Odds are, you have not heard much about the recent death of the archbishop of Cali, Colombia.
A few weeks ago, he was killed as he left a church in a poor neighborhood of Colombia's third-largest city, having just celebrated a wedding Mass. Two men walked up to the 63-year-old prelate — Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino was his name — and shot him at point-blank range. Four times. Another priest was injured in the incident.
It's still not clear who the assassins were, but the list of suspects is a who's who of troublemakers from Colombia's decades-long civil war: drug traffickers, corrupt politicians, Marxist rebels, right-wing paramilitary forces. Precisely those groups harshly condemned by the courageous archbishop for their role in corrupting and destabilizing an already poor, war-weary country. This past February Archbishop Duarte denounced certain candidates in the country's congressional campaign for their acceptance of financing from drug traffickers. For this, the archbishop paid with his life.
Oddly, Archbishop Duarte's assassination received scant attention in our part of the world. It seems that CNN is everywhere except Colombia. To be fair, the 24-hour cable-news giant has its hands full. Cave-to-cave combat in Afghanistan, café bombs in Israel, tanks in the streets of Bethlehem, deviant American priests. More than enough breaking news to warm the heart of any Time-Warner shareholder.
So what is the worth of an archbishop's life? More to the point, what is the worth of his death?
It's too bad for Archbishop Duarte that he had to pay the price for his principles at a time when Catholic leaders in the United States were paying the price for violating theirs. Too bad for all of us, really. Why? Because Archbishop Duarte's assassination is a stark reminder of the enduring relevance of the Catholic Church in a troubled world. It is also a bold affirmation of the doctrinal soundness of the sacrament of Holy Orders —the priesthood, in lay terms — and of the power of Church leaders to act as Catholic doctrine says they should: as Christ's instruments for the realization of the Church's saving mission.
That may sound like predictable Catholic-speak in the face of a seeming epidemic of sexual sin in the Catholic Church. Many young people have been victimized. And the scandal has embarrassed ordinary Catholics, cast a dark shadow of suspicion and distrust over all Catholic clergy, and damaged the ability of American Catholics to speak with credibility and moral authority on issues from abortion to stem-cell research. But even worse, perhaps, is what the scandal threatens to do to the North American priesthood in general. An institution that is already widely perceived to be anachronistic and irrelevant may come to be viewed, in some quarters at least, as downright useless, if not evil.
Even devout Catholics may have a hard time stomaching Church doctrine that teaches that the sacrament of Holy Orders confers an “indelible spiritual character” on the recipient. How can it be, people will ask, that even the pedophile priest is marked forever with an indelible spiritual character that enables him to act in a special way as a representative of Jesus Christ? How can Catholics of good faith possibly see Christ in a disturbed and dangerous man? And if Catholics have a hard time swallowing this, how can non-Catholics ever take seriously anything the Catholic Church has to say — about anything, especially matters that go beyond the inner workings of Church doctrine or organization?
Enter Archbishop Duarte. Here was a man who knew what it meant to be a servant, not a master. Here was a man who understood what Catholic doctrine means when it says, to borrow from St. Ignatius of Antioch, that the bishop is like the living image of God the Father. A servant of the servants of God. Here was a man who understood, too, the inherent limits of humanity, the vulnerability of his own ministry to human weaknesses. When police urged him to accept the protection of bodyguards, Archbishop Duarte refused, worrying that they might lose their lives in order to protect him. Here was a man, then, who truly lived the paradoxical Christian message that those who are willing to lose their life for the sake of Christ will actually keep it.
Nothing in Catholic doctrine says that ordained ministers are perfect. They are, in this respect, no different from the people to whom they minister — mere mortals, some are psychologically wounded, even clinically ill. They are bound to make mistakes, bound to hurt others — and, in so doing, hurt the apostolic mission of the Church. Church history is instructive here.
St. Augustine wrote almost 1,600 years ago that ordained ministers who commit grievous sins can't obscure the big picture. “As for the proud minister,” he wrote, “he is to be ranked with the devil. … Christ's gift is not thereby profaned: What flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains clear and reaches the fertile earth.”
The late archbishop of Cali, Colombia, did his part to help that gift to flourish. Will we do ours?
Robert Ventresca teaches European history at King's College, the Catholic affiliate of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.