LAS CRUCES – When Mesilla resident Samantha Bustamantes was prepping for a half marathon a few years ago, she went running by the Rio Grande.
There, she happened to encounter a fellow jogger — Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces. Bustamantes is Catholic, so she decided to ask him a small favor: Would he bless her footwear, an important component of participating in a half-marathon?
And Cantú was happy to oblige.
“He blessed my running shoes,” said Bustamantes, smiling at the memory. “I’m a ‘nobody’ to him, but he made me feel special.”
She said the kind gesture was endearing, an example of Cantú’s personable nature. When the news broke last week that Cantú had been reassigned as the coadjutor bishop of San José, California, Bustamantes said she was “very sad to hear he’d be leaving.” Cantú delivers meaningful spiritual messages, known as homilies, she said.
“We’re sad to lose the talent,” she said.
For the past five-and-a-half years, Cantú, 51, has led the geographically large southern New Mexico diocese. It covers 10 largely rural counties, spanning from the Arizona border in the west to the Texas state line in the east. After serving as auxiliary bishop in San Antonio, Texas, he was appointed in January 2013, introduced publicly at a news conference in Las Cruces — much like one that took place Wednesday in San José.
A ‘bittersweet’ feeling
Friday, hours after returning to New Mexico from his trip to California, Cantú held a news conference in Las Cruces about his impending departure — which is slated for just two-and-a-half months from now. He said he’s feeling “bittersweet” about leaving and grateful to members of the diocese. He said he’s become “comfortable” leading the diocese. But people should practice getting out of their comfort zones.
“I have felt energized by my ministry here in Las Cruces,” he said. “As a team, we have worked together with priests, and my staff here at the pastoral center have embarked on several initiatives, administrative and pastoral, to reach out to the people of the diocese to help to improve their lives, as well as their spiritual lives, their family lives and their general health and well-being.”
Cantú was assigned in New Mexico to replace longtime Bishop Ricardo Ramírez, who, due to church rules, was required to retire after reaching age 75. Ramírez, the founding bishop of the southern New Mexico diocese, was well-liked among parishioners for his charisma and down-to-earth persona. And some questioned whether Cantú would be able to follow in his footsteps in that regard.
Also, the Las Cruces diocese was not problem-free when Cantú arrived. A former administrator had taken out an unauthorized loan, and the diocesan finances were in arrears.
Cantú said he and his team have made strides toward righting the financial condition of the diocese. He’s worked to boost transparency and accountability involving church funds and tried to strengthen ties between the diocese’s central administration and the individual parishes throughout southern New Mexico. Processes have been tightened up. Oversight committees have been appointed, and an outside auditor reviews the books each year. The audit reports from the first two years were poor, he said, but they’ve since stabilized.
“I feel good,” he said. “We’re in a good place, not a perfect place.”
Parishioners have said Cantu is a talented, business-like administrator. He’s an articulate, adept public-speaker, in both English and Spanish. And, while he’s is friendly, some parishioners haven’t found Cantú to be as relatable as Ramírez, likely because of a more reserved and introverted persona.
That perception may have been driven, in part, by Cantú’s involvement in international affairs and time spent away from the diocese intermittently in recent years. He’s a member of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has at times required a lot of international travel. Cantú served as chairman of the organization for three years, certainly raising the profile of the southern New Mexico diocese. He’s said he’s still on the panel but doesn’t hold the chairman role and isn’t required to travel internationally.
The committee takes stances on wide-ranging humanitarian and public policy matters worldwide. His participation generated news releases such as “Bishop Cantú Welcomes P5+1/Iran Nuclear Agreement” and “Bishop Cantú Urges Congress To Reauthorize International Religious Freedom Commission,” both from 2015.
Project Oak Tree to continue
In early 2016, Cantú was one of two U.S. bishops who accompanied Pope Francis during a prominent visit to Juárez. Cantú has been among U.S. bishops advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees. Under his tenure, the Las Cruces diocese launched Project Oak Tree after fielding a request from federal officials for assistance in dealing with an influx of Central American immigrants seeking asylum.
The project offers a temporary place to stay to asylum seekers who’ve been released by ICE on their own recognizance. The immigrants are en route to stay with family in other parts of the country. Cantú said that project — which provides assistance with temporary housing, food, clothing and travel arrangements — will continue, as long as it’s needed, even after he’s left the diocese.
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“That’s something Jesus commands us to do,” he said. “I was very proud to say that it wasn’t just Catholics. It was the entire Las Cruces community that came together and was very generous with their funds, their time, their energy and their expertise.”
Even so, Cantú said, the effort is a “Band-Aid” to a more serious problem. The root of the influx of asylum seekers is that the “rule of law” has broken down in Central America. While some efforts are underway to boost economic development there, he said, more work is needed.
“These families, I’ve heard their stories,” he said. “These are moms and dads whose children, whose sons are being threatened by the local gangs. If they don’t join the gang, they will be killed and their sisters will be raped. And so, if I were a parent in that situation, I would flee as well. And I wouldn’t care a thing about getting permission before I flee, for the the life of my children.”
A sense of regret
In recent weeks, the already-high-profile issue of immigration has garnered an even greater spotlight in southern New Mexico and west Texas because of a now-reversed decision by the Trump administration to separate immigrant children from their families. Cantú said he does have a sense of regret he’s leaving the Las Cruces diocese amid the continuing “identity crisis” tied to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“However, I realize I’m not the savior,” he said. “It’s done by the entire church. It’s done by an entire community. And so, there’s a sense of humility and a greater wisdom that goes beyond mine, and that’s part of the wisdom and humility of the church. When we’re called to go somewhere new, there’s a reason for that. I do not know it at this moment. But I trust. I also trust that someone will come along after me and maybe see things I don’t see and will be able to pick up the football and take it further down the field.”
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In leaving for California, Cantú said he’ll miss the close friendships he’s developed with the bishops of El Paso and Juárez. He’ll also miss celebrating the binational Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border. The view of two U.S. states and Mexico from the top of Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park will be a lasting memory, he said. It’s a reminder that “there’s something more important than borders — our common humanity.”
While a few parishioners said they were surprised by Cantú’s new appointment, others said they expected that, because of his administrative talents, he would be bound for higher-level appointments within the church, possibly even in Rome someday.
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, who’s Catholic, said he had mixed feelings about Cantú’s impending departure.
“This is bittersweet news for me, as I am happy for Bishop Cantú but sad that he is leaving,” he said. “Our loss is San José’s gain. He continued a great tradition here at the diocese and will continue to do a great job in San José.”
Miyagishima said he recently told his wife he believes Cantú has the potential to be named a cardinal someday.
Parishioner Samantha Bustamantes said she thinks Cantú could become an archbishop eventually.
“He’d serve so well,” she said. “I could see him doing something great because he’s so personable. He brings the Gospel to life. He really does a good job.”
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Asked if he’d want to serve in the Vatican someday, Cantú said his personal preference would be an assignment in a monastery, where he could “pray my Rosary and read my books.” But noted he doesn’t have much choice in the matter of where he’s assigned.
“I’m also at the service of what God has asked me,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds it.”
Las Crucen Ginny L. Acosta is Methodist but sometimes attends Catholic functions with a friend. Transitions in leadership can be emotional for church-goers across denominations, she said, because often leaders are involved in the some of the most important moments of people’s lives. But there can be a benefit in change, as well.
“In my faith, we’ve had our ministers leave periodically,” she said. “We hate to see somebody go, but they are going to be a blessing somewhere else, too. He (Bishop Cantu) was a blessing here for so many people, and he’ll be a blessing wherever he goes.”
Cantú remains the bishop of the Las Cruces Diocese until Sept. 28. He said a diocesan administrator will be named to oversee administrative affairs until Pope Francis appoints a replacement. Cantú said the Pope and one of his committee’s will likely ask regional church officials for recommendations on the appointment.
“Pope Francis will certainly turn to Archbishop (John) Wester of Santa Fe and the surrounding bishops, certainly Bishop (Mark) Seitz (of El Paso),” Cantú said. “And I believe they will reach out to me as well to get some recommendations as far as, ‘What are the local needs of the diocese? What are some of the challenges and so on.'”
Cantú, who was raised in inner-city Houston, said even though he’s Hispanic, he found the transition to New Mexico to be a “significant one.” It’s a large, rural diocese, and there is a culture difference between Texas and New Mexico. Whoever is appointed as the next Las Cruces bishop will have to be aware of southern New Mexico culture, he said. Also, fluency in Spanish will be an asset because so much of the diocese is Spanish-speaking.
Delia Narvaez and Cecelia Flores, who both attend St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Las Cruces, said they’ll miss Cantú.
“His personality was great,” Narvaez said. “We’re praying we get someone similar to him.”
After Cantu’s departure, it could be a while before a replacement bishop is named.
“Sometimes it can be six months; sometimes it can be a year or beyond,” he said. “I’m hoping it will be on the short side of that.”
Even though he’s moving to California soon, Cantú said he’s optimistic he’ll periodically be able to get shipments of New Mexico chile — both red and green.
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.
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