HOUSTON – I was in Houston yesterday to speak at the annual Red Mass, celebrated for judges and lawyers around the traditional beginning of the judicial year. My host was Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who had the good taste to schedule the day’s events after the Astros played their first game in the American League divisional playoff series Tuesday.
Houston just suffered a major loss with the death on Sept. 19, of 91-year-old Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, who led the archdiocese for 22 years from 1984 to 2006. He also served as president of the U.S. bishop’s conference from 1998 to 2001.
I wanted to take the chance to pay tribute to Fiorenza, because he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in almost 30 years of moving in and around the Catholic Church for a living. If you could write a computer software program to generate good pastors, you could do a lot worse than taking Fiorenza as a basis for your code.
It’s important to say this now, because, like so many bishops of his generation, Fiorenza towards the end of his career was caught up in the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
In 2020, a federal lawsuit was filed naming both the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and the Vatican as defendants alleging that as early as 1992, Fiorenza was aware of abuse allegations against Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, who was a seminarian at the time and who, despite the charges, was ordained a priest by Fiorenza in 1996 and who allegedly went on to commit other acts of abuse.
The lawsuit was later dismissed as part of a settlement, but the shadow it cast over Fiorenza’s legacy remains.
Yet the truth of the situation, however impolitic it may be to say so out loud, is that no one’s life can or should be reduced to its worst moments. Fiorenza probably should have acted differently in the La Rosa-Lopez case, and the cost of his failure is measured in the unimaginable suffering of the victims of clerical abuse.
Yet in most other respects, Fiorenza always stood on the side of victims, and not just when it was convenient but in season and out. He was an early champion of racial justice, having participated in marches with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights movement. Over the course of his long career, he stood up for immigrants, for minorities, for death row inmates and the poor, always in the name of the gospel.
I first met Fiorenza in the late 1990s, when he had to come to Rome for annual meetings between the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference and Vatican officials. The child of Sicilian immigrants to America, he had a Sicilian’s instinctive ambivalence about Rome as a place where decisions were made without much concern for the consequences for the people in far-away places who had to live with them. He was always gracious, forever willing to waste time explaining things to me that smarter reporters wouldn’t have needed to ask.
In Houston, Fiorenza formed part of the legendary “Three Amigos,” referring to himself, Rev. William A. Lawson and Rabbi Samuel Karff, who were fast friends and tireless advocates of social justice. They were, respectively, a Catholic, a Baptist and a Jew, which I realize sounds like the opening of a bad bar joke, but in Houston they forged a solid inter-faith front whenever the down and out needed defending.
Among other things, the three sat on the inaugural board of Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless and contributed to the formation of a Public Defender’s Office in 2011. Lawson is now the only original member of the Three Amigos left standing, as Karff died in 2020. More recently, the amigos worked to improve the quality of geriatric care in Houston.
In 2010, Fiorenza also joined other faith leaders in decrying acts of violence directed at American Muslims, reminding people in Houston of the city’s reputation as “a proud beacon of diversity” and calling on religious leaders to “be a voice of understanding, trust and hope.”
Martin Cominsky, president and CEO of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, put Fiorenza’s legacy this way: “He’s always seen the power of faith in its broadest sense, because he sees the value of compassion and care.”
For Catholics, here’s another edifying aspect of the story.
Fiorenza, basically speaking, was a Vatican II conservative, while DiNardo is more a Pope John Paul II conservative. Yet the bonds of friendship and ecclesial commitment between the two were always more fundamental than whatever political differences they may have had; Fiorenza was unfailingly supportive of DiNardo in retirement, and DiNardo likewise was deeply respectful and deferential to Fiorenza until the very end.
It’s a reminder, in a hyper-political age, of the wisdom attributed to St. John XXIII, who, when meeting the nephew of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962, was told the two would have different ideas: “What are ideas among friends?” the pope reportedly responded.
Indeed. Joseph Anthony Fiorenza, son of Sicily, son of Texas, and, more than anything else, son of the Church, requiescat in pace.