They’re Americans in every way but on paper.
Bishop: Is that going to be downtown?
Fr.: It’s going to start at Fresno State and end up at the City Hall. When you as bishop were working with the USCCB, you were involved with the Commission on Immigration. What is the function of a commission like that?
Bishop: It is more than a think tank. For example, we go all over the world. My only travel was down to Chiapas, because I wanted to see where many of the migrants were coming up from. I had heard about the trains and how the young guys would hop on, when the trains would slow down at some curve at Chiapas. Until we went down there, we didn’t understand and we talked to the folks and found out that to hop on they have to pay a mordida
just for boarding the train. And they’re holding on for dear life and what happens is that they’re on that train for a long time, and what I could never understand is why so many were losing limbs. Well the reason is that they don’t get on the train, they’re just holding on to these bars, and some fall asleep and fall and their legs are cut off. I had never realized that.
Secondly, we had a chance to see some of the detention camps. Really, very, very sad. I felt very much in solidarity with my brothers in Central America, because at that particular time, through the Commission, some of my confreres in Mexico, with the Mexican Council of Bishops, were throwing some stones at us, saying that we were not doing enough, we North American bishops. And they were stopped in their tracks because the Central American bishops said, “Before you throw rocks at our compadres, look at the way you’re treating our folks in southern Mexico.” And we saw at first hand, and especially when I celebrated Mass at many of the detention camps, and granted that nothing is perfect, but compared to what I saw in southern Mexico, this is great. I mean, everyone has a chance to go to the doctor for evaluation, to dentist, and the whole kit and kaboodle. And the food is pretty good—I always eat with the detainees when I celebrate Mass.
That’s the kind of thing we do. And others go to Africa and to other parts of the world, especially where we are working through CRS (Catholic Relief Services). So it’s not just integration, straightaway, but looking at all the issues. Once again, I think the common theme is separation of families—how can we be part of the solution.
Fr.: Did you know that the Jesuits have started an apostolate in Nogales, part in the US and part in Mexico, working with the people who are departed from the US? One of the other committees you were on was the Spanish Affairs Committee. That would be very helpful here in Fresno, where the majority of our Catholics are Hispanic.
Bishop: One of the things that we were really very, very proud of—I was part of the committee—was “Strangers No Longer”, the bilingual copy of a wonderful statement, for the first time a joint statement of the Mexican Conference of Bishops and our Conference of Bishops. And it’s a wonderful statement. It’s included here, there and everywhere, but the Spirit is really there and quoting John Paul II, and a lot of his statements are very important. But when I was here, in the Alta/Baja, we had another one, Sin Fronteras
, and that’s a document not well known. In fact, I still have an image of Bishop Madera, as he had his first ad limina visit, handing a copy of Sin Fronteras
to John Paul II and basically it was really a pastoral statement only by the North American Bishops of trying to reach out and support, in solidarity, our immigrant brothers and sisters because my own mother and father came from Mexico during the religious persecution.
Fr.: From where in Mexico?
Bishop: My father was from outside of Morelia, Michoacán, which is a very difficult area right now, from a place called Caurio de Guadalupe, near a slightly bigger place called Zacapu. And my mother’s people were from Los Altos de Jalisco, near a place called Tepetitlán. Los Altos de Jalisco was very Catholic, especially during the persecution, and it’s outside of Guadalajara. She was from a little place called El Valle de Guadalupe. Both sides of the family were very Guadalupano.
Fr.: [laughing] Are you planning on doing anything Spanish while you’re here?
Bishop: I was criticized by one of the Mexican stations when I had my press conference here, because I was not going to be here on the day that they were celebrating La Virgen de Guadalupe. I was full of apologies, but basically I said that it was important for me to go to this little place called Saragosa for Las Mañanitas for 70 families. In the only tornado in the El Paso area, they lost 38 people and it was the 25th
anniversary of that. But I intend to carry on the tradition of Bishop John, that wonderful spirit of celebrating Las Mañanitas, La Nochecitas, wherever I can. We had three Our Ladies of Guadalupe in El Paso, but here we have so many, I’m going to have to pick and choose where I go on the feast.
Fr.: You mentioned El Paso. And you are still acting as their bishop?
Bishop: Yes. Msgr. Myron was the Diocesan Administrator here because he’s a priest. I was asked for different reasons to accept the title of Apostolic Administrator because I am a bishop. I wasn’t looking for two jobs but until they name my successor, there are a number of legal issues that are on the front burner and my presence there would add to the understanding of what’s going on.
Fr.: Does that make it difficult for you to have two jobs?
Bishop: Yeah. I was gone from last Saturday to Wednesday but I was doing some business for this diocese on Wednesday as well.
Fr.: Two other commissions you were on with the USCCB were Vocations and Lay Ministry. It seems to me, in a way, they are both the same thing, because everyone has a vocation.
Bishop: Absolutely. But they have changed the committee on Vocations to Vocations to Religious Life, or something like that. But specifically that was looking at formation for the diocesan priesthood. And that was very interesting, to see what were the best practices nationwide, and I came into it wearing two different hats: what’s being done for Hispanics. When I was a young priest, I don’t think there were a half dozen Latinos in our seminary, maybe a dirty dozen, a dozen plus one, out of 200 students at this level. And during those years, before Vatican II, the religious orders picked up many, many Hispanics. And now many of my brother bishops are Hispanics that came from religious orders.
Fr.: For example, my Jesuit friend Carlos Sevilla, bishop in Yakima.
Bishop: Carlos Sevilla, absolutely. But now it seems that we are getting another generation of guys that are not from religious backgrounds. So through the 60s and 70s and 80s, things have changed.
Fr.: A very important issue for me is social justice. My sense is that it is important for you as well.
Bishop: Certainly. The Gospel values are there day in and day out, and I think my challenge is going to be how can we really work not just with the laity, but with our religious and bringing the message of the Social Gospel to the front burner, because it cuts straight across the board, in all things, and especially in an area really known for the largest food production area in the world. There are some very strong issues that we have to deal with, and see if we can sit down and dialog on these kinds of things. For I think there is still a lot of residue left over from the early 70s, the farm worker movement. We’ve gotten beyond that but there’s more to do. It is an important part.
Fr.: Another very important part of your diocese is prisons, a huge number of men and women, and not always living with a lot of justice.
Bishop: Especially with people of color. But the vast majority of the people of color happen to be Latinos, and of the Latinos, the vast majority are Catholic. And consequently for me, during the 41 years of my ministry, I have always enjoyed going out to detention facilities. I wish I could do more, because you can’t take the parish priest out of me. I remember not too far from the southern end of our diocese, in the LA county in my San Fernando Valley Region, we had 19 detention facilities. A couple of them were super-max and the others were like boot camps for kids.
Fr.: A last question, Bishop, is there a special thing that you would like your new people in Fresno to consider?
Bishop: I met with the people in the office of Family Life, with Sr. Joanne, and I was thrilled to see the kaleidoscope of family related issues, and very strong in that was an outreach to young people. And so what we have to do, the family life is being hit from every side, not only here, but in Mexico, for example, Guadalajara. I never thought divorce would be as strong as it is now in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterey, all these places. But now also a strong push for same-sex marriages. All of this is really trying to erode many of the wonderful family values of our people of color. Because when we are talking about ethnic communities with that common thread, I remember a wonderful Irish priest. He could have had any diocesan parish he wanted, but he was always in East LA, Msgr. Michael Sheehan, great guy, and he’s in a place called Santa Isabel, and he said, “Gentlemen, we have so much in common. We Irish come and have very much in common with the Latinos. We have strong family values, we’re people of the soil and we’re muy Marianos
. And I loved that because I am not saying that Michael was just referring to the Latino community but I see that in so many of our ethnic backgrounds, just how the family is such an important part of our social identification. I think that is the thing for me, and especially an outreach to the young and the young adults.
Fr.: Bishop, I think I have a problem with you. You will reach your retirement age as bishop of Fresno two years before you will celebrate your fiftieth anniversary as a priest. It seems to me that you will have to put off your retirement for two years so that we can have a big celebration for you. Thank you very much, Bishop.