November 27, 2010

From Chicago, with love: 'Archbishop Gustavo'

Texas parishioners embrace Gustavo Garcia-Siller's approach of putting people before the process.

The Associated Press

CHICAGO - The sanctuary doors swung open after the emotional farewell Mass early in November to whisk the star of the show into a private room and let him avoid the 1,200 adoring fans angling for a final encounter.

Gustavo Garica-Siller
click image to enlarge

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller blesses a member of his congregation during his installation service Tuesday at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in San Antonio, Texas. “I’ve never seen him in a place where he didn’t exude love,” says Virginia Grosh, a Chicago lay leader.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, left, kisses his mother, Maria Cristina Siller de Garcia, as she and her husband bring the offerings of bread and wine forward at the Mass of Reception and Installation on Tuesday in San Antonio, Texas.

The Associated Press

Bishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller would have nothing of the sort.

He lingered for 90 minutes, doling out his trademark hugs, posing for cameras and blowing kisses to the Chicago Catholic community that he's guided since 2003. Regarded as an inspirational leader, he is outspoken and firm at times, yet famous for patient people skills and extroverted energy.

And Chicago Catholics have most appreciated his collaborative approach to governance.

"I've never seen him in a place where he didn't exude love," said Virginia Grosh, a Chicago lay leader who handed him a goodbye card.

Garcia-Siller, who prefers to be called "Archbishop Gustavo," was recently installed as the sixth archbishop of the San Antonio archdiocese, home to 702,000 Catholics spread across south-central Texas and bordering his native Mexico.

It'll be a new challenge for a man who was one of six auxiliary bishops in Chicago, where the spotlight mostly shines on Cardinal Francis George, an influential national figure whose term as president of the U.S. body of bishops just ended.

Garcia-Siller was the cardinal's liaison to Hispanics but mostly had the task of managing a southern portion of Chicago, where many parishes faced challenges in economic disparity, declining resources and broad cultural differences. The experience, he said, prepared him for his new platform in San Antonio.

"I'm going there as a shepherd, and in the name of the Lord, I have to connect in prayer," he said. "Otherwise, things can work, but I will not be of much help."

Garcia-Siller was born in the central Mexican city of San Luis Potos, the oldest of 15 children.

They called him "Gus," pronounced "goose," and lived in a rented, three-room house.

His father crafted wooden furniture and toys and sold them in the neighborhood. Later, his father bought a furniture store, which he still owns.

His mother was an organizational stickler, mapping out menus and assigning children to cook, and enforcing strict rules for cleanliness. The family members prayed the rosary nightly, went to Mass regularly and often saw Garcia-Siller "play" priest in the living room.

At 6, he told adults at his first communion he wanted to be a priest. At 16, he joined the high school run by Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, a religious order that would ordain him to the priesthood in 1984.

He moved to nearby Guadalajara, where he led outdoor Masses for two years on a hill in an impoverished neighborhood. Soon, his order sent him to do missionary work along the West Coast from southern California to Alaska. He was promoted to lead his order's U.S. province before then-Pope John Paul II made him a bishop in 2003.

From the start, he kept up a frenetic pace, visiting all 79 parishes, leading conferences and retreats with priests, and engaging in unscripted moments. He often was late and skipped meals.

One time, while conducting confirmations, he darted off the altar platform into a pew several rows away to sit with lay people and watch a youth perform a short drama. Another time, he veered away from an outdoor procession to hug the hundreds gathered under shade trees to beat a blistering summer sun and awaiting a turn to visit a shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"He could have 10 things to do in a day, and if there are time slots for 11 things, he'll do them," said the Rev. Edward Gleeson of St. James at Sag Bridge Church in the Chicago archdiocese. "Unless he burns out, I suspect San Antonio is not his last stop."

(Continued on page 2)

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