LAS CRUCES – When Bishop Oscar Cantú leaves the City of the Crosses for California and the San Jose Diocese in a few weeks, his departure will be bittersweet.
“It’s taken a while to let that reality sink in and to begin to trust that the Holy Spirit is in charge and there’s a bigger plan here,” he said. “And that’s part of who we are as a church.”
During an interview in his office at the Pastoral Center in Las Cruces last month, the 51-year-old bishop reflected on his nearly six years in southern New Mexico.
During that period he played a high-profile role on the border and abroad as an outspoken advocate for immigrants and refugees. He served as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace and accompanied Pope Francis during his visit to Mexico and the border in 2016.
“It was a powerful moment and powerful experience to be with him on that journey,” Cantú recalled.
This summer, Cantú marched alongside fellow bishops in solidarity with migrants during the zero-tolerance crackdown that separated hundreds of parents and children.
“I’ve been very proud of my brother bishops that we’ve taken a strong and principled position and voiced our concerns about human dignity, about human rights,” he said.
Cantú’s tenure in southern New Mexico coincided with the Trump administration’s stepped-up immigration enforcement. The bishop reached out to immigrants in southern New Mexico “to be with them” and after prayer services partnered with other agencies to host “know your rights” sessions so families could prepare for possible mass deportations.
“It’s been a sad thing to see so many children just not able to sleep, not able to study in school because they’re afraid that they’re going to come home one day and their parents are not going to be there,” he said.
Legal immigrants in the diocese have also been affected, Cantú said.
“Even our own priests – 60 percent of our priests are foreign born,” he said.
While the priests from Africa, India and Latin America renew their visas, they are concerned about crossing Border Patrol checkpoints for appointments with the bishop or retreats. Cantú said he has asked top people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol but has “not gotten clear answers” about the checkpoint issue.
Indeed, Cantú had his first experience with a Border Patrol highway checkpoint the day after being installed as bishop in Las Cruces when he was driving his mother and aunt to Ruidoso.
“My mom and I are citizens, but my aunt is not,” he recalled. “I didn’t tell my aunt to bring documents.”
Cantú’s aunt is from Monterrey, Mexico, and left her documents in Las Cruces.
“We were there for over an hour,” said Cantú, waiting for Border Patrol agents to verify legal status.
Though he will be far from the border in the much larger San Jose Diocese, Cantú will continue to serve immigrants, not just from Mexico, but also from China, Korea and the Philippines.
For the second time, Cantú has been named to serve a diocese with a retiring bishop. He will assist 73-year-old Bishop Patrick McGrath.
Son of immigrants
In 2013, when Cantú arrived in Las Cruces, he took over for Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, who retired at age 75.
A native of Houston, Cantú is a son of immigrant parents from Mexico and the fifth of eight children. He was ordained a priest in the Houston Diocese in 1994 and worked in parishes throughout the metropolitan area.
Cantú was ordained a bishop in 2008, then appointed titular Bishop of Dardano and Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio.
He is only the second bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces, which used to be part of the El Paso Diocese.
During his first three years, he served as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace. That meant spending a lot of time on the road traveling to global hot spots.
“It was fascinating work,” he said.
But he was happy to get back to southern New Mexico full time this year.
“The past five months I was just really enjoying being home … and also visiting my parishes here in the diocese, getting in my car traveling to Lovington to Hobbs, Silver City,” he said.
The diocese encompasses nine counties in southern New Mexico and a large stretch of borderland.
Cantú spent a lot of his time getting the diocese finances in order after a former chief financial officer made unauthorized loans that left the church $2 million in debt.
“We’re in a much better place than we were five or six years ago,” he said. “I feel good about that. We have some structures in place so those kind of scandals don’t take place again, more checks and balances.”
Cantú weighed in on another recent scandal, issuing a statement to parishioners about the Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed 700 cases of clergy sexual abuse of children that spanned decades and documented the failure of bishops to protect victims.
“These revelations have left us horrified and justifiably angry,” Cantú wrote.
And he voiced support for Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who proposed a “pathway forward in calling bishops to account” with practical changes to avoid repeating the failures of the past.
Cantú is scheduled to leave Sept. 28, before the Las Cruces Diocese completes an investigation into the “crying virgin” in Hobbs.
In May, witnesses first reported seeing tears coming from the eyes of the 7-foot bronze statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and hundreds of faithful have flocked to the church.
“So far we have not seen any natural reasons why there would be liquid coming from the statue,” Cantú said.
A chemical analysis identified the liquid as a mixture of olive oil and perfume similar to the sacred chrism used to anoint parishioners.
When asked whether the liquid could be part of a hoax, Cantú said: “Then we’re transparent about that. If it is a hoax, they’re pretty good.”
But if further investigation cannot determine a natural cause, “there are two possibilities: either it comes from God, or it comes from the devil,” he said.
The next bishop of Las Cruces will oversee the rest of the investigation.
Pope Francis is not expected to appoint a new bishop for Las Cruces for at least six months. A farewell Mass for Cantú is scheduled for Sept. 16.
He has enjoyed one last green chile harvest in New Mexico before departing for California but will miss the red chile later this year.
“I’ll have to get someone to send me regular shipments,” he said. “I like them both.”