Diocese Remains in Background When It Comes to Migrant Issues


Roman Catholic bishops always vary in their approaches to issues, but on the question of immigration, the contrasts between church leaders in San Diego and Los Angeles have been vivid.

In Los Angeles, Archbishop Roger Mahony has reached out extensively to the Latino and Spanish-speaking immigrant community, even holding a huge Mass in their honor at Dodger Stadium in 1986. Mahony, who speaks fluent Spanish, has been at the national forefront of immigrant issues, openly criticizing U.S. immigration policies.

San Diego doesn't have nearly the Spanish-speaking population of Los Angeles, but it is estimated that Latinos compose anywhere from a quarter to a half of all Catholics in the area. Moreover, the region has become perhaps the world's busiest migratory corridor, traversed by hundreds of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants annually--the great majority Spanish-speaking, and Roman Catholic.

But, in contrast to Mahony, Bishop Leo T. Maher, spiritualleader of the church in San Diego for two decades, has not pronounced a direct church

mandate on the issue of immigration. Instead, he has largely remained in the background.

"There has not been from Bishop Maher a very overt effort on behalf of the immigrants," said Ozvaldo Venzor, an Encinitas Catholic who heads a group called Friends of the Undocumented.

In San Diego, observers say that Maher's ambivalent approach to the issue has meant that the church's vast resources have often been channeled in other directions--the much-publicized St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center for the homeless being a notable example--and not directed to migrants. And, with the exception of several activist parishes, lay people and clerics alike have generally felt little urgency to become engaged with the immigrant community.

The bishop's inclination has been to leave the matter of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the hands of local priests and parishioners: If they want to organize behind migrant-assistance issues--conducting masses, food giveaways and other activities in the fields--the bishop hasn't obstructed them. But he hasn't been "front-and-center on immigration," in the words of one Carlsbad Catholic who has been active on behalf of migrants.

A number of parishes--notably St, Patrick's in Carlsbad, Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Rancho Penasquitos, among others--have been quite active in assisting the thousands of homeless migrant workers who live in northern San Diego County. But "it's pretty much on a parish-by-parish basis," said Father Douglas Regin, pastor of St. Francis Church in Vista, who served for nine years as executive director of Catholic Community Services, the church social-service arm. "I would say that the bishop does not have an extensive outreach program for migrant workers."

Asked what would be different if someone more like Archbishop Mahony had been in San Diego, Father Regin responded: "I think that there would be a clearly stated goal of commitment to work in this area, and a clearer identification of whose responsibility it is to do this work. . . . Personally, I would like to see some of the Catholic property owners and developers get involved in this issue."

For his part, Bishop Maher said he is thoroughly committed to the migrant issue, particularly in North County, but he noted that the church does face fiscal limits. He denied that he has been unresponsive.

"I think we've done a super job," Maher said in an interview last week. "We're trying to do it parish-by-parish; that's where the action is. . . . We're doing the best we can. I don't think there's anything else we can do right now. . . . If you want to satisfy everybody, you have to be Christ Himself."

Even Maher's detractors credit Catholic Community Services with considerable success during its 1987-88 sign-up of about 27,000 amnesty-seeking undocumented immigrants, a number that accounts for more than one-quarter of all legalization applicants in San Diego and Imperial counties. That program, however, is almost exclusively funded by grants and fees, and not by diocesan money.

Regarding field hands in North County, the bishop noted that last April 28 he issued a statement bemoaning their "deplorable" conditions and urging Catholics to help.

But Venzor and others say that Maher's commentary, which came after both the U.S. Council of Bishops and the Vatican expressed concern about the plight of migrant workers worldwide, was long overdue, considering the massive scope of the problem within the diocese and the growing tensions in some areas. (Almost six months before the bishop spoke, two migrant workers from Mexico were shot and killed on a semi-rural San Diego road in an incident that prosecutors describe as a hate killing by two white teen-agers.)

The issue of migrants has become so visible to the church hierarchy, in fact, that Pope John Paul II is considering visiting Tijuana during his scheduled trip to Mexico next year, a stop that would likely further crystallize the Vatican's concern for immigrants and refugees.

It is an irony not lost on some that a Protestant minister, the Rev. Rafael V. Martinez, is perhaps the best-known and most-outspoken cleric working with migrant issues in northern San Diego County. Martinez runs the Encinitas-based North County Chaplaincy, which has been active in migrant-worker issues, from housing, to food, to health care.

Among Catholics who are active on the issue, there is hope that the diocese's focus will change under the leadership of Bishop Robert H. Brom, who will succeed Maher as San Diego prelate next July 1, when Maher reaches the retirement age of 75.

Brom has already signaled some changes: At ceremonies marking his appointment last summer, the former bishop of Duluth, Minn., spoke partly in Spanish and stressed the importance of Latinos. He also appears less interested in pomp and ceremony than Maher; he has been living in an apartment, eschewing a diocese-purchased, half-million-dollar home. Brom is now in Mexico studying Spanish. Maher has limited command of the language.

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