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Catholic Voice
  June 22, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, and the chaplain, Father Jim Suntum, SF, in front of the altar.
Courtesy photo

New Mexico holy site has special meaning for bishop

Two weeks ago I was invited to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the installation of the new archbishop, the Most Rev. John Wester. I had the pleasure of working with Father Wester in San Francisco, when he was pastor of St. Stephen's parish near Stonestown. He later became auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, and has been the bishop of Salt Lake City for the past eight years. He is one of the kindest people you'll ever meet.

I like Santa Fe because it is one of the most naturally spiritual places in the US. I wanted to go there ever since reading Willa Cather's incredible novel "Death Comes for the Archbishop." The book is a novel, but based on a real person, the first archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, and his adventures in coming to the Southwest. If you haven't read the book I highly recommend it.

The small city of Santa Fe is located at more than 7,000 feet altitude. It is very, very dry, and there is noticeably less oxygen. One beer and you get a headache. But the sky is crisp and clear and a much deeper blue than in Oakland.

There is such a sense of the sacred in the town itself ... it permeates the ground and the hills and the creeks running through it. I haven't felt such a peace flowing through a city since I was in Assisi in Italy.

I went to Santa Fe a day early to make a pilgrimage to one of my favorite shrines: the Sanctuary of Chimayó.

It is located about 23 miles outside Santa Fe, way out in the desert, but at an oasis — where there is a small stream and some greenery. Don't think of a large shrine like Lourdes or Fatima.

Chimayó is humble and modest. It has a tin roof and walls of adobe mud. But the retablo (painting) behind the high altar is spectacular: lots of bultos (sculptures) of saints, color and intricate Indian designs.

I watched from the back of the chapel as people entered and I saw their eyes light up. They were drawn to the crucifix, a bloodied image of Christ in the Spanish style Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas (Our Lord of Esquipulas).

But there is something else. Lourdes has its holy water, St. Joseph's in Montreal has holy oil, but Chimayó has holy dirt.

The legend is that in 1813 a friar was doing his penances in the desert nearby, and saw a strange light burst from a hillside. He went to the source of the light, dropped to his hands and knees, and began to dig in the sand.

He discovered a buried crucifix. He dug it up, and carried it in procession to the local church. The priest in charge placed the cross over the high altar in his church.

The next morning the cross was gone. They found it back in the original hole. Three times the crucifix disappeared from the locked church, only to be found in the hole in the hillside.

The people figured out that the Lord wanted it to remain in its original discovery place, and they built a chapel over the spot. This is Chimayó. People have been coming and collecting holy dirt from the hole ever since.

The walls of the sacristy are lined with hundreds of crutches and testimonial notes from people who were cured — or received strength to carry their cross. There are hundreds of photos on the walls, asking protection for those in the military and police, and commemorating those killed in the line of duty.

You can light a candle. Pray. And collect some holy dirt. People take the dirt, pray and apply it to the part of their body they need healed.

It is very moving. And humbling. It reminded me again of St. Francis of Assisi, who, when dying, removed his habit, and asked to be taken out of bed and placed on the bare earth floor, covered with a blanket, so he could die in contact with "Lady Poverty."

At Chimayó I made my holy hour and prayed for you and our diocese. I concelebrated Mass with Father Jim Suntum, SF, the chaplain. I collected my holy dirt and brought some home.

As I sat in the chapel, many people came up to me, seeing I was a priest, and asked for blessings and intercessions. More than 300,000 pilgrims come there every year, making it the most visited Catholic shrine in the US.

Pope Francis has praised and recommended "Popular Piety" and "Popular Devotions." He said: "I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified." I agree 100 percent with the Holy Father.

Chimayó has special meaning for me. I was making a retreat there over a long weekend in April 2013. I later learned that while I was there, at the same time Pope Francis was having a meeting in Rome with the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

It was in the meeting that day that the Holy Father chose me to be the bishop of Oakland.

As I left Chimayó week before last, the chaplain, Father Jim, called me into his office. "I've got something to tell you that I don't tell many people."

He told me that five years ago, a woman and a priest came to pray at the sanctuary and stopped to meet the chaplain. The woman pointed to her companion and said: "This is my brother. He's a priest in Argentina." The priest was Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

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