Thursday, December 01, 2011

Ochoa Heads Home: El Paso Prelate Named to Fresno

A year to the week since Bishop John Steinbock's death at 73, this morning saw the Pope's pick of his successor at the helm of the million-member Fresno diocese... and something of a surprise choice at that.

After 15 years along West Texas' border with Mexico, Bishop Armando Ochoa is heading home. At Roman Noon, B16 named the 68 year-old LA native -- head of the 700,000-member El Paso church since 1996 -- to the Central Valley seat, the first suffragan appointment in California's southern province since Archbishop José Gomez took the reins of its metropolitan juggernaut in late February.

Born in Oxnard, a stone's throw from St John's Seminary, Ochoa was ordained a priest from the Camarillo house in 1970. In 1986, he was ordained an auxiliary of LA at 42, becoming just the second Hispanic prelate to serve in what's now the nation's largest local church, whose nearly 5 million Catholics are now led by a Latino supermajority that comprises close to 70 percent of its membership.

In El Paso, Ochoa became widely known for championing the church's priority of pastoral work with those affected by the realities of the border. Beyond the task's day-to-day ministry, to raise awareness of the plight on both sides of the chain-link fence dividing Mexico from the US, in 1999 the bishop instituted an annual Mass at the border (below) with a Mexican prelate and priests concelebrating on the other side.

Amid a recent sustained spike in violence in Mexico that's only increased a sense of urgency for many to make the risky journey across, this year's rite drew a congregation of some 500 along both sides of the fence. Given the increasing reality of detentions and deportations of migrants, the bishop's likewise added a Christmas liturgy for detainees (shown top) to his outreach to the undocumented.

While Ochoa's new charge lies some ways from California's southern passage, many of its issues little different from El Paso's. Once the Fresno church began estimating figures of undocumented immigrants in its Catholic population late in the last decade, the number zoomed past a million, more than doubling the size of the eight-county fold.

The same diocese where the the future Cardinal Roger Mahony first made his name as a migrant activist as a local priest and auxiliary bishop, Hispanic labor dominates the San Joaquin Valley's service and farming industries.

With today's appointment, Ochoa becomes the second Hispanic to head the Fresno church, and four of the LA province's six dioceses are now led by bishops of Latino roots. Likewise, the bishop is the third straight ordinary to leave El Paso for another see, following then-Bishop Patrick Flores, who would go on to become San Antonio's legendary archbishop following a very brief tenure (1978-9) along the border, and Bishop Raymundo Peña, who was sent from West Texas in 1995 to lead the now million-plus faithful of the Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville -- per capita, the most Catholic place in the country (85% of the area's total populace), with a majority of its fold younger than age 25.

In keeping with the norms of the canons, the prodigal Californian must take possession of his new post within two months.

Looking more broadly, Fresno is the first of three more SoCal dioceses set to change hands in the forseeable future; fresh off his $57 million purchase of Crystal Cathedral -- approved by Rome earlier this week -- Bishop Tod Brown of Orange reached the retirement age of 75 in mid-November... and, indeed, chatter of a coadjutor for San Diego in the wake of its abuse-induced bankruptcy filing and $200 million settlement of cases remains well in evidence.

With today's move, nine Stateside Latin dioceses (including, for the first time in two decades, a trio of metropolitan churches) remain vacant, with another seven sees led by bishops serving past 75. Notably, as one of the latter is Ochoa's prime confrere along the border -- New Mexico's Bishop Ricardo Ramirez CSB of Las Cruces -- the shape of a shift of B16's strategy in the region is well worth watching in the months ahead.

The next US prelate to reach the retirement age is Chicago's Cardinal Francis George OMI, whose walking papers will reach Rome in mid-January.