UVALDE, Texas — The day after an 18-year-old gunman massacred 21 students and teachers at an elementary school, the state’s political leaders expressed fury over the shooting but quickly dismissed the possibility of further gun laws to stem further violence. Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller listened.
At the end of the press conference at the local high school, he made a spontaneous and impassioned appeal to some of the many journalists who had flocked to Uvalde: the nation must revise its gun laws, limiting access to guns designed to maximize carnage and suffering, he said. He must also let go of what he described as a disturbing cultural embrace of violence that these weapons represented.
“We must!” said Bishop García-Siller, who leads the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “We’re supposed to promote life, people’s lives.”
Since the attack, the archbishop, whose vast estate of about 796,000 Catholics includes Uvalde, has become one of the most visible and vocal advocates of gun control in South Texas.
He has delivered sermons, spoken at public rallies, appeared on national television, and given interviews to local and international journalists. He argued that demand changes to gun laws is no different from the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion or capital punishment, joining a group of bishops who have pressed for the Church to take a stronger stance in the debate over fire arms.
Yet unlike others, he advocates this cause in a place where guns are deeply ingrained in culture, and most public leaders boast of their Second Amendment allegiance.
“We have made firearms an idol in this country,” Bishop García-Siller said in a recent appearance on MSNBC. “I believe with all my heart that gun control needs to happen more radically.”
For the most part, the archbishop has been absorbed in trying to guide a grieving community, making the hour-long drive to Uvalde from San Antonio again and again in recent weeks – leading masses and presiding over funerals. He rubs shoulders with teenagers who have lost their parents. She was also asked to advise the mother whose son shot his grandmother and then stormed Robb Elementary School on May 24.
Yet speaking out was also part of his mission, though he knew he didn’t expect an entirely receptive audience within his archdiocese, which spans nearly two dozen counties around San Antonio.
When asked in an interview with The New York Times how to balance his appeal to community with his longtime embrace of guns, his response was blunt. “You can’t reconcile guns with life,” he said.
Gun control activists said he was speaking at a pivotal time as they retained a shred of optimism that the anger and angst from the shooting could cause people to reconsider their views. longstanding gun rights issue.
“It gives Christians — Catholics, in particular — a moment of pause as they notice the dissonance,” said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic organization advocating nonviolence, noting how The Archbishop’s comments “stand in stark contrast to the political leadership in Texas.
In sermons, Bishop García-Siller, 65, can speak softly. In conversation, his voice sometimes barely registers above a mumble. But the archbishop’s position has been unshakable. It was also, in some ways, unsurprising.
In more than a decade as Archbishop of San Antonio, García-Siller – originally from San Luis Potosi in central Mexico – has earned a reputation for speaking out on social issues, especially for undocumented immigrants. He also harassed conservatives in 2019 after a gunman targeting Latinos opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, issuing a Twitter call for President Donald J. Trump to “stop racism, starting with you- same”. (He later deleted the post and apologized for criticizing an individual instead of focusing on the larger issue.)
“He’s been known to take a more progressive, pro-immigrant stance,” said Jacob Friesenhahn, who directs the religious studies program at Our Lady of the Lake University, a Catholic school in San Antonio.
A contingent of conservative Catholics argue that the Church’s teachings, including on self-defense and the preservation of the common good, justify the possession and carrying of a firearm. But the scholars said Archbishop García-Siller’s position is arguably more aligned with Catholic teachings and represents a forceful stance among Catholic leaders that grew out of their exasperation with the relentless violence.
“I don’t think he ventures at all,” said Fr. Dorian Llywelyn, a Jesuit priest and president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California. “It’s not like he’s making a drastic new statement.”
Other Catholic leaders spoke out against guns in the days following the Uvalde massacre. Bishop Daniel Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, said on Twitter, “Don’t tell me the guns aren’t the problem, it’s the people.” Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, who as Archbishop of Chicago became one of the members of the Catholic Church most persistent critics of gun violence and the forces behind it recognized that efforts for change might seem futile given the recurring bloodshed.
“The magnitude of the crisis and its sheer horror,” Cardinal Cupich said in a statement, “make it all too easy to give up and declare ‘nothing can be done.’ But that is the advice of desperation, and we are a people of hope.
In a letter to Congress in response to lawmakers’ efforts to pass certain gun control measures, several bishops urged lawmakers to pursue “concrete action to bring about broader social renewal.”
“Among the many steps towards combating this endemic violence,” they wrote, “is the adoption of reasonable gun control measures.”
Reaction to Archbishop García-Siller’s stance on guns among South Texas Catholics has been colored not only by long-held political beliefs and their abhorrence of the Uvalde shooting, but also by their views on how and when it is appropriate for church leaders to wade through such a heated and seemingly intractable debate.
“It’s a problem for politics,” Carlos Zimmerle, 54, said after a recent mass at a Catholic parish on the West Side of San Antonio. “Not for religion.”
For others, it simply gave voice to painful emotions stirred up by terrifying violence.
“The archbishop is like all of us,” said Daniel Casanova, 66, a gun owner who worships in a parish in Helotes, a town of just over 9,000 people northwest of San Antonio. . “We are human, and I think he sees the pain we all see.”
Scholars and other Catholics say the influence of church leaders has diminished in recent years, eroded by institutional failures in responding to sexual abuse and a societal shift away from traditional religious worship. By taking such a tough stance on guns, Bishop García-Siller is testing the influence he has over his flock.
But beyond that, the response to the Archbishop shows the wide range of opinions that now coexist within the Catholic Church.
Nancy Kaluza, who worships Helotes, said she believed the Archbishop had the right to speak his mind and she largely agreed with him.
“I have never been able to find a valid reason for ordinary people to have assault weapons,” said Ms Kaluza, 72. “I’m not against hunting, I’m not against having a gun for protection, but there’s just no reason why people other than the military and SWAT teams, etc., have assault weapons.”
Raymond Remirez, 59, said he understands why the archbishop raised the issue. But Mr. Remirez, who does not own a weapon, was seriously considering buying one.
He compiled a list of shootings, including one last month at a Buffalo grocery store and another in 2017 at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, a community outside of San Antonio. “It could happen here,” Mr. Remirez said. “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.”
But the archbishop said his mandate was to offer moral clarity to inspire compassion and change.
Between vigils and meetings with the families of the victims in Uvalde, he visited Catholic schools scattered across South Texas for the end-of-year festivities. He also delivered a special sermon for children at a recent mass at Sacred Heart, the Catholic parish in Uvalde.
In interviews, he repeatedly refers to what he had heard from elementary-aged children navigating such a confusing time. A student, he said, asked if they should pray for the shooter and his family. Another said he believed God would help them. “We are fine,” the archbishop remembers, saying the child.
“Oh, my God – whoa,” said Archbishop García-Siller, surprised as he recalled the interaction. He shared a line from Matthew’s Gospel that he has often repeated lately: “Let the children come to me.”
In confronting such a controversial topic as gun laws, he said, wisdom could also be drawn from the children whose lives were lost.
“Can we let the little ones come to us? Can we pay attention to them? said the archbishop. “These innocent people who died become a source of light for us – to live better and do better.”