(Editor’s Note: Executive Editor Liz Sullivan sat down with Bishop Oscar Cantú in mid-August for a Question & Answer interview. Bishop Cantú was in San Jose briefly to acclimate himself to his new home. This interview has been edited and consolidated for space).
LIZ SULLIVAN: Congratulations and Welcome to the Diocese of San Jose. We’ll start with the standard question. How did you learn of your appointment and what was your reaction?
BISHOP OSCAR CANTÚ: If I remember correctly, it was Monday morning when I got the call from the (Apostolic) Nuncio (Archbishop Christophe Pierre). I didn’t have the number on my speed dial and I was in the midst of a meeting with our superintendent in Las Cruces, I looked at my phone I saw it was a Washington number. My assumption was that it was one of the staffers that I used to work with at the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and they were calling about something relatively minor, so I sent it to voicemail.
After the meeting I listened to the voicemail and heard the French accent. He said, “this is the Nuncio, please call me; I have some news for you.” So I called him back and he got right to the point. He said the Holy Father (Pope Francis) has appointed you the Coadjutor (Bishop) of San Jose.
The Nuncio asked me to get in touch with Bishop PJ (McGrath), which I did. I was able to make some flight arrangements. We settled on a date for the announcement which was on the on the (July) 11th. Bishop McGrath and I communicated several times that week, making arrangements for the announcement, for my travel and so on. I’ve had to do this a couple of times; to sneak out to travel without telling anyone. It so happen that I was at the office the day that I was going to fly out and it turned out my flight was delayed, which meant I would have missed my connecting flight. So I wouldn’t have gotten to San Jose because it was the last flight of the day. I thought I’d better just go to the airport and see what they could arrange. I think it was around noon when I walked out of my office and there was my secretary. I said, “I’ll be back later.”
LIZ: And what was your reaction and what is your reaction now?
BISHOP CANTÚ: Five and a half years is a short time for a Bishop’s tenure. It takes a good year, if not more, to get to know the place and then to start making some plans. Then it might take another year or two to start developing networks. The other thing that was a big part of the last few years was my chairmanship with the Bishop’s Committee International Justice and Peace, which necessitated my travel. It seemed like I traveled constantly and internationally, which took me out of the diocese much more than I was comfortable with and not just the international travel, but also the constant keeping up with policy in Washington. Plus keeping up with politics internationally, whether it was writing letters to Congress or to the State Department, just to stay on top of issues was a lot and my attention was divided. I wasn’t always comfortable with that. I knew it was important work, but I was sort of longing for the time where I didn’t have to travel so much and could concentrate more on plans for the diocese.
When I finished the chairmanship and the international travel last January (2018) it was really nice to have five months or so to just stay home and be in the diocese. I felt my energy coming back. I was really excited about the coming months and years in the diocese. So obviously that phone call brought all of that to a halt. That’s part of life in the Church. To some degree I felt bad for myself and bad for the diocese that hasn’t exactly had a full-time pastor.
It will be a new reality for me. I know many of the bishops in California and I am quite friendly with them. I look forward to working with Bishop McGrath.
LIZ: To some degree it is like starting over again. Right? That’s OK.
BISHOP CANTÚ: Once I am here, I’ll be excited about it. Right now I’m in the midst of transitioning, which is not so exciting. Yes, I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to getting to know the diocese, and the people I’ll be working with and collaborating with.
LIZ: When you met with Chancery staff in July after the announcement of your appointment as Coadjutor you touched on the upcoming Synod on Youth, Vocations and Discernment. What is the significance of this moment in the universal Church?
BISHOP CANTÚ: It’s not just diocesan-wide, it’s national and it’s global.
The issue of young people leaving the church has been an issue that the bishops have been aware of for at least a decade. Primarily we’ve been taught that young adults leave home, go off to college or move out of the house and disassociate from family, parents and from the Church. But what I heard at a conference from experts in the area just a few months ago just absolutely floored me. The average age of Catholics disassociating from the church right now is 13. That’s the average age. Not the young age. So this is the reality of secularization and when you have kids that young walking away from their faith, it’s less seductive. It’s more about the family structure and more about young parents and what’s happening with them or what’s not happening with them. It’s something that’s weighed heavily on my mind.
I think with some real energy, we need to think outside of the box about evangelization.
We can have the best programs for kids in our parishes; however, if they go home to an environment that’s not supportive, we’re pouring water into a glass that has a hole in the bottom. We need to shift to a family type of catechesis. We need to look at different models of thinking. It’s not just for any one parish or diocese. I think globally and particularly in the United States, we need to think strategically; that’s what the new evangelization has called us to do with new models, new structures, new language and new zeal.
LIZ: Who or what were your early influences, both religious and non-religious growing up?
BISHOP CANTÚ: I grew up in a large family. We did not have a lot of extended family in the city (Houston), most of our cousins, aunts and uncles were in Mexico. We generally got to see them about once a year. So, essentially the parish became our extended family. Sunday was a big family day in a broader way. We went to see our parish family every Sunday and we were always close with our parish priest. We invited them over to the house and it was like they were almost like part of the family. We were blessed to have several religious sisters in the parish and they were often at the house as well. They taught us to play guitar, sing in the choir, and were involved in youth group. They invited my parents to enroll us in Catholic school. The school community became part of our extended family as well. I would say those parish priests and religious had a really strong influence on my entire family.
Those were big influences certainly religiously and socially. A couple of my siblings became professional musicians for a while and that was an influence on my life. Sports were also a big part too. Most of my brothers played sports, it was a wonderful outlet for us as we were growing up.
I grew to love basketball but unfortunately, I stopped growing in eighth grade. I was really mad at God for a while, but then realized he had a different plan for me. I played varsity basketball at school and enjoyed sports as far as I could. I’m still a big fan.
I think it’s a good, positive outlet to some of the heavier stuff of life. Certainly a good conversation starter with people.
LIZ: During the course of your priestly ministry, you have taught at the University of Saint Thomas and Saint Mary’s Seminary, both in Houston, in addition to serving as a parish priest. You also hold several advanced degrees. Can you comment on the importance of education for you and the Church?
BISHOP CANTÚ: My interest in topics have shifted since I was a child, but I’ve always had a knack for math. It kind of came naturally to me, but in the humanities not so much. Then in high school, I had a really good, interesting English teacher, who helped turn me on to literature. In college, I ended up being an English major. I love poetry and literature which have shown me the importance of telling the story and knowing how to tell the story. Jesus understood that. He didn’t publish the Catechism. He didn’t teach his disciples systematic theology. He told them stories. That’s how he talked. There’s something catechetical and instructive about how to tell a story.
My interest in theology grew as well and I was fascinated by philosophy as an undergraduate. After the seminary I was sent to do postgrad work, too. The idea was to return to teach at the seminary (in Houston). I enjoyed that. I had an interest in it at that time, along with sacramental theology and that’s what I studied. I continue to be quite interested in theology.
When I finished my studies and came back from Rome I asked the Bishop at that time, since I had not been a pastor, if I could have that experience before I went full-time to the seminary. I was surprised that he agreed. So he made me a pastor and I was able to teach part time and really enjoyed it and have always enjoyed teaching. I was able to teach at the undergrad and graduate levels, which I found really enjoyable. I missed it for several years, and to some degree, I still do.
Nonetheless, I continue to teach it in a different way. I think it’s good and healthy to have that continuing interest and to try to keep up to some degree with that.
When I was the Auxiliary Bishop in San Antonio, I oversaw Catholic education, and worked closely with the superintendent. I was also the liaison to the Catholic universities in the Archdiocese, three Catholic universities, one Catholic College, and one seminary. It was enjoyable to have so much of a hold your feet to the fire of Catholic identity. It also opened a door of a conversation of communion. That’s when we call ourselves Catholic. It’s important that we be in communion not only with the laity, but also with the head of the Church and the shepherd. I think that was an important period for me when practicing the practical elements of the dialogue. There are different stages of dialogue, it’s important to recognize the dignity of an individual, the dignity of an institution, but to also be challenging and challenging them to grow.
I look forward to working with our schools and universities as it is a part of my life that has shaped who I am.
LIZ: I heard you say it today (at the Convocation Mass for school) when you quoted Michelangelo, who said “Today I still learn.” You mentioned he was in his 70s or 80s. In addition, you touched on your involvement with the committee on international justice and peace where you served as chair. In reading about your background it says you’ve spoken at the United Nations and in London in defense of the Church’s teaching on the opposition of the periphery should have nuclear weapons. Why are these topics important and why should the Church be concerned about them?
BISHOP CANTÚ: The Vatican just months previous to those presentations had really stirred up a lot of energy with regard to non-proliferation (the prevention of an increase or spread of something, especially the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons) and essentially, it was kind of a subtle turn of phrase by the Vatican and a critically important one.
There has been a threat right now of using nuclear weapons. If you’re going to threaten, then that’s considered an act of will and intent to use those weapons. So the position of the nuclear threat cannot be held morally anymore. It was supported back in the 80s during the Cold War as a step towards denuclearization, but not as a permanent policy. So that’s what stirred up a lot of interest in the issue of non-proliferation. I was invited to speak to several groups. There was the Ploughshare group that gathers nationally and often in New Mexico, where a lot of the research is done on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. So I spoke to them there and I was invited to the U.N. in New York and then to an international gathering in London.
You know it was interesting because previously I thought the whole nuclear issue was resolved in the 80s with the end of the Cold War, but it’s not. We’ve got all of these nuclear weapons across the country that are dangerously stored. We’ve got the most weapons right behind Russia, and people don’t realize that. They thought since we hadn’t heard about nuclear weapons in decades, it must be resolved. That’s not the case.
LIZ: Your episcopal motto is “Zeal for the Lord’s house consumes me.” Can you speak to how you made this choice?
BISHOP CANTÚ: It kind of has a double meaning. When you think about what God’s house is, you think about the afterlife. There is this burning desire to be with God in perfect, peaceful, joy. But there’s also His house right here on earth.
When Pope Francis went to Mexico City, he spoke about building a home of dignity of a human person. I’ve been really taken by the profound message of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s a message of human dignity and of ecclesiology, that she sent Juan Diego to build a church and made him a protagonist as a lay person with little-to-no status. That is what the Gospel is about, that every one of us has the dignity to be when we are baptized and that we have a duty to evangelize.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, 500 years ago, was the first one to give us an eloquent example of the new evangelization and what the Spaniards were not able to do very effectively. She came in her maternal wisdom and her kindness and her utter respect for the dignity of the indigenous, spoke to him (Juan Diego) in his own language, appeared to him in his own culture using the very hieroglyphics that the indigenous understood in the image that told the entire story of Christ, who brings them light and brings dignity. That’s an image and a story that comes back to me time and time again and is always fresh and pertinent to every age.
LIZ: Do you have a favorite Scripture that you often go back or a favorite apostle?
BISHOP CANTÚ: There is Saint Peter. I feel close to him in the sense that he was always putting his foot in his mouth and I feel like I’m doing that all the time as well. And yet how he was transformed after the Resurrection and I have seen that over and over in my life, which surprises me. I love the psalms in part because I love poetry. There’s something just beautifully succinct about those heartfelt prayers and the fact that most of those psalms are complaints.
I often complain directly to God about life, about how life is just not fair. Why do innocent people suffer? Those are the mysteries of life that I have yet to understand. And it’s always in a concert in the context of faith. At the end of each Psalm there is an act of faith. Even though I may not understand it, I trust it.
LIZ: What can the faithful in the Diocese of San Jose expect as you arrive in the “Valley of Saint Clare” as Bishop McGrath likes to call Santa Clara County?
BISHOP CANTÚ: I was asked a similar question when I first arrived in Las Cruces as well. The constant question of what are my priorities and what plans do I have right now. My response was always that my only priority is to get to know the Diocese. In the coming months, and perhaps a couple of years, I will be doing a lot of visiting and listening. I will be visiting our schools, parishes, and communities, and observing and listening to what the issues are. From that, begins to emerge priorities and from those priorities then we can gather with other stakeholders to be able to create a plan. Now, I understand that there has already been some extensive planning, so I’m anxious to roll-up my sleeves, look at what those plans are and see how I can take the ball, and move it further down the field in that respect. So much of having a pastoral presence is simply about being present. It’s not like I am going to come and solve your problems, but I will listen. I will be there as a pastor and then from there the Holy Spirit works and begins to give us direction. I will be with you as who I am, with my own personality, with my own gifts, and with my own shortcomings. That’s what I can promise.
LIZ: Ok, I am going to ask you a very serious question. You grew up in Houston in the land of the Rockets (basketball team) and you served as Auxiliary Bishop in San Antonio, the home of the Spurs. Now, you are in Warriors Country, winners of three-of-the-last four NBA champions. Where does your heart lie with the Rockets or the Spurs?
BISHOP CANTÚ: They asked me that when I went to San Antonio. Would my allegiance be divided or would it shift? At that time I told them on the exterior clearly I wear silver and black (Spurs’ colors), but I bleed red (Rockets’ colors). So I am a combination of the two.
It’s all good. I love and respect all of them. Originally when this movement started with the Splash Brothers (Warriors’ Klay Thompson and Steph Curry) I was really intrigued and sort of followed them from a distance to some degree. It’s sort of an embarrassment of riches. This is where the dream is right now, with the warriors.