Bishop Mark Seitz

Bishop Mark Seitz will celebrate his first Easter mass in El Paso this Sunday not at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Downtown, but at Our Lady of the Assumption in the modest neighborhood between Beaumont Army Medical Center and the Angel’s Triangle in North Central.

He’s standing in for the parish’s priest who’s been sick.

He is passing up the opportunity to make an impression at the diocese’s flagship church for the chance to touch parishioners who probably haven’t seen a bishop in their church on Easter Sunday for quite a while.

It seems like something Pope Francis might do.

Celebrating the Catholic Diocese of El Paso’s 100th anniversary outdoors at the Ysleta Mission on March 1 was a similar surprise.

Seitz, who is from Wisconsin and heard the call to the priesthood as a young boy, has also gone beyond the public gesture to reach people.

In 2009, one of his Dallas parishioners, Carrie Gehling, asked him to pray for her because she needed a kidney transplant or she would die. He prayed for her, and then he had himself tested as a possible donor. Today Gehling is reportedly healthy and happy, while the former Monsignor Seitz has one kidney.

“We follow the model of one who literally gave his life for us. If he can lay down his life, I can give away a kidney,” he said afterward.

Challenging Christians to look at their lives and purpose differently is what the church should do, Seitz said, and what the new pope is doing.

“I think he’s given us a new spark, a new enthusiasm, and we love the fact that he’s getting a lot of people who may have wandered from the faith to take a look at it again,” Seitz said.

He thinks the fact that the first pope from the Western Hemisphere is Hispanic and a strong advocate for the poor has given local Catholics a new pride in their church.

While a pope can spark new faith and set a new tone for the church, it doesn’t mean there will be big changes. That’s not the way of the 2,000-year-old institution for which change comes slowly, if at all.

So, there may be nice priests who will offer communion to married couples who have a divorce or two behind them. But, Seitz said, the rules haven’t relaxed, much less changed.

That doesn’t mean the church’s answer always has to be “no” either. Seitz told his staff on his first day nine months ago to start saying “yes” to requests whenever possible.

At 60, Seitz is leading his first diocese, and it’s no small job.

The El Paso Diocese has 55 parishes and 20 missions. They serve more than 650,000 Catholics who make up 81 percent of the population in 10 counties spread across more than 26,000-square miles of West Texas. That’s an area bigger than 10 states.

Seitz said yes to a long interview on short notice last week and then sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about immigration, how he became a priest, El Paso history and why some priests abused children.

Q: This interview will be published on Easter Sunday. Would you share some of your Easter message?

Basically, it’s the fundamental message of Easter that Christ has overcome sin and death. We have reason to hope, reason for our joy even in the midst of earth’s trials.

Q: Pope Francis became head of the Roman Catholic Church 13 months ago. He’s a far cry from Pope Benedict. Has this first pope from the Western Hemisphere had an effect on the American Catholic Church?

I think he’s given us a new spark, a new enthusiasm, and we love the fact that he’s getting a lot of people who may have wandered from the faith to take a look at it again. From the standpoint of the leadership of the church, I think he’s certainly challenged us, as he’s challenged everyone else, to really look at how we’re living our life.

His message has been about the call to really simplify, to give a good example of being focused on the needs of the poor and not accumulating things for ourselves or focusing on those who have means, but focusing our ministry on them – the poor.

Q: What effect has the first Hispanic pope had on the El Paso diocese?

I think we all take a certain pride in the fact that he came from the Americas and some of the things that he is emphasizing, such as solidarity with the poor and evangelization. It also comes in a tone, in a language if you will, that we are very familiar with here in this hemisphere, because these are things that the church has been working on here for a long time.

There’s something also about his spirituality that is very familiar, that he has a tremendous devotion to Mary, which is not to say that Pope Benedict didn’t or Pope John Paul didn’t. On Wednesday, he had a teaching in St. Peter’s Square and he suggests that Christians spend time with the crucifix, and kiss the wounds of Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pope say that. Not that it, again, is foreign to the church, but he speaks about a certain spirituality, a kind of connection with the cross, that you probably haven’t heard.

Q: The Catholic Church is a conservative institution. But on the issue of immigration, it crosses to the liberal side. Are you disappointed that the church’s stance on immigration hasn’t had more impact on conservatives in this country?

First of all, I think if people look at the church’s positions on a wide range of issues, they will find that we just simply do not fit into a particular ideological category. In a certain way, that puts us at odds with the secular, and people keep trying to just force us in to a box in order to understand us.

We approach things from a totally different perspective, and the fundamental aspect of that, I think, is the dignity of the human person.

If you take any teaching of the church that relates to humanity, even to the point of policy suggestions, you’ll be able to trace it back to the fundamental concept that we believe that the human being is, like scripture says, created in the image and likeness of God, that we are a temple of God.

So, when we look at this person the secular might look at and say that’s an illegal, an alien – the different titles, the different names that we call that person. They may need to be in prison, but they need to be respected. In the debate that has polarized us so much, we think that fundamental concept has very often been forgotten and that they’ve just become a statistic, a number, something we need to control for our national well-being.

Q: Francis recently took responsibility upon himself for the abuse of children by Catholic priests. What do you think was at the root of that abuse and what – aside from a myriad of new rules, background checks and precautions – has changed in the recruitment, selection and management of priests today?

We’ve been examining our consciences for a long time. I think part of it may be that priests in some respects started acting more like people in the world than like people whose lives were given to God’s service.

Q: How is the church addressing it?

For one thing, we’ve been working real hard to make sure that priests that have abused are no longer able to do ministry. We have a zero tolerance policy for that.

Q: The Catholic Church has been affiliated with El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization and its trained community organizers since the early 1980s. What is EPISO’s role today and how does it fit with the church’s mission here?

Of course, we have EPISO and Border Interfaith on different sides of town. They are ecumenical organizations, although EPISO is almost exclusively Catholic. EPISO is not a work of the church, but it is a community group that we believe we should cooperate with because they’re dealing with very important issues that affect the poorest of our people living in this region. And, they try to give them a voice.

Q: You seem to be following a different track as bishop, more inclined to say ‘yes’ to doing things differently, whether it’s celebrating the diocese’s 100th anniversary mass at the Ysleta mission, or saying yes to this interview on short notice. Have you started a ‘yes’ campaign?

I’m not aware that I’m doing anything that different. I think our former bishop was a very kind, gentle, good man. But I’m me. I’m trying to live out this call and responsibility that I’ve received as best I can. But it’s funny you’d ask if it is a ‘yes’ administration. That’s pretty much what I told the staff the first day I met with them.

When somebody calls needing something from us, I don’t want them to hear “no.” I want them to hear “yes.”

Q: Normally, a big celebration like the diocese’s 100th anniversary would be held at St. Patrick’s. Why did you take it to Our Lady of Mount Carmel?

The fundamental issue was whether we make this an exclusive event in which we invite a few people from every parish to the cathedral? Or, do we make this something that’s open to the whole community? Our answer was we want it to be open.

I think providentially it turned out to be the best because no place speaks to the history of the Catholic Church in El Paso better than the Ysleta Mission, which was first formed in 1683 and was the very first church in our area.

Q: Three of El Paso’s greatest historic sites are the missions of Ysleta and Socorro and the San Elizario presidio. But outside El Paso, they remain a secret, unlike the famous missions in San Antonio or California. There is talk of linking the El Paso missions in a new Mission Trail national park. What does the diocese think of that idea?

I think we have a treasure in these missions and that they should be better known. I think that they should be better developed as pilgrimage sites and for anyone who is interested in this history.

So, I’ve begun speaking to the pastors of those churches and to different people in the diocese to organize a committee to study how we might cooperate with the civil initiatives and work together to really develop this.

Q: The past decade has been hard on the priesthood. That and the increasing secularization of society seem to have taken a toll on the ranks of men willing to become priests. The ranks are thinning.

It’s true that the ranks are thinning and that broad secularization of society is a big factor. I think you can point at a lot of individual aspects of that secularization that have a big impact. But there is good news.

We’ve seen a resurgence in priests in the last five to 10 years, and many of our seminaries are now full. So, we’re very hopeful.

Q: How many active churches are there in the diocese?

I believe the number is 55 parishes and 20 missions. A mission is a church where people gather for Sunday mass or services, like a parish, but it’s not established as a full-fledged parish.

Q: How many priests?

The latest number that I’ve heard is 41 active diocesan priests.

Q: So you’re short-handed.

Yes, but I have about an equal number of religious priests like Jesuits, Franciscans and so on. Not all of them are in parish ministry, but a number of them are, and that’s what helps the ends meet to the degree that they do.

Q: What does it take to become a priest today?

Priests are intended to be leaders of their communities and as such in today’s world they need a lot of preparation. A person who comes to us and expresses an interest in the priesthood might begin with a monthly discernment group, seeing if this is really for him. When he’s ready to make the jump and say, ‘Yeah, I’m all in,’ then we would do a very lengthy process for acceptance into seminary, which would include psychological evaluations. If that all looks good and he seems ready, then he’d begin his studies.

A year or two years after that, depending on his needs, he’d continue onto a college seminary. That would mean going to Conception Seminary in Missouri. That’s where we send our college guys. When they graduate, usually with a degree in philosophy, they still have five more years to study, including four years of graduate academics. In the middle, we ask them to come back to El Paso for a year and experience life in a parish and try their hand at some of the things a priest would do.

Q: I’ve known Episcopal priests who were married with children and left to become Catholic priests. They kept their wives and kids, of course. Is that happening more?

The church has been accepting Episcopalian priests particularly who have, for reasons of conscience, come into the Catholic Church. The church has been offering a special dispensation from the vows of celibacy to them. We treat that just like we would a permanent deacon who’s married. But if his wife dies, he’s not free to remarry. This is an ancient tradition in the church for priests who have the option of being married, but only once.

Q: It’s not uncommon to find married couples where the husband or wife had been a Catholic and is attending a Protestant or nondenominational church because of a divorce. I’ve heard some Catholic pastors here are open to letting such couples become fully participating Catholics, taking communion again. Has the church’s stance on divorce and remarriage softened?

The church’s stance hasn’t changed. The stance on divorce relates to our stance on marriage. We believe in marriage as Jesus taught, as the church has received it. Jesus is just so utterly clear that when a valid marriage is entered into, it is indissoluble. So, when a valid marriage has separated, how can we say, “Oh, yeah, go ahead and do it again”?

We don’t assume that authority. They’re welcome back; we’d love them to be back. But if they have remarried after the divorce, then we need to walk them through this process we call annulment, which is a very careful study of that first marriage to see if the understanding and capability that they brought to that relationship, each party rose to the level of committing indeed to marriage as Jesus taught it.

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E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

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