Call it speculation, call it rumor propelled by little more than hope: the man some El Paso Catholics would like to see named the next bishop is El Paso’s own Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas.
But late Friday, Bañuelas said it probably won’t be him.
“There is a discussion of who the next bishop will be, and he’s coming out of town,” he said. “The rumor is pretty serious. He’s already a bishop; they won’t make a new one.”
The El Paso diocese has been without a leader since last February when Pope Benedict XVI transferred Bishop Armando X. Ochoa to Fresno, Calif., after 15 years in El Paso. Since then, Ochoa has been serving as the apostolic administrator of the El Paso diocese.
Bañuelas, pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church for 25 years, said he has heard talk about three possible candidates and an imminent announcement, but it’s only talk.
“I don’t have any inside information,” he said.
Before Pope Benedict’s stunning announcement that he is retiring at the end of the month, which is Thursday, there was word of an appointment, said Fr. Anthony Celino, chancellor of the El Paso Diocese.
“Certainly, there is something in the pipeline before the pope resigns, but nothing that we can confirm,” Celino said. “We’ve been waiting, praying and hoping we will get a bishop soon.”
If Benedict leaves before naming a new El Paso bishop, it will have to wait until the next pope is installed and gets around to it. That could take a while.
“Now, they’re appointing bishops every day, and we have every day to be hopeful,” Celino said.
The El Paso diocese has had only six bishops since 1915, none of whom was from El Paso.
But, Celino said, it wouldn’t be that unusual for the Vatican to elevate a parish priest from the community to the position of bishop.
“It has been done,” he said. “In Tyler (Texas), we had a local guy appointed last summer who was a priest from that diocese. So, is it possible that they would appoint a local guy? The recent history shows a local guy can be appointed.”
That appointment went to Monsignor Joseph Strickland, 53, a parish priest who had also been serving as vicar general of the 55,000-member Tyler diocese in Far East Texas. There, 4 percent of the 1.4 million population in 33 counties is Roman Catholic.
A chart on the El Paso diocese website shows that as of 2006, 81 percent of the West Texas diocese’s population of 827,000 was Catholic.
The chart also shows how much the diocese has changed over the years. In 1950, Catholics made up 34 percent of the diocese’s 427,939 population.
Celino described Bañuelas as a “brilliant theologian and a very articulate priest.”
“That’s why he’s a good go-to guy,” he said.
Indeed, in recent years Bañuelas has been a prominent spokesman on major political issues, such as immigration reform. He’s also had less weighty questions put to the diocese routinely tossed his way.
Every one gets a serious, thoughtful answer.
When El Pasoans were lining up by the hundreds last summer to get a look at what some saw as an apparition of the Virgin Mary on a rock wall in the back yard of an East Side home, the diocese punted questions about it to Bañuelas.
He gently suggested that what people saw was probably not a miracle but an indication of the how much people want something authentic today. He took the opportunity to offer a Christian message and a political one.
“You will see the fruits of an authentic apparition because people have hope, they get closer to Christ, they live holier lives, they have more compassion for the poor,” Bañuelas told El Paso Inc.
His sense of a major religious event, he said, would be an end to the drug violence in Juárez, immigration reform and health care for everyone.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.