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The bilingual bishop

Taylor to ‘speak very clearly’in support of ‘God-given rights’

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Rev. Anthony Taylor, the Oklahoma priest who next week will be ordained the seventh bishop of Arkansas, will tell you he's “a calm person.”

His eyes, despite their steady gaze, appear slightly off-kilter. It is the priest's mouth that unifies his features. When Taylor smiles, a broad, even playful, grin spreads easily beneath his straight gray mustache. When he is serious, the line of his mouth conveys nothing so much as calm determination.

“I tend to be forthright,” he says. “I try to build bridges. I try to speak as plainly as I can.”

Taylor speaks with equal assurance in English and in Spanish. And when he speaks, it is often “on behalf of those who don't have a voice, to make sure that their concerns are brought to the table.”

Sacred Heart parish in Oklahoma City, where Taylor has been pastor for the past five years, and where he sits for this interview, is 95 percent Hispanic. Of the nine masses offered there each weekend, seven are in Spanish, one is in English, and one is said in both languages.

Taylor's appointment as bishop for Arkansas reflects a recognition by Catholic officials that the church in this state has increasingly begun to look like Taylor's Sacred Heart parish.

Between 1990 and 2000, Arkansas's non-native Hispanic population swelled from 4,300 to more than 42,000. Census figures released this month show how vigorously that trend has continued. The total Hispanic population in Arkansas now stands at roughly 150,000.          

Catholics here represent a small minority of the church-going population, though their numbers have increased by more than 65 percent in the past 20 years, to about 117,000. About half of that number are Hispanic immigrants.

While some Protestant churches in the U.S. have grown as a result of immigration from Mexico and Latin American countries, no denomination has been as profoundly affected as the Roman Catholic Church. As Taylor prepares to assume leadership of an organization that is experiencing both a resurgence and growing pains from absorbing so many immigrants, he says that he hopes the Arkansas diocese will “help shape the discussion” about immigration in the state, and that the example set in Arkansas might inform the national debate.

Taylor's first words to Arkansas, at the announcement of his appointment as bishop, were in Spanish: “El humilde heredará la tierra.” “The humble shall inherit the earth.”

He continued, in English, to explain: “Jesus' preferential love of the poor and marginalized was courageous, not timid, and so must we also be if we are to be his faithful servants.”

Taylor went on to say that, while individual priests in the Arkansas diocese had spoken out about immigration issues (see sidebar), administrators here have generally avoided the issue. That would change, he said, adding: “I certainly speak out very clearly about what the gospel says about human dignity and human rights.”

Last year, Taylor joined the archbishop of Oklahoma City and nine other priests in signing a “pledge of resistance” to Oklahoma's HB 1804, a law that suspends or revokes business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to transport or shelter them.

In a statement of “defiance” addressed to Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, the archbishop and priests wrote: “Our faith tradition instructs us to do good to all peoples. There is no exemption clause for those persons who do not have documentation of their citizenship status. We will not show partiality to those who are in need of humanitarian assistance.”

For Taylor, his decision to sign the “pledge of resistance” was never in doubt. “Our lives are not compartmentalized,” he says. “It's not that we have one part of our life that's where we live our faith, and another part that's outside our faith. Our lives are a whole.”

Indeed, the whole of the new bishop's life, since his birth in Texas in 1954, might be seen as preparation for the challenges that now await him in Arkansas.

As the oldest of seven children, he was close to his grandparents, two of whom were converts to Catholicism. His father's mother had been raised a Protestant, and his mother's father was born a Jew.

“Each of them had paid a price for their conversions, in terms of rejection by their families. It made religion not so taken-for-granted in our family.”

In 1960, Taylor's father, who worked for Conoco, moved the family to Ponca City, Okla. There, as in Arkansas, Catholics constituted a small religious minority. Family life for the Taylors revolved around their parish church. The family prayed before every meal. Taylor and his brothers became altar boys. Their Boy Scout troop was based in the church.

The values taught by scouting made a lasting impression on Taylor, who progressed to the rank of Eagle. But it was the assassination of Martin Luther King, when Taylor was 14, that affected him most profoundly. On the day King died, Taylor says, “God gave me an insight that helped me eventually hear his call to the priesthood.”

At the press conference announcing his appointment, he explained: “The insight was this: Being a faithful Christian requires more than just saying prayers, obeying the Commandments and trying to get your own soul into heaven. ... Martin Luther King taught me that being a faithful Christian required that I do whatever I could to help build the Kingdom of God here and now, and that to do so would require courage, not timidity, fear of God, not fear of man.”

In his study in Oklahoma, he reflects further on that moment. “From the time of Martin Luther King's death I understood that the teaching of the church and the teaching of the government were not always the same.”

In high school, Taylor acted for the first time on that understanding. He organized a black-armband campaign to protest America's war in Vietnam.

“And that very same year,” he says, “I got the Knights of Columbus Civics Award. That was interesting because it meant that people got to see that being involved civically didn't necessarily mean agreeing with everything the government was doing.”

When Taylor was required to register for the draft at 18, he filed as a conscientious objector. But with the war winding down by then, he didn't have to experience the consequences that had befallen resisters before him. He says, “I never had to defend that decision.”

Taylor's parents did not encourage their children to consider religious vocations. But by the time Taylor was ready for college he had already begun devoting an hour each day to prayer and meditation. That daily “holy hour” would become a lifelong habit and a spiritual center point to Taylor's life. It led him to enter the priesthood.

After enrolling at Oklahoma University, Taylor transferred to the college seminary at St. Meinrad in Indiana. There, as part of his priestly studies, he learned Latin and began a serious study of Spanish. After St. Meinrad, he learned Italian while studying scripture for four years at Gregorian University in Rome. On summer jobs, working in Lourdes, France, and at a mission in Kenya, he added some French and Swahili.

Taylor was ordained in 1980, at the age of 26. Back in Oklahoma he found a growing need for masses said in Spanish, as Anglo parishes there began absorbing new Hispanic members. He learned that the church served not just as a spiritual base, but “as a home” for people separated from their native lands and families.

In the late 1980s, Oklahoma's archbishop interrupted Taylor's pastoral work to send him to Fordham University in the Bronx, to earn a doctorate in biblical theology. Taylor focused his dissertation on the parables Jesus told about the relationships between servants and their masters. In his own life, he says, “I like to tell people that, if Jesus is the shepherd, I'm the sheep dog — at the service of the flock and at the service of the master.”

For the past 19 years, Taylor has served as a pastor in Oklahoma City, first founding a new parish made up mainly of young suburbanites, and most recently, at Sacred Heart, the city's second-oldest parish, a church that had been declining, but which has experienced renewed vitality as its membership has grown and become 95 percent Hispanic.

 “The two parishes are different in socio-economic terms,” Taylor says, “but the human element is largely the same. They have the same dreams for their families. They bring similar talents to the community.”

During this time he learned to balance the demands of his priestly life through friendships with other priests and sports. Racquetball became his favorite. A longtime opponent describes Taylor as a fierce and untiring competitor.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Taylor served as vicar of ministries for the archdiocese, a role in which he oversaw personnel issues regarding priests. About a fifth of Oklahoma's Catholic priests are themselves immigrants, having come mainly from India, with a few others from Africa. Most of the foreign-born priests work in smaller, more rural parishes, he says, and many have special needs arising from homesickness and isolation.

Taylor says the situation in Arkansas is similar. Nearly a fifth of the 53 priests serving the Little Rock Diocese also have come from abroad; in this case, however, most are from Africa, and a few from India.

(Forty-four priests from religious orders also serve the diocese, and the clergy are assisted by 95 permanent deacons.)

As a pastor, Taylor believed that the poor and those with the greatest need had the greatest claim on him. As Oklahoma moved towards passing one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country, the “sheep dog” became an outspoken immigrants' advocate.

“The church does not engage in party politics or support candidates,” he explains. “But we do have an obligation to speak the truth as we see it with regard to moral issues. Social issues have an impact on public policy, and that's where politics and morality touch. It's my responsibility to do what I can to make sure that public policy is well informed.

“An example would be that we have certain God-given, inalienable rights as humans that do not come from the state. They come from God, and the state does not have the power to deny them.

“We saw this in the civil rights movement. Rights that come to us as human beings, the state does not have the authority to impede. That's the current issue today in terms of immigration. The state has the authority to establish borders for the common good, but it does not have the authority to prevent the right to immigrate when circumstances require.

“For example: Parents have the obligation to provide for their children, and if they cannot do so in a way that's in keeping with their basic human needs, they have to do so in whatever way they can, and that includes emigration.

“Another thing is that people have a God-given right to participate fully in the life of the community where they live. So people who immigrate must not be relegated to second-class status where they live, where they work, and where their children are being raised. That would argue against having an extended permanent resident situation, rather than a citizenship option.

“These are topics on which the teaching of the church is not ambiguous. My role is to express as clearly as I can what the teaching of Jesus has to say about these and other moral issues. But as far as specific legislative solutions, that's not my role.”

A blogger on a Catholic website, noting that Taylor had chosen Jesus' words “The humble shall inherit the earth” as the motto for his bishopric, wrote: “Sounds like liberation theology to me.” The reference was to a school of Christian thought, popular especially in Latin America, that views Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Liberator of the oppressed. It  regards political activism to achieve justice for the poor as an appropriate part of the Christian mission.

Officials of the Catholic Church have rejected some elements of liberation theology — particularly those that are viewed as reflecting a Marxist ideology. Taylor says he also rejects those ideas.

“Marxist analysis is predicated on a world view that is contrary to the world view of faith,” he says. Though he embraces the belief that “God has a special love for those most in need,” he says he's regarded as being “pretty traditional as far as church teaching goes.”

In that regard, Taylor says he opposes laws that permit abortion and the execution of criminals. Taylor served as priest and confessor for Eric Allen Patton, who was sentenced to death for murdering a woman, Charlene Kauer, in 1994. He was with Patton when he was executed in 2006.

In a sermon delivered three days later, Taylor described the experience of witnessing Patton's death, “a death which occurred on Aug. 29, the day we commemorate the beheading of John the Baptist, another man killed in cold blood by the state, just like Jesus and the two criminals executed on either side of him on Good Friday, 2,000 years ago.”

Early last year, as the Oklahoma legislature neared passage of the law known as HB 1804, Taylor organized a workshop for members of his parish to “let them know what they might expect and dispel false rumors. Initially, there was a lot of fear.”

He adds, “We also reinforced the commitment among parishioners who are citizens to take the concerns of their brothers and sisters with them when they go to vote, and to remind the citizen-children to look at how your parents are treated, so that when you get to be 18, you be sure to vote.”

Some of the parish's Hispanic members did join the flight from Oklahoma that has spurred some efforts to repeal parts of HB 1804 out of concern for industries — especially agriculture — that experienced a resulting shortage of workers.

In Taylor's parish, however, most Hispanic families stayed put, though he says, “I think people have put their affairs in order. They have firmed up who their children should go to if their mom and dad aren't there when they come home from school.”

In their letter that the archbishop, Taylor, and other priests sent to Gov. Henry, they renounced HB 1804 as an “unjust and immoral law.”

“Because this law is overly punitive and makes a felony of the act of providing humanitarian assistance to an undocumented person in need,” they wrote, “we ... will not and can not obey this law. We will continue to aid and assist all people, regardless of their legal citizenship status, with charitable care and spiritual counsel. ... We stand together, in solidarity, in defiance of this law because of our allegiance to a higher law; the law of love of God and humanity.”

They called for repeal of HB 1804 and “passage of immigration reform that provides justice for all of God's children.”

“In fact,” Taylor says, “our immigration laws today are backward. They favor a brain drain from Third World countries and allow in people who will not starve in their own countries. They prevent those who have the most need from immigrating. Instead, they should favor immigration of the poorest, because that's what favors the common good of both countries.”

Taylor believes that parts of HB 1804 may eventually be rescinded. But, with palpable disappointment, he adds, “If they are, it will be because of money, not morality.” Rather than focusing on human dignity, he says, the debate about immigration has become bound on one end to fear, and on the other to the international “mercantilization of human beings.”

On March 18, five days before Easter, Taylor received a call from a representative of Pope Benedict XVI. The papal nuncio asked if he would accept the position of bishop and move to Arkansas. Taylor accepted and, in short order, found himself in Little Rock, getting acquainted with the diocese — and with the regalia he will acquire as bishop.

Among the items he had to choose was the ring that would signify his new office. He could have purchased a new one or had one designed for himself. Instead, Taylor chose to wear the ring that was worn by his predecessor Andrew Byrne, Arkansas's first bishop, who served here in the difficult years from 1844 to 1862.

Immigration was a big issue at that time too, and, of course, so was the question of whether African slaves had the same God-given rights as whites. “It's a simple ring,” Taylor says, “not really elaborate.”

Between leaving his friends in Oklahoma and coming to Little Rock for his ordination as bishop, Taylor flew to Guatemala to attend to a final duty there. For the past year, he has headed a group that is seeking the canonization of a priest from Oklahoma who was murdered in the village of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in 1981, during that country's civil war. 

Father Stanley Rother worked in the parish in Santiago Atitlan under sponsorship of the Oklahoma archdiocese. Although, according to Taylor, some 300 of Rother's parishioners had been murdered, and “it was well known that the church was being targeted by the paramilitary squads associated with the government of Guatemala,” Rother chose to stay with the indigenous people who were his flock. In letters home, Rother wrote, “The shepherd does not run.”

“He was very discreet,” Taylor says. “But by identifying with the people, he was making an eloquent, tacit statement about the human dignity of those people. This was in the context of genocide being committed against them.” For part of the past year, Taylor has been gathering statements from people who knew Rother to help make the case for his canonization as a martyr.

It is clear that Taylor admires men like Rother and King. Like Jesus, whom he describes as “one man with 12 men on the border of the most powerful empire of the world,” he sees them as having stood with the oppressed, though they risked death for doing it.

“We are all called to heroic virtue,” he says, “though not everyone is called to demonstrate it so visibly.” A serene smile crosses his face.

“But I think they told us in the civil rights movement that you've got to be willing to pay a little bit of a price. That's why the central image of our faith is the crucifix.”

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