The Sinner Behind the Saint
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
MILLIONS OF LATINOS IN MEXICO and Southern California watched joyfully this week as Pope John Paul II made Juan Diego the first full-blooded Mexican Indian to be elevated to sainthood. But this day of pride and festivity might never have occurred were it not for Bishop Onésimo Cepeda, who stood just behind the pope at the famed Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Bishop Cepeda heads the impoverished diocese where the Juan Diego miracle took place, and he labored years to overcome critics who questioned whether Diego ever existed.
Known mainly by his first name -- Onésimo -- the larger-than-life Cepeda would never himself be mistaken for a saint. A uniquely Mexican celebrity, Cepeda, 65, evolved from wealthy sinner to priest without ever giving up his worldly personality, his rich friends or his golf game. He consorts with the powerful, jokes about the size of his penis, tells off his critics and leads massive Pentecostal-like prayer gatherings where inspired adherents speak in tongues. In Mexico, where the priesthood very much remains a path to comfort, esteem and power, Cepeda has carefully cultivated all three, not to mention a reputation as a faith healer.
To young Bulmaro Tapia, Cepeda is a refreshing hero. "He is this great church figure from the hierarchy, but at the same time he has such a natural, down-to-earth way," said Tapia, who performs as a dancer for Charisma in Missions, the largest Catholic charismatic-renewal ministry in the U.S. "He can be cracking jokes with you in one minute, but the next he can ask you to confess your sins."
Not everyone in Mexico is so impressed. Cepeda makes the news just about every week, whether it's pleading the case of Juan Diego, hobnobbing with a star athlete or seeking an annulment of President Vicente Fox's first marriage. This latter mission is a personal favor to Fox, so that Mexico's president will no longer be classified as an adulterer for remarrying. "Onésimo's public persona seems to us like a unique case of showmanship," said Antonio Roqueni Ornelas, a Jesuit priest who is an expert in canon law. "It's a sick showmanship. He needs psychological help."
Many even view Cepeda's support of the Juan Diego legend as self-serving. The faithful who believe in Juan Diego's miracle flock to Cepeda's diocese in Ecatepec, an urban region north of Mexico City that is racked by poverty. Cepeda and his diocese benefit from this attention, which Cepeda has parlayed into the construction of a massive, ornate cathedral. And he's not about to let anyone undermine his golden goose by claiming that Juan Diego never existed, even if these doubters include a respected church elder.
ACCORDING TO CATHOLIC LORE, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin lived in the town of Coatitla, currently a region in Ecatepec, when a brown-faced Virgin (the mother of Christ) appeared to him in 1531, about 11 years after Spain's conquest of Mexico. The Virgin instructed Juan Diego to tell the Spanish bishop to erect a temple for her in the hilly region of Tepeyac. At first the bishop was incredulous, but as Juan Diego showed him some flowers the Virgin, henceforth known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, had touched and placed in his cloak, an imprint of the Virgin miraculously materialized on the inside of the cloak.
In the centuries since, Mexico's Catholics have venerated this cloak with the Virgin's image. It is kept behind glass but visible to the public behind the altar in the grand basilica. The appearance of the brown Virgin was a seminal event in Mexico's religious history, an undisputed turning point in the church's efforts to convert the native Indians. The entire Virgin episode was just a little too fortuitous in the view of skeptics, who challenge whether Juan Diego existed. They suspect that the cloak is nothing more than a well-rendered painting on cloth, devised to reinterpret European Catholicism with symbology that would appeal to the natives.
Foremost among the critics has been Guillermo Schulenburg, who spent 33 years as the abbot of the basilica and overseer of the Guadalupe cloak before retiring in the mid-1990s. Schulenburg, now 83, publicly stated in a 1999 letter to the Vatican that neither the Virgin apparitions nor Juan Diego's existence could be proved. He was supported by three of Mexico's most famous canon lawyers. And while these distinguished doubters accorded respect to the believers, they nonetheless asserted that evidence indicated the entire tale to be a church farce. The canonization ceremony had been scheduled to take place in the year 2000, but it was postponed due to Schulenburg's letter. â
Much of Mexico went into an uproar, but it was Cepeda -- who was then the spokesman for his country's bishops -- who hounded Schulenburg the most. A soundbite expert, Cepeda told reporters then that the abbot had lost his mind. "This is what you might expect of someone older than 80 -- logically all old people become a bit capricious and lose lucidity in their thinking," Cepeda told reporters three years ago. Cepeda was just as caustic in an interview with the Weekly three weeks ago, reserving particular scorn for skeptical officials who worked at the basilica. "There are only four people in Mexico who do not believe in the apparitions," said Cepeda, and "three of them have lived off of the Virgin of Guadalupe."
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 carismáticos in 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.
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 carismático event. 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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.