SALTILLO, Mexico — In a homily during Advent, retired Bishop Raúl Vera López of Saltillo brought up the burgeoning local wine industry — something of a local success story in his diocese.
“There are people with money, (who) made their riches in politics, and now they’re asking for permits to create wine businesses, and this will require water,” Vera said. That water would come at the expense of poor farmers, who “need our voice,” the bishop said.
Certain “injustices we cannot accept,” Vera continued. He also urged “not being lukewarm Christians. Who is lukewarm? Those who are unable to raise their voices in the face of injustices, lies and barbarities.”
The homily was vintage Vera, who seldom pulls his punches or shies from controversy: Not locally, in a state rife with political corruption, nor nationally as he wades into many of Mexico’s thorniest issues.
Vera turned 75 in June and submitted his resignation to Pope Francis as required by canon law. In November, the pope accepted his resignation. His successor, Bishop Hilario González García of Linares, will be installed in mid-January.
In a socially distanced interview from his parish residence — he contracted COVID-19 in the fall, but has fully recovered — Vera reflected on his 33 years as a bishop, the pastoral shortcomings of Mexico’s church hierarchy and his willingness to be so outspoken.
“The church teaches, from the Gospel, how we see politics, how we see the economy,” Vera said when asked of his outspokenness.
“If you propose living the Gospel, you have to attend to everything and you can’t live it partially. I always confronted things. When I had to speak out against violence, I spoke out. And against corruption, I spoke out,” Vera continued. “The pastor has to care for his sheep and (this) implies confronting the wolf.”
Vera’s comments have long angered local politicians and elites, who attack him in the media and do not donate to the diocese, according to church officials. In 2014, a displeased group hung a banner in front of the cathedral in Saltillo. It said, “We want a Catholic bishop.”
Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City even came to Saltillo to baptize the child of a former governor at odds with Vera. A neighboring bishop once banned Vera from celebrating Mass at a collapsed mine in which 65 workers died.
Dominican Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, a prominent Peruvian liberation theologian, attended the 2012 celebration for Vera’s 25th anniversary as a bishop. No Mexican bishop attended.
But Vera’s passionate rants on controversial topics such as corruption, human rights or Mexican violence make national news and offer a rare rebuke from senior clergy, who have tended to stay silent, speak softly or attempt to get along with local leaders.
Observers say Vera’s departure marks the end of an era in Mexico, that he was the last in a line of socially minded bishops, including Bishops Samuel Ruiz Garcia and Arturo Lona in southern Chiapas and Oaxaca states, respectively. Those bishops focused on Indigenous issues, inequality and poverty.
“He’s the last Mexican bishop of this tradition,” said journalist Emiliano Ruiz Parra, who profiled Vera in his book “Ovejas Negras” (“Black Sheep”) on rebels in the Mexican church.
Speaking to Catholic News Service, Vera expressed some sorrow with the postures taken by the bishops’ conference as it shifted to a more conservative direction and sought to get along with the government, especially as the Vatican and Mexico reestablished relations in 1992 after decades of estrangement.
“They started to control the social ministry from the (conference) president’s council,” Vera told CNS.
“There was a lot of collaboration … because we received many favors from the government. And that led us to keep our mouths shut,” he said. “I’m not speaking of all bishops. I’m speaking of the structure at the time.”
Vera describes himself as “a child of the Second Vatican Council” and said, as a bishop, “I proposed building the church on a base of the Second Vatican Council.”
The council occurred as Vera was pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
He was drawn to the priesthood by the Dominicans, who operated an outreach center near the university. His first job in the private sector with a U.S.-owned candy company also influenced him. He said he saw the company flouting foreign-ownership laws and not sharing profits with workers as required by law. He saw a union not doing its job to protect members.
“I was going to start working with cheating and immoral people,” he recalled.
After joining the Dominicans, Vera went to work with students and preached on weekends at a Dominican center outside Mexico City. There, he worked with poor farmers, who, he said, “evangelized me.”
“They saw the Gospel in such a clean and clear way, and that surprised me,” he said.
His work took him into some of Mexico’s poorest dioceses: Ciudad Altamirano in Guerrero state and later San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, where he was coadjutor under Bishop Ruiz.
While Vera was serving in Chiapas in the 1990s, the Zapatista uprising occurred and Ruiz — long unpopular with the landowning elites for his promotion of Indigenous causes and establishing an autochthonous church — was a key player in the peace process.
When Ruiz submitted his resignation in 1999, Vera was supposed to succeed him. But St. John Paul II sent him to Saltillo, a move interpreted as an attempt to placate local elites and the Mexican government. Vera petitioned the pope to reconsider, but moved north in March 2000.
“The pope can perfectly say, ‘You are the successor, but I’m going to send you to another place,'” he said.
In Saltillo, Vera focused on diocesan social ministries and designed a pastoral plan, inspired by his engineering background, he said.
He cared for oft-exploited coal miners and factory workers in a city expanding with free trade. He opened a migrant shelter, expanded prison ministries and blessed the formation of church groups for LGBTQ Catholics.
As violence exploded in Mexico, Vera founded human rights centers that supported some of the first collectives of families, who formed search brigades for their missing loved ones in the face of government inaction.
“We cannot stay silent in the face of victims’ pain,” Vera said.
“What we have achieved here, we achieved because there is pain, because there is victimization,” Vera said. “A reading of these evils shows they are created by a structure … the political structure and the economic structure that exists in Mexico. That, too, has to change, and we have to be agents of that change.”