A former priest helped change the church, get a Latino bishop appointed and fight poverty

In 1968, a group of San Antonio priests wrote to Pope Paul VI and asked him to remove their autocratic and vindictive archbishop, Robert Lucey.

Even in the changing context of Vatican II, it was a bold move led primarily by Mexican American priests who would suffer the consequences of their actions.

They were brave, selfless, heroic.

Some of them eventually left the priesthood, due to discrimination and exclusion of Mexican Americans in church leadership.

A national organization of Mexican American priests, founded in San Antonio, was born from this moment.

A direct line can be drawn from this group – PADRESan acronym for Padres Asociados para los Derechos Religiosos, Educativos, y Sociales – and the rise of Patrick Flores, the first Latin American bishop.

PADRES also pressured the church to stand up for Mexican Americans faithfully seated in their pews.

In 1968, another big moment was about to happen in San Antonio: HemisFair. In the minds of enthusiastic officials, this would generate positive news about their great city.

A CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” would embarrass them. On a national television show, he showed the extreme poverty on the west side of the city and other places across the country.

A San Antonio-born Catholic priest was in the middle of it all: the letter to the pope, the founding of PADRES, and a starring role in “Hunger in America.”

This week, after a lifetime of advocacy, community organizing and prayer, San Antonio lost it.

Rafael “Ralph” Huante Ruiz, widely considered the founder of PADRES, died Wednesday at age 86. Services are on hold.

I need a lot more space to tell his fascinating story. But it starts on the city’s West Side, where Ruiz was one of 15 children born to a devoted Catholic family.

His parents taught catechism in their backyard and raised children with a heart of social justice just steps from their parish, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Two of Ruiz’s sisters entered religious life. It was also a patriotic family.

His brother, retired educator Paul Ruiz, founder of the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute, said six Ruiz boys served in Korea’s military in Vietnam.

How do such parents engender such leadership?

“Our parents were shameless who they were,” said Paul Ruiz. “They were young adults in their 30s and saw how people were deported (including Mexican-Americans born in the United States).”

While some denied their heritage to survive, “My dad swore he would never do that. He believed you could be Mexican-American and fully American. He said being American is an idea.

“Ralph was a beacon to all of us,” Paul Ruiz said of his brother. “Most of us went to college because of Ralph.”

“He was articulate and brilliant and strong,” he said, recalling his brother being among the Mexican American leaders during the historic march on Washington.

Ruiz attended high school in Illinois at a Franciscan minor seminary named St. Joseph’s. He learned English there and laid the foundations for his further education.

He obtained an undergraduate degree and did his theological studies at the Séminaire de l’Assomption. He was ordained in 1965, but left the priesthood in 1971.

He also earned a master’s degree in education from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In addition to founding PADRES, Ruiz founded the Inner City Apostolate, an archdiocesan mission that organized West Side residents to defend their neighborhood.

The apostolate evolved into the nonprofit Inner City Development, co-led by Patti and Rod Radle, who were the first volunteers there.

Ruiz met his future wife Janis there. She was also a volunteer.

They were married for 50 years, first in 1971 and then again in 1972 by Flores, a direct descendant of PADRES’ powerful advocate.

The Ruizes had three children. They were members of St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Ruiz is also survived by five grandchildren.

His work took him to Washington, DC, where he served as director of PADRES. He then worked in the Nixon administration on the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speakers.

Ruiz also organized labor unions in El Paso; served as executive director of La Clinica Amistad on the city’s West Side; and held various leadership positions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

In “Hunger in America”, Ruiz led a film crew to homes in his neighborhood.

The images of poverty so angered officials, including the late Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, that they led to an FBI investigation into the validity of the claims.

Rod Radle, who co-runs Inner City with his wife, Patti, the former councilwoman, said officers entered homes on the West Side and opened refrigerators. No exaggeration.

Ruiz repeatedly testified and reiterated such occurrences.

The work helped lobby for federal food aid, such as subsidized school lunches.

Ruiz and other social justice activists, including priests, were intimidated. One person recalled that Ruiz was unstoppable and strong. “He told them where to go and how to do it,” the person said.

PADRES and a similar group of Catholic nuns called Las Hermanas were influenced by the Chicano civil rights movement and liberation theology movements across the Americas.

Richard Edouard Martinez, author of “PADRES: the national movement of Chicano priestsdocumented how Chicano priests faced racism and discrimination inside and outside the church and organized as agents of change to oppose “religious apartheid.”

Although the turmoil of the time undoubtedly affected him, Ruiz “always said he had a good life,” his wife said. “He told me many times that he was so lucky.”

Last Saturday he could barely speak, but the TV was tuned to a Catholic Mass and he said the words during the consecration of the Eucharist, his wife said.

Throughout his married life, he continued to celebrate Mass – at home with his family gathered around the dinner table.

They will remember his great sermons.

In the end, he boiled it down to a simple philosophy that guided his life.

Love your neighbour.

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Jerry B. Hatch