Speaker: Reject the tendency to reject

PITTSFORD — As the child of Mexican immigrants born in Texas, Father Virgilio Elizondo knows the pain of not knowing where one belongs.

In his hometown, he was constantly reminded that he was Mexican. When he visited Mexico, he was told he was a "gringo."

Father Elizondo described his childhood on March 25 during one of two sessions he led as part of the William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies lecture series at Nazareth College.

He referred to Scripture for guidance, especially the Gospels, he explained during the session titled "If Jesus Had Been Born in San Antonio," which also refers to the last chapter in one of his books that discusses the humanity of Jesus.

"The great sin of the world is robbing people of (seeing themselves) in the image and likeness of God," so they know where they belong, said Father Elizondo, who asked the audience of more than 150 people to consider what passport Jesus would carry today.

The fact that Jesus came from Galilee — an area deemed unworthy by the Jews because the people there didn’t speak properly, lacked knowledge about the rules of the temple and were impure — speaks of his rejection of rejection, explained Father Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame.

"This is Jesus — the stone rejected by the emperors who became the cornerstone," he noted.

Born in the Galilean town of Nazareth — which was a border town with Samaria — Jesus thus begins his work as healer, Father Elizondo said.

"Jesus assumed the wounds of a wounded society," he remarked. "Jesus becomes the reject who rejects rejection. … We have a Jesus who became weak in order to become strong. He became poor to become rich. He was the unwanted who became wanted."

Following his baptism when God proclaims, "This is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased," Jesus becomes fearless in his defense of the kingdom of God.

"For Jesus, everyone is welcome," said Father Elizondo. "He has a special way of reaching out to those in society who are rejected or unwanted."

One of the simplest but most profound ways that Jesus broke all barriers was his refusal to follow the modes of society by offering fellowship at table to anyone and everyone, he added.

"This is one of the most earth-shattering things Jesus did," Father Elizondo commented.

He once found himself following in Jesus’ footsteps as pastor at a church in San Antonio, when he invited two prostitutes to breakfast at a restaurant. The waiter took him aside to make sure he was aware with whom he was associating, and Father Elizondo could see why Jesus had such a fondness for society’s rejects.

"He was scandalized that I wasn’t scandalized," Father Elizondo said of the waiter’s reaction. "Jesus went beyond labeling … and saw the beauty of people. The sin of the world blinds us to the dignity of people."

Sister of Mercy Janet Korn said that Father Elizondo, who is known as the founder of U.S. Latino theology, serves as a great source of hope and enthusiasm for all who minister with the Hispanic community.

"He challenged us to be active evangelizers and to find ways to break the boundaries of culture, language and race," added Sister Korn, diocesan director of urban ministry. "Father Virgilio spoke passionately about Jesus as a man who suffered exclusion and rejection and invited us to be ministers of inclusion … to be invitational, hospitable and accepting of all who are not like ourselves."

Deacon Carlos Vargas also was impressed that Father Elizondo had lunch and "broke bread" with the deacons who minister to the Latino community before his lecture on March 25. Deacon Vargas made his remarks about Father Elizondo during a retreat for St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish at St. Michael Church the day after the priest’s talk.

During the lunch, the deacons and their wives discussed the diversity of the local Latino community with Father Elizondo, Deacon Vargas added. They agreed that no matter their cultural differences, these groups share similar needs and concerns, he said.

"He took the time to sit down and have a conversation with the community," Deacon Vargas noted. "He sat with us, listened and shared with us."

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