This is a pretty incredible story of creative church building on a number of levels:
The church bells rang all afternoon. Archbishop Rafael Romo Muñoz was on his way to say a Mass marking the transfer of Father Raymundo Figueroa, the beloved priest at Santisimo Sacramento parish.
Hundreds of men, women and children answered the call of the bells. But they weren't there to greet the bishop. They chained the gates and locked the doors. They hung signs."This church belongs to the people; not the church," read one.
When Romo stepped out of his SUV, 20 robed priests from the Tijuana diocese tried to form a procession, but burly men blocked their way. The archbishop tried to say a prayer, but the crowd drowned him out with bullhorns and bells. Priests and parishioners traded insults through the chain-link fence."Liar," one person yelled at Romo.
"We hope our brother reconsiders his attitude," Romo said, asking people to join him in prayer. The bells kept ringing. The archbishop, Baja California's highest Roman Catholic authority, retreated. The people applauded and bowed their heads in prayer.
More than a month after that chilly November evening, Figueroa remains the parish priest.
To parishioners, he is a brave figure who transformed a half-finished building into this seaside city's largest house of worship. To the Catholic hierarchy, he's a rogue who has financed his church through simony, the selling of the sacraments -- one of the Roman Catholic Church's oldest and most serious transgressions.
Romo was on a mission to oust Figueroa because complaints had been pouring in from priests and bishops as far away as Los Angeles. They accused the cleric of crossing into the United States and charging up to $180 for fast-tracked confirmations, first Communions and baptisms. Scores of Mexican priests have been crossing the border for this purpose, but Figueroa's case was so serious that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and Bishop Robert H. Brom of San Diego sent letters to Romo, according to Tijuana diocese officials.
"These are underground celebrations, hidden from the diocese here and the diocese there," said Father Juan Garcia Ruvalcaba, the vicar general of the Tijuana diocese. "It's a lot of money . . . and [Figueroa] doesn't provide an accounting to anybody."
Many Catholics in Mexico aren't fussy about bookkeeping when they see churches rising. They view Mexican priests like Figueroa as Robin Hood figures who raid relatively wealthy parishes in the U.S. to build up their impoverished churches.
Figueroa, 41, seems to relish his image as a populist tweaking the staid church. He's been hammered on talk radio, denounced from pulpits and criticized in an expose in the diocese newspaper. He delivers impassioned sermons greeted by loud ovations and vows of support from his congregation. When he is pressed to address the accusations, his answers are cryptic and cloaked in irony, only deepening the intrigue. He is clear about one thing: The church is picking on the wrong guy.
"I'm portrayed as the worst priest in the world. Never!" Figueroa said. "I've never become a drunk or a priest that runs around with women. There are priests like that, you know. Drunks. Pedophiles. I've only tried to serve this community as best as I can."
When Figueroa arrived at the parish in February 2007, the church was little more than a wooden shell with a bare concrete floor. Worshipers had to bundle together to ward off cold ocean breezes. Figueroa oversaw a frenzy of construction to complete the church, a modestly appointed but expansive space that features an open-beam ceiling, a granite crypt and seating for about 300.
The church became a source of pride. The parish rolls have grown dramatically to about 8,000 people, and instead of five Masses on Sundays, there are 14.
On Sundays, people occupy every cushioned pew and spill into the courtyard, where Figueroa's sermons are heard through loudspeakers. Figueroa's success as a builder explains only part of his appeal. Like many in the working-class hillside neighborhood of Colonia Constitucion, Figueroa grew up in a poor town in central Mexico. People identify with his sermons, which are filled with parables about village life and peasants, and he draws laughs with his impressions of stubborn old ladies and mischievous children.
"He talks to us, not above us," said Reyna Jaregui, 42, waiting for Figueroa to baptize her grandson. "If you don't understand something, he explains and explains again."
Figueroa has broken ground on projects at several other chapels in his parish. Other clergy eye the construction suspiciously.
"Be Alert," reads the Nov. 1 bulletin at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary church in Los Angeles."
Father Raymundo Figueroa of the Diocese of Tijuana is in this area and is presiding at baptisms and first Communions for a fee of $180 per person. He is here without permission of his bishop."
U.S. churches don't normally charge for the sacraments unless, as in the case of weddings, there are expenses such as musicians and flowers.
Simony was a common transgression in the Middle Ages, when simonists were condemned to hell in Dante's "Inferno."The modern consequences aren't quite so dire, but in the most serious cases they can include a priest's suspension.
Figueroa is suspected of organizing ceremonies from Chula Vista to the San Fernando Valley. Fifty to several hundred children at a time receive the sacraments in nonchurch settings, like parks and hotels, people's living rooms and backyards. Instead of church choirs and organs, strolling mariachis provide the music.
"They just do it in people's houses. You don't need much. For baptisms, a little water. For first Communions, you just set up a table," said Father Richard Zanotti of the Holy Rosary parish in Los Angeles.
Church officials say that Figueroa sometimes sends deacons to step in for him or contracts with bishops and priests from the Old Catholic Church, a breakaway group from the Roman Catholic Church.
Though sacraments administered by Figueroa are valid, those officiated by deacons or non-Catholic priests probably aren't, several priests said.
To avoid church scrutiny, the services are done on short notice, the cash-only ceremonies offering a convenient fulfillment of Catholic obligations. While the church's educational requirements for first Communion can take two years, Figueroa's classes, taught by laypeople from his church, take a matter of months.
"It makes it difficult for us. We have certain policies to help people prepare, and [Figueroa] has circumvented all that," Zanotti said.
Martha Gonzalez, 47, of Chula Vista said a fast-track first Communion for her son appealed to her. As a working single mother, she didn't have time to shuttle her then-10-year-old to catechism classes and church for two years. The classes, held in a garage, were supposed to last six months, she said. After a month and half she got a call from the teacher saying her son was ready for Communion. The classes were $160 and it would cost $20 more for flowers and chairs for the ceremony. About 60 children received first Communion in November 2007 at a park in San Ysidro, she said.
There was a canopy and a table and just enough chairs for the children. According to Gonzalez, Figueroa said a quick Mass and the children received certificates stamped with the seal of his church in Rosarito Beach. Gonzalez recalled someone saying that Figueroa also offered confirmations -- ceremonies that confer the holy spirit and normally require catechism classes. The next month, hundreds of children from Southern California showed up at Figueroa's church for confirmations, Gonzalez said. Those from Los Angeles paid $75, San Diego residents paid $65 and Rosarito Beach residents paid $35, she said.
Gonzalez said she is unsure whether her son's confirmation is valid. Confirmations normally must be administered by a bishop, but Gonzalez said she now doubts the cleric who confirmed her son was a Roman Catholic bishop.
A spokesman for Figueroa's church said confirmations are done by authorized clerics and that charging for sacraments is common in Mexico so churches can cover their expenses.
Gonzalez acknowledged that she's partly at fault for seeking the convenient route but said the church should better police its clerics: "What I learned from this. It's not about faith. It's just business."
The church's unhappiness with Figueroa became public in May when he said a Mass during the swine flu scare, disobeying Romo's order, issued for health reasons, not to hold public gatherings.
Figueroa said he held the ceremony only after his parishioners requested it.
But church officials said it was part of a pattern of disobedience going back several years. Figueroa subsequently refused to switch parishes as ordered by Romo, leading to the confrontation in November.
The clash that Friday evening exposed long-simmering social and class rifts.
Parishioners viewed the bishop and his entourage as elitists trying to remove the one priest who had achieved results in their long-neglected parish.
"Before him, there was nothing here," said Rudy Roldan, 21. "Father Ray arrived and he delivered results. People noticed."
Since then, Figueroa, who was not present at the confrontation with Romo, has engaged in an escalating war of words with other priests and the church hierarchy, which is weighing whether to suspend him. One Tijuana priest on a radio show accused him of taking money from drug traffickers. Figueroa suggested he might reveal the names of alcoholic and womanizing priests.
After Mass one Sunday afternoon, Figueroa made what seemed to be a startling admission about simony. "I wish I was the only one doing it. There's too much competition out there," Figueroa said during an interview in his cluttered sacristy.
A clutch of aides and parishioners burst into laughter. Moments later, he appeared to back away from his statement, saying his cross-border activity ended years ago. He said he used to celebrate the sacraments for people he knew from his days as a seminarian at the San Fernando Mission but stopped after church officials complained. He said he doesn't even have a U.S. visa anymore.
Figueroa kept talking while people crowded into the sacristy. He blessed a few babies, stamped some catechism cards and shook hands with friends.
The people simply want a church that's responsive to their needs, he said. He bristled at accusations of shady accounting and underground ceremonies. His door -- and books -- are always open, he said.
"In the eyes of God," Figueroa said, "nothing is secret."
Fr. Figueroa might have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just said $160.00 donations strongly encouraged. The line between simony and coerced donations seems to be pretty thin.
"The people simply want a church that's responsive to their needs."
Don't we all.
I hope every one has a safe and holy Christmas. I'll be back posting on Sunday. My area of New Mexico is getting a gentle but persistent snow, so I too will be having a White Christmas.