By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Dennis Romero
Critics say that Cepeda could have better used that money for direct services to the poor. They also accuse him of wanting a monument to himself, echoing similar complaints about Cardinal Roger Mahony, who will soon unveil an extravagant cathedral of his own in Los Angeles. Mahony's edifice also will contain an image of the brown virgin, this one a 10-foot-tall mosaic embedded in his cathedral's north wall.
Cepeda counters that the cathedral was built for the poor. "Sometimes you have to use your influence with the rich to get things done. It would have taken 500 years to have the cathedral built if we only used our parishioners' donations," said Cepeda. "Don't the poor deserve a good place of worship? Would you rather see me live in a cave? Other bishops live in much better houses than I do!"
Like a rock star or a polarizing politician, Cepeda is sometimes caricatured in the press. One recent cartoon image portrayed him as an ultraslick bass player backing up the pope's lead vocals. He was nothing less than the main attraction for a throng of 15,000 who flocked to see him at the Sports Arena three weeks ago for the annual Encuentro Latino, the U.S.'s biggest carismáticoevent. Cepeda's followers believe he has the ability to heal, to exorcise demons and to preach the Gospel like a modern-day St. Paul.
At this year's event, Cepeda was noticeably slowed down by a painful chronic ailment that causes a frequent, involuntary tic, which contorts his face as though he's gasping for breath. And yet, for the faithful he remains the epitome of cool.
At one point backstage, Tapia, the athletic Christian dancer, told well-known preacher Guillermo Valencia that he should avoid formfitting shirts that reveal his love handles. Valencia countered that the one with the bigger belly is Cepeda, who immediately grabbed his formidable gut. "The love handles are here," intoned Cepeda, "because I have a little elephant underneath -- and it has a big trunk!"
An hour after the double-entendres, Cepeda slowly walked past the Sports Arena's front stage, where thousands of young men and women had gathered. When Cepeda laid hands on a muscular young man in a white spandex shirt, the man fell to the ground in a daze often described as "slain in the Spirit."
After he recovered and headed to confession, the misty-eyed Miguel Angel Lopez, a 34-year-old Santa Ana construction worker, recalled that he begrudgingly accepted his wife's suggestion to attend the event. And up until that moment he was a nonbeliever who lived a bad life. "I didn't know who the bishop was, but when I saw him yesterday, something told me to talk to him," he said. "He has given me comfort and healed my pains."
MUCH OF THE TIME YOU WOULDN'T even know Cepeda was a priest. And that's a good thing, said Soledad Loaeza, a Mexican scholar who has dined with Cepeda. Usually sitting next to a bishop is a ticket to boredom; "you just want to die," said Loaeza. "But if that bishop is Onésimo, you will have a great time. He is an extraordinary dinner companion, very charming and pleasant."
Cepeda disdains his collar, except on ceremonial occasions, preferring simple suits or leather jackets. He attends bullfights and baseball games and exclusive dinner parties, where he smokes cigars. His social circle includes President Fox, for whom he is trying to do a big favor.
After Fox won office in 2000, the president turned to Cepeda for an annulment of his Catholic marriage to his former wife, Lilian de la Concha. A devout Catholic, Fox had gained the support of church conservatives by pledging his opposition to rival, evangelical churches. He also promised to help the Catholic Church reach the public through the media and said he would support pro-life legislation. (Abortion is illegal in Mexico.)
But Fox found himself in a bind when he decided to marry his former spokeswoman, Marta Sahagún. Fox and Sahagún each had prior religious marriages -- which, according to church doctrine, remain in force. Both want their prior marriages annulled.
In the doctrinal view, Sahagún and Fox are committing adultery until both free themselves from their prior marriages. Cepeda publicly pledged that he would help. With such high-ranking church officials on his side, Fox's annulment would seem a done deal, but his first wife, de la Concha, lives in Rome and enlisted the Legionaries of Christ, an ultraconservative international order favored by the pope, to oppose the annulment. The outcome remains in doubt.
In his interview with the Weekly, Cepeda declined to comment on the annulment. Nor would he talk about Mahony's cathedral or the church's current sex scandal, saying only, "The church has always had scandals. It's Satan's way of scourging the church. But the gates of hell will not prevail against her." As Cepeda has shown, there isn't much that will prevail against his will either.