SAN DIEGO – The diocese lost one of its beloved leaders, Bishop Gilberto Chávez, just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread. Two years later, almost to the day, the diocese was able to celebrate a memorial Mass for him, complete with the mariachi music he loved.
More than 150 people attended the Mass on March 19, celebrated by Bishop Robert McElroy, and a fiesta afterward. Those on hand included family members and friends who had traveled from San Bernardino County, and current and retired Hispanic ministry leaders who collaborated with him for decades.
Bishop Chávez died on March 15, at the age of 87, after years of declining health. He served the diocese for 47 years, 33 of them as auxiliary bishop.
Bishop Robert McElroy explained that health orders to slow the spread of the virus had forced the diocese to scale back its plans for the funeral Mass two years ago.
“First, they told us we could only have 100 people attend, then only 50, then only 10,” he said.
The diocese would go on to hold the Mass in an empty St. Joseph Cathedral, save for a handful of his family members who were present.
“Today, we’re finally able to gather together,” the Bishop said at the beginning of the Mass, held at the chapel of the diocese’s Pastoral Center.
He noted that the day was important: Bishop Chávez had been ordained on March 19 some 62 years earlier.
In his homily, he often directed his words to Bishop Chávez’s family members, who included his nieces, Veronica Alaniz and Martha Alcaráz.
“We gather today to pray for you, and to ask that God be with you in your grief and in your sense of loss which still endures, just as Christ was present for Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus,” the Bishop said, referring to the day’s Gospel reading (John 11:1-45).
The Bishop said that diocese is also experiencing a profound sense of grief because Bishop Chávez had played in important role in its history.
“Bishop Chavez’s appointment was historic,” Bishop said. “He was only the second Hispanic bishop in the United States; now we have about 50.”
He said Bishop Chávez helped to lead the Church in California and the San Diego Diocese.
“He helped the Church to understand that the ministry and outreach to the Hispanic community needed to be central in the life of the Church,” he continued.
“He was a prophetic figure in ministry for the Spanish-speaking community,” the Bishop said, noting that under his direction generations of leaders had been formed to serve in the Church.
Bishop Chávez also was a prophetic figure because he helped the Church to understand that the issues of justice and fundamental rights for immigrants “are not secondary concerns for the life of the Church but lie right at the center of our work.”
The Bishop invited everyone to reflect on this legacy.
“We come together to celebrate this Mass, filled with memories and filled with a sense of the prophetic work that he gave us still graces our local church.”
After the Mass, the diocese held a fiesta, presided by Auxiliary Bishop Ramón Bejarano. Several individuals who had known Bishop Chávez for decades took turns addressing the celebration, sharing their testimonial about the impact he had had on their lives.