By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
With Cepeda pulling the strings, the church hired anthropologists who made some amazing and suspiciously timely discoveries that were forwarded to the pope. A neighboring diocese announced that a separate team of archaeologists had found the ruins of Juan Diego's house, which included period cooking utensils. Cepeda also cited the work of a respected German scientist, who, in the 1930s, concluded that the paint on the cloak was made of no earthly compound that he could recognize. Cepeda has also encouraged the widely held legend of the Virgin's magical eyes, which, like a camera lens, supposedly captured a minute, centuries-old image of the kneeling bishop surrounded by Indians -- the very scene at the moment of the Virgin's appearance on the cloak.
Critics have countered that the style of painting is remarkably reminiscent of that of a leading native painter of that period. And that the cloak seems to date from decades after the reputed miracle.
Cepeda and other Juan Diego supporters ultimately won out, and even scored the coup of having the frail pope appear in person in Mexico City. Cepeda failed to get the pope all the way to the Ecatepec diocese.
"In my life, I have learned that the leaves on a tree do not move if it is not God's will," said Cepeda philosophically. "I left that in the hands of God. The politics of men cannot match the will of God."
CEPEDA DOESN'T DENY THAT HE WAS a sinful man before responding to God's call, going from playboy to priest. Born into a wealthy Catholic family, which had a special devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Cepeda grew up playing golf with his father on Sundays, after first attending the 8 a.m. Mass. His father once cut off the young dandy's allowance when he found his 14-year-old son drunk and having sex with a woman.
At age 21, and not yet out of college, Cepeda and his friend Carlos Slim founded Imbursa, now Mexico's top financial and international conglomerate, which over time has made Slim one of the wealthiest men in the world. But Cepeda had wanderlust and tried his hand at bullfighting and at singing in a bolero music trio before becoming a lawyer at 23.
In Cepeda's version of the Cepeda legend, he was in his late 20s and well on his way to becoming one of his country's richest men when his car crashed on a desolate stretch in the southern state of Tabasco. "I was really in bad shape," said Cepeda, until a group of indigenous natives -- like Juan Diego -- nurtured his wounds. "They showed me how to help one another, love and to share," recalled Cepeda. "That's why I became a priest."
Shortly after his ordination, Cepeda quickly became, at age 35, the right-hand man of the legendary Sergio Mendez Arceo, possibly the most socially progressive bishop of his time, who once said that being anti-communist was to be anti-Christian. "I was known as a tough guy," recalled Cepeda. "If there was a problem in the diocese, they would send me, and the problem would end."
Like Arceo and most priests in the diocese of Cuernavaca, Cepeda was an adherent of liberation theology, a progressive movement that advocated for the poor. Rome was not especially supportive, on the grounds that liberation theology placed too much emphasis on political and material matters, while not paying enough attention to spiritual ones.
In the mid-1970s, Cepeda suffered a series of setbacks. Physically, he was stricken by a lung tumor, and in the same period, for reasons that have never been made public, the church disciplined him, transferring him to one of the loneliest parishes in Cuernavaca. There, a middle-aged parish helper, a woman who taught catechism, won Cepeda over to the charismatic movement, which emphasizes a Pentecostal style of worship. The carismáticos, as they are called in Spanish, believe in the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, which include speaking in tongues, miracle healing, quasi exorcisms and divination.
Cepeda turned his parish into a haven for Spirit-filled, hand-clapping joy-junkie carismáticos. According to Cepeda, during his first healing Mass the blind saw, people walked out of their wheelchairs, and those stricken by cancer were cured.
"I will never forget that Mass," said Cepeda.
His critics scoff at this account, but Cepeda became a star of the charismatic renewal, the biggest Catholic lay movement of the 20th century. By the mid-1980s, Cepeda headed the carismáticosin Mexico. For a time, he also commuted regularly to the U.S., to host a Los Angelesbased national weekly television show called Luz de Jesus (Light of Jesus).
The church's activist progressives received a hard blow in the late 1980s when the pope abolished liberation theology, declaring that in its drive to help the poor, the movement had lost its soul by dabbling with politics. Cepeda and his charismatics took advantage of the spiritual vacuum to grow their own movement. Cepeda's critics accuse him of actively undermining liberation theology at home and abroad to advance his own career.
In 1995, Cepeda was ordained the bishop of Ecatepec, a geographically compact region, but still the world's fourth most populated diocese, with 4 million residents. The challenge to govern the diocese -- one of Mexico's poorest urban areas -- is a daunting task, even for Cepeda, who has only about 100 priests. But he does have a few good rich friends. And four years after Cepeda became a bishop, President Ernesto Zedillo became the first Mexican president in 70 years to attend the opening ceremony of a church, when Cepeda opened Ecatepec's palatial cathedral -- built mostly with money from Cepeda's deep-pocketed friends, such as Carlos Slim.