IN JUNE OF 1990, Father Luis Olivares stood behind the pulpit at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Placita Olvera -- for the last time. AIDS was cutting short an extraordinary career that saw the priest declare his parish -- the spiritual and literal birthplace of Los Angeles -- a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, a refuge where they could sleep and apply for social services without fear of deportation.
Upon Olivares’ retirement, then-Archbishop Roger Mahony issued a statement. “Father Olivares has served the poorest of the poor here in Los Angeles with great commitment and courage,” he wrote, “and he has aroused the conscience of us all as we try to understand our responsibilities toward newly arrived peoples and those whose lives are not sheltered by laws and protections.”
Truth was, he opposed Olivares’ courageous actions at almost every turn. He said nothing when INS officials slurred the padre as a communist or threatened to investigate him. At one point, Mahony even summoned Olivares and other dissident priests to his office and reprimanded them for openly questioning American immigration policy. Mahony would skip Olivares’ funeral when God called the fiery priest in 1993.
Catholics should remember these incidents as they digest now-Cardinal Mahony’s recent pledge to defy immigration laws. On its face, Mahony’s Ash Wednesday promise to help anyone regardless of legal status seems like a defiant stance against draconian legislation that would make assisting illegal immigrants a felony. But the announcement is just vanity and striving after the wind. Is doing your job, 15 years too late, really cause for applause?
This isn’t a moment of moral clarity for the scandal-scarred Mahony, who has nothing to lose and everything to gain with his move. The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the largest in the United States, and Mahony knows the government would never dare crack down on one of the most powerful cardinals in the world.
Church officials also know that Latinos are the present and future of Catholicism in Southern California. In 1999, the director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese Office of Hispanic Ministry told a researcher with USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture that 70% of Catholics in Los Angeles County were Latinos -- and that there could be as many as 1 million Catholic illegal immigrants it hadn’t registered.
Mahony isn’t taking a brave stance -- he’s just preaching to the choir to ensure his church’s future.
Even more disturbing than Mahony’s opportunism, however, is the anger some Catholics have aimed at the cardinal’s Lenten call. Did these same critics lash out when the church hierarchy covered up clerical pedophilia? Did they show the same passion when Mahony lavished hundreds of millions of dollars in donations on his cathedral, the Rog Mahal?
Have these people forgotten Leviticus 19:33-34, a passage Olivares frequently cited? It reads: “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As citizens, Catholics have the right to take their concerns about illegal immigration to the ballot box or council chambers; as people of faith, they must embrace their illegal brothers and sisters.
Mahony might very well follow through with his promise, but it’s survival, not grace, that motivates his eminence. He cannot compare to the light that was Olivares, who opened his doors to the destitute at a time when there were no benefits to assisting illegals. Olivares gained nothing at the time but scorn and a flock with urgent needs. And still, he did it.
“This community ... has distinguished itself by its preferential option for the poor,” Olivares said a couple of months before he stepped down, in a Sunday Mass at Placita Olvera attended by thousands of Christ’s children. “And the migra doesn’t like it, and the FBI doesn’t like it, and many civic authorities don’t like it, and many times our very own ecclesiastical authorities don’t like what this community proclaims: the defense of the poor, of the rejected, of the undocumented.”