The sanctuary of St. Mark’s Catholic Church, still bathed in kaleidoscopic sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, was filled to the brim on a recent Sunday as Bishop Arturo Banuelas presided over his final Mass after 46 years of service.
“Don’t call it a retirement,” Banuelas said of his decision to step down as a full-time priest. “Call it refinement. I always want to serve. I will always be a part of anything that brings justice to this community.
Banuelas was born and raised in Pecos, Texas, the eldest of eight children and the son of parents who were active in both the church and the community.
“They served the community well,” Banuelas said of his parents, noting that it was their commitment to the church and the community that inspired him to enter the ministry.
“Ever since I was a young child I felt a call to care and serve, especially those who are poor,” he said, “and my family did that a lot and I think it inspired me to discern a little deeper if it was a vocation. From there, it took off.”
Banuelas decided he wanted to do missionary work, but was told there was an urgent need for Hispanic priests in the local diocese, so he changed his plans.
“That’s how I decided to stay in El Paso and it’s been my home ever since,” Banuelas said. “El Paso is a very special place to be a priest.”
“We grew up with him”
Lily Limon, who has been a close friend of Banuelas for many years, recalls his early days as a priest, where he served as associate pastor and pastor of Santa Lucia parish from 1976 to 1980.
“We were able to see this young man become a priest in our parish,” Limon said. “It’s a bit like we grew up with him. Right from the start, he had an incredible and powerful way with words.
From there, Banuelas served as administrative assistant to Bishop Raymundo J. Pena, where he served as co-director of the ministry of permanent deacons and administered the parish of San Isidro, before traveling to Rome to study at the Gregorian University in 1985.
It was during his time in Rome that Banuelas became a “master theologian,” Limon said, and “one of the most educated priests in the diocese.”
“He is invited, not only nationally, but internationally, to speak,” Limon said. “When I think he’s served 46 years, it’s hard to believe he’s been serving that long because he never gets tired. He just never gets worn out.
Limon noted the power of Banuelas’ homilies, which she called “inspiring” and “powerful” – by the time Banuelas moved to St. Pius X Parish in 1988, others were also taking note of her homilies.
Limon said his homilies were recorded every Sunday at St. Pie and worshipers waited after the service to pick up a copy and take it home.
“People really wanted to hear them over and over again,” Limon said. “His ability with words, his ability to describe things, is very powerful.”
Banuelas’ most important work
Around the same time he took office at St. Pius, Banuelas undertook two missions which he still considers to be among his most important works – the founding of the Tepeyac Institute, which trains lay people to become leaders in the church, and the inclusion of social justice issues in his sermons.
The Tepeyac Institute was inspired by the house of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her mission to build a new society – since its beginnings, the institute has trained more than 60,000 people to make the ministry the largest of its kind in the country.
When it comes to social justice issues, Banuelas drew inspiration from his visits with farmworkers in Guatemala and his work with migrants along the US-Mexico border, experiences that found him sleeping in a truck or on the dirt floor of houses without electricity.
“When you listen to their stories and hear their plight and their plans for their children, it’s transformative,” Banuelas said. “It tells me where we need to be and, when we’re there, we can ask the more important questions, like ‘what does my life have to do with their suffering? Solidarity is now part of what the mission of the Church is meant to be. Solidarity is at the heart of the life of a priest.
“It’s not just charity”
Banuelas noted that he also drew inspiration for his focus on social justice issues from figures such as labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and Archbishop Oscar Romero, leading him to believe that action – rather than mere words – was needed to reach the desperate. .
“It’s not charity, it’s not just help, it’s justice,” Banuelas said. “He does not support any particular political party, but he intentionally seeks to defend the common good, to be part of the voice of those who want to cry out for justice.”
In 2012, while still a pastor at St. Pius, Banuelas was called to serve as administrator of St. Juan Bautista Parish, where he continued to create new missions and oversaw the renovation and consecration of the parish church.
In June 2014, Banuelas took up his final post at St. Mark’s Catholic Church, where he oversaw the construction of the Shrine of Guadalupe and the creation of some 65 ministries, many of which targeted migrant communities and social justice.
Despite his extensive work in area churches and ministries, Banuelas’ reach goes far beyond El Paso and the churches there – the Monsignor has trained over 65 missionaries to minister in the Sierra Tarahumara this summer and has seen missionary trips to Honduras, Cuba, China and Kenya.
Banuelas was instrumental in founding several organizations, including the Hope Border Institute, which focuses on social justice needs in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Juarez, the Interfaith Alliance of El Paso, and the RICO Ministry, who works with immigrant children. detained in detention centers.
Along with all of this, Banuelas has continued to pursue his education, most recently receiving an honorary Doctor of Ministry degree in 2018, has lectured around the world, and written extensively on theology and social justice issues.
For Limon, Banuelas’ legacy will be lasting in the El Paso area.
“He planted seeds throughout the community that are thriving,” Limon said. “I don’t even want to call them plants, but trees, because they defy the novelty of a new project or activity.”
“Overwhelmed with Love”
Alicia Chacon, an El Paso trailblazer who became the first woman elected to government in El Paso and the first woman and first Hispanic person in 100 years to serve as a judge in the area, echoed many sentiments of Limon in a letter she wrote for the Monsignor.
“When you feel overwhelmed by the love your pueblo shows on your behalf, rest assured of one thing: these are the seeds that have blossomed from the patient and consistent care you showed as you tended the garden. of God for over 46 years,” Chacon said in the letter. “It is your faith made visible.”
Although he has reached the end of his term as a full-time priest, Banuelas said his work is far from done. He plans to stay active with the Hope Border Institute and the Tepeyac Institute and serve wherever other priests need him, as well as returning to painting and spending more time with family and friends.
During Banuelas’ final Mass, all the ministries he had helped create formed a procession down the aisle to the altar, led by the matachines who were flanked on either side by a row of children shaking maracas – then came the deacons and other church workers, who held oversized baskets exuding feathery incense smoke above their heads.
Before receiving a stone from the Basilica in Mexico City, Banuelas delivered one of his famous homilies for the last time, calling on church members to continue serving the needy and reflecting on his time as a priest.
“It is in peace and happiness that we find the meaning of life,” Banuelas said. “We must testify that hatred, racism and violence do not win.”
“I leave this community with happiness, because I take you with me in my heart,” Banuelas said before walking away from the altar for the last time on a Sunday in mid-July.
Although he said he will miss the routine of being a priest, presiding over Mass, quinceañeras and weddings, Banuelas’ job is not done.
“I will continue to do all of this, but it will be in a different way,” Banuelas said.