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April 23, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 8Oakland, CA

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articles list
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Retiring pastor recalls struggles for justice and peace

Chinese dioceses see surge in young people being baptized

Elder Chinese Catholics struggled to keep faith alive

Chaplains learn to bring God to battlefield

Catholic military chaplains provide
spiritual support to nation’s soldiers

Embryo adoption leads to ethics discussion

U.S. has 165 new religious communities since 1965

Centenarian offers recipes for life

Fewer members
doesn’t mean end
of religious life

Christian Brothers give special honor to Alameda videographer for documentaries

Supreme Court upholds partial birth abortion ban

Catholic Charities urges citizenship
applications before fees increase

Outreach ministry invites parents of gay children to evening of reflection

COMMENTARY
Einstein provides valuable apologetic for belief in God

Finding ways to bite back against malaria in Africa

OBITUARY
Sister Cecilia of Mary, SNJM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Retiring pastor recalls struggles
for justice and peace

Father Tony Valdivia joins in a march calling for immigration reform April 10, 2006. A similar march will begin at St. Louis Bertrand Parish, where he is pastor, on May 1 and proceed along International Boulevard to the Federal Building.
Greg Tarczynski photo

Earlier this month, Father Tony Valdivia presided over his last Holy Week as pastor of St. Louis Bertrand Parish in Oakland. Recalling how the community came together in prayer, he smiled. The well-attended services had provided a reverent and deeply moving prologue to the Easter celebration.

Then the priest, who retires from active pastoral ministry next month, grimaced. The sacred week had concluded with a sad and hauntingly familiar epilogue -- three neighborhood shootings left one young parishioner dead and two others hospitalized.

On Easter Sunday evening, Father Valdivia visited the injured youth, ages 16 and 17, at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. The following day he paid a somber visit to the home of the slain youth, who was 18. The teen’s parents, sister, brother, uncles and others were gathered at the family home. “The only thing you can do or say is ‘I am with you in your sorrow,’” he said.

Last year the homicide rate in Oakland rose to 148 killings, the highest in more than a decade. And St. Louis Bertrand Parish, located in one of the city’s most violence-scarred neighborhoods, has borne its share of losses. Echoing England’s Queen Elizabeth II who referred to challenges her family experienced some time ago, Father Valdivia described the previous year as his own “annus terribilis.”

During the period that stretched from summer to fall, a series of shootings claimed several lives in the neighborhood. “It was one after the other, all drive-by,” said the priest. “All of the victims, young.” A good number of these violent incidents were gang-related.

To address the problems of violence is very challenging, said the priest, because the urban setting is rife with drug sales, turf wars, and fragmented families.

Local programs have made some progress in keeping youth away from gangs. A key to that progress, he said, is early intervention. “We have to start reaching youth in early junior high.”

The priest, a former vicar for the diocese’s Spanish-speaking community who has remained active in several community organizations, said he hopes this “shedding of blood” will be a call to positive action and that young people will “take hold of their destiny.”

This violence is a far cry from the streets that Father Valdivia remembers while growing up in West Oakland. The priest, who turned 70 on April 13, said there was little gun violence, though there were a few knifings.

Indeed, the gregarious priest, who is instantly recognizable by his full head of silver hair and a ready smile, has many wonderful memories of his childhood in Oakland.

His family belonged to St. Joseph Parish, which later merged with St. Andrew Parish and is now part of the Catholic Parish of Christ the Light. When he was a boy, the Salesians of Don Bosco ran the parish and celebrated Masses in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and English. The speakers were eloquent and their presentations were dynamic.

“It was in the days of gestures,” said Father Valdivia, noting there were few microphones. The parish priests projected their voices so masterfully that they could be heard throughout the church.

In this environment, the young Tony Valdivia received the seeds of a religious vocation. As a youngster he spent every Sunday at the parish church. The family didn’t have a TV so they went to church for morning Mass and then returned in the evening for Benediction. One day a priest picked him to be an altar server. “I was fascinated by the altar,” he said.

The future priest attended elementary school at Old St. Mary’s Parish and was taught by the Holy Names Sisters. Later he studied at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park where he attracted attention as one of the few Hispanic seminarians on campus. He was also the only student from West Oakland.
He also stood out for another reason; his classmates discovered that he liked to dance at family functions, an activity some of his peers felt he should abandon because of his vocation journey. But the seminarian rejected that notion. “I always loved dancing,” he said.

His experience in the seminary was good overall, Father Valdivia recalled. Academically, he said, “nothing could beat it.” There he found inspiration to delve into English literature and philosophy.

Those seminary years coincided with the start of the Second Vatican Council, which sparked an exciting era of change in the Church. “Ideas were floating, eloquent ideas,” said the priest, who was ordained on April 6, 1963. He became interested in the works of French theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Jean Danielou, who later became cardinals. “They brought a sense of history to the proceedings,” he said.

The Oakland-born priest was especially drawn to the Vatican II document, “The Church in the Modern World,” because it presented a model of Church as being present in the life of the people, being a part of people’s lives. Being “grounded in the lives” of people became a strong theme in his life.

He and his classmates tackled the job of putting the conciliar constitutions and decrees into practice, guiding people as they struggled through the changes in the liturgy, the birth of parish councils, and the development of lay leadership. He also walked with them through the pain of the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, the emergence of the drug culture and AIDS, and the continuing and often tumultuous dialogue over the issue of immigration.

During his 44 years as a priest, Father Valdivia served as pastor of five parishes: St. Anthony in Oakland, St. Leonard (now Our Lady of Guadalupe) in Fremont, St. Cornelius in Richmond, St. Catherine in Martinez, and at St. Louis Bertrand since 2003.

In addition to serving as vicar of the diocesan Hispanic community, he also served as an associate pastor, as well as a member of the diocesan Pastoral Leadership Placement Board.

He holds a master’s degree in counseling and used those skills to counsel at-risk youth in public schools in Richmond while serving as pastor there. Earlier, he put that training and his pastoral experiences into play as a missionary in the Archdiocese of San Salvador from 1991-93 with the blessings of Oakland Bishop John Cummins.

Father Valdivia said he felt drawn to go there as an advocate for the poor and an instrument for peace to a community living in the midst of civil war.

But the greatest challenge of his ministerial career, he said, has been the issue of diversity in the Church. “Some people don’t like it,” he said, noting the reluctance of some to fully embrace all their brothers and sisters. “It is an original sin in the world.”

He is enthusiastic in his recitation of the string of blessings he has received – guiding high school students in their journey to Confirmation, learning to play the guitar and integrating music in liturgical and community events, working for labor and immigration reform. One of his greatest joys, he said, is letting people know that the presence of the Lord “is them.”

Though he intends to take some well-earned time off to restore his spirit with family and friends and do some traveling, Father Valdivia plans to return to the Oakland Diocese. He will live at the Bishop Begin Villa, a residence for retired priests on the grounds at Oakland’s Mercy Retirement and Care Center. He also plans to offer his services to parishes that need some assistance.

A Mass celebrating the ministry of Father Valdivia will be held at 11 a.m. on May 6 at St. Louis Bertrand Parish in Oakland.

 

 


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