Since his death, those of us that loved and respected our previous Bishop now become elated at the very opportunity to share stories about his life, experiances and teachings. I thank this sender for sharing his story with us and I encourage all of you to continue to submit your stories (and pictures) about Bishop John Fitzpatrick to me. I am considering establishing a Web page in his honor, so that his memory can be forever shared and enjoyed by all.
August 11, 2006
In these days when the immigration debate is raging at a fever pitch, I believe it is worthwhile for Catholics to reflect on the life of John Joseph Fitzpatrick, former bishop of Brownsville, who died July 15 at age 87.
I do not pretend to have been a close confidant of Bishop Fitzpatrick when I was working as a chaplain at the largest U.S. immigration detention center during the last year and a half of his administration. In fact, before my family and I moved to Brownsville in January 1991, I don’t think I had ever heard of Bishop Fitzpatrick.
Before I began my ministry at the Port Isabel Service and Processing Center, I went to introduce myself to Bishop Fitzpatrick.
During our first very short meeting I remember we talked about our common experiences growing up in Western New York. When I asked how he ended up going to work in Florida, he said the bishop of Buffalo had agreed to send several of his priests to the young, growing church in Miami. When I asked if he was ordered to go to Miami, he said, “No, they were asking for volunteers and I couldn’t volunteer fast enough.”
I thought he must have volunteered because of some deep spiritual motive, missionary fervor or sense of adventure. But he simply said, “I was sick of the snow and the cold of Western New York.” No great theological reason but a simple, human, understandable reason.
Without additional probing Bishop Fitzpatrick told me that during his time in South Florida he had grown to love the people there and he had expected to remain there for the rest of his life. He said it was an unexpected shock when he was named bishop of Brownsville. It was an additional shock, he told me, when he arrived here to learn that a number of people were angry that an Anglo had been named bishop of a diocese that was more than 90 percent Hispanic. But, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “After 18 years I think I have won some of them over.”
Bishop Fitzpatrick was not a great theologian, nor did he seem at all enthusiastic about engaging in the great public policy debates about immigration that were going on at the time. I can’t believe he ever enjoyed seeing his name in The Brownsville Herald during the many years that Central Americans were flowing into and out of Brownsville while the civil wars in Central America were raging.
From what I heard from those much closer to the bishop than I, he was as uncomfortable with those who canonized him for opening the refugee shelter Casa Romero as with those who demonized him for helping “illegals.”
The bishop’s spokesperson regarding the diocese’s work with immigrants and refugees, and my immediate supervisor, Mr. Hernan Gonzalez, made it clear that my job was to treat all people I met, including jailers and immigration officers, with respect and dignity. He reminded me that even those involved in immigration enforcement are good Catholics and members of our parishes. When I asked how I should carry out my ministry, he simply said, “Do anything you can to help the detainees realize that the Church is praying for their welfare and doing everything it can to support them.”
During the time I was chaplain at the Corralon I mailed tens of thousands of detainee letters and made hundreds of phone calls to the families and relatives of Central American detainees. Sometimes Bishop Fitzpatrick would see me with my mailbag in the Chancery. Inevitably, he would say something like, “Oh, I see there is still work to be done out there.” I would respond with some anecdote about my experience within the fences of the Corralon.
Bishop Fitzpatrick would always end our quick conversations by directing me to tell the detainees that he was praying for them at his daily Mass.
Mailing letters and making phone calls did not seem like a big deal back then. But as I reflect on Bishop Fitzpatrick’s uncomplicated approach to ministry I am awed by the thousands of individuals who were consoled by news from a loved one at a desperate moment in their lives. How many mothers and fathers throughout North America were relieved to hear that their children were alive? How many families were re-united because of those letters? How many people were able to escape being killed in Central America because of those letters?
With all of the scandals in the Church these days it is important to remember that the Catholic Church was totally present to the poorest and those in greatest need during that time.
Bishop Fitzpatrick taught me that a leader does not simply take on the burden of the work that must be done, he or she inspires and supports others to take on the work also.
I remember once talking to Sister Juliana Garcia, one of the directors of Casa Romero, in my early, more naive days. I told her that the Central American refugees were fortunate that Casa Romero existed. She looked me straight in the eyes and said something that I will never forget: “God does not need Casa Romero, Bishop Fitzpatrick or me to do his will. We would be arrogant indeed to think of ourselves in such a grandiose manner. It’s easy to run Casa Romero because the diocese gives us money to run it. If I need something I ask Bishop Fitzpatrick and he gives it to me. The real heroes (in all of this) are the hundreds of really poor families in Brownsville that have taken Central American refugees into their homes and are feeding them at their own expense. They are doing it not because it is their job, but because they are moved by their faith and Christian commitment to do it.”
It would not surprise me if Bishop Fitzpatrick ever thought that he was in the wrong place (Brownsville, Texas being the closest U.S. city by land to Central America) at the wrong time (the civil wars in Central America were at their height in the mid 1980s).
I believe we can look back and agree that Bishop Fitzpatrick was in the right place at the right time. And I believe that we who call ourselves Catholic would benefit from remembering his explanation of his actions to his people in the mid-’80s and the early ‘90s as we listen to present-day lengthy, complicated public policy debates on immigration reform. His explanation was not based on complicated and ethereal theology but was simple, understandable and humane. That was simply, “They came and we fed them.”
Paul C. Kavanaugh