2017 Distinguished Resident: Bishop Emeritus Ricardo Ramírez
LAS CRUCES - At age 4, Las Cruces Bishop Emeritus Ricardo Ramírez experienced his first act of faith. It was more than seven decades ago on a cold, winter night in South Texas.
After a night of prayer with family, Ramírez and his maternal grandparents walked to their home in Bay City, Texas, underneath a dark, starry sky. Along the way, Ramírez's grandfather lifted him off the ground, without reason or warning, and placed him on his shoulder.
Ramírez gazed at the heavens above. "I saw all the stars, and I remember saying to myself, 'Thank you for all the stars, whoever you are,'" he recalled, "and I'm sure that was my first act of faith."
He later described this pivotal moment in his life in his 2016 book, "Power from the Margins: The Emergence of the Latino in the Church and in Society."
"I sincerely believe that my Christian vocation began at that very precise moment," he wrote, "and all in the milieu created by Tía Petra's novena."
From that moment on, he set forth on a path leading to a religious life.
At age 6, Ramírez began his service in the church as an alter boy, a role he took seriously, especially after his first Mass, when he accidentally dropped burning incense onto the floor, searing a hole into a rug that left a permanent mark.
Ramírez said he was a "young man" when he discovered his life's calling: "help people get to heaven."
So, after high school, he studied at a Catholic university in Houston, earning a bachelor's degree and a teaching certificate. He then made the decision to enter priesthood, joining the Basilian Fathers of the Congregation of St. Basil as a seminarian.
Seven years later, in December 1966, Ramírez was ordained.
He rose to prominence in 1981 after Pope John Paul II selected him to become an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Antonio. The following year, he became the founding bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces, a position he held until retiring in 2013.
During his more than 30 years at the helm of the Diocese of Las Cruces, Ramírez became a champion of social justice causes, a voice for marginalized groups like immigrants and Native Americans, and a leader for thousands of Catholics in southern New Mexico.
"Bishop Ramírez made an impression and a mark in his concern for social justice and his concern for the poor," said his successor, Bishop Oscar Cantú.
"Raising a voice constantly about those social issues — particularly for those who otherwise don't always have a voice that is heard, and to have someone at the level of the bishop raise a voice of conscience for the voiceless — I think was critical," Cantú added.
Even in the midst of retirement, Ramírez remains an active force in the diocese and continues to advocate for social justice causes, speaking out on polarizing issues like immigration in the era of the Trump administration.
Because of his continued service to the community, Ramírez, 81, has been selected by the Sun-News as the Distinguished Resident for 2017. He is the third resident selected for the honor since it began in 2015, following Federal Judge Robert Brack and community leader Heather Pollard.
Hailing from a working-class family, Ramírez was born in Bay City, Texas, on Sept. 12, 1936, during the Great Depression. He was the second of two sons born to Natividad Espitia Ramírez and María Espinosa Ramírez, whose marriage ended when their sons were young. Ramírez and his older brother, Pedro (Pete), were raised by their mother and maternal grandparents.
He said he lived a "happy" childhood growing up with his grandparents. His fondest memories include working in the family garden with his grandfather and eating bowls of his grandmother's caldo.
"We always had clothes, we always had food — we were blessed that way. And, we always had religion. My family was very devout," he said.
As a young student, he attended a segregated school for Mexican-American children until the sixth grade. From there, he went to a "mixed" school, Jefferson Davis Grammar, from1942 to 1950. He started high school in 1951 at Bay City High School.
Beginning in the sixth grade, Ramírez started to work after school to help his family make ends meet. So, he had little time to participate in school activities. But during his last year in high school, he joined the choir — an experience he cherishes to this date.
"In my senior year, I decided I needed to do something else. I wanted to try to fit in some music. I'd always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, but by then everybody was way ahead of me. So, I decided to join the choir. I always had a good voice," he said.
Joining the choir, he said, was one of the "wisest" decisions he ever made.
"I learned about music — I was introduced to classical music, which as been a life-long interest — and I got to travel a little," he said.
In 1955, he graduated from high school and moved to Houston to attend the University of St. Thomas. He enjoyed college and called his time at the university "one of the great experiences of my life."
"I think those were the four happiest years of my life," he said.
He studied music, literature, history, philosophy and other liberal arts. He graduated in 1959 with a Bachelor of Arts and a teaching certificate, after which he decided the time was right to enter the priesthood.
He joined the Basilian Fathers of the Congregation of St. Basil, an order that appealed to Ramírez because it would allow him to become a teaching priest.
He thought it would be a natural fit — and so, he started "boot camp" in 1959. It took him seven years to become a priest.
Ramírez spent a year in "boot camp," or novitiate, in Michigan before he began teaching as part of his seminary studies with the order, he said.
For three years, he taught at Catholic high schools in Houston and Detroit. And, although his first year was "rocky," he grew to love teaching. His favorite subjects were English and American history, he said.
After completing his teaching requirements, Ramírez began studying theology in 1963 at the St. Basil's Seminary in Toronto. After two years, he received permission to complete his studies in Mexico City.
"That was a good experience," he said, "getting to know Mexican culture from the inside, getting to know my roots."
In 1966, Ramírez completed his seminary studies and was ordained on Dec. 10, 1966, at St. Ann Catholic Church in Houston. His entire family attended his ordination.
"It was a very joyous occasion," he recalled.
The next day, Dec. 11, 1966, Ramírez celebrated his first Mass in his hometown.
"I was the first priest ever to come out of Bay City, and certainly the first one from our parish, and the people were very excited," he said.
Ramírez then received his first assignment as a new priest: He was sent to St. Mary's Church in Owen Sound, Canada. He braved extremely cold weather for the six-month assignment before starting graduate studies at the University of Detroit.
He earned a master's degree in religious education and was then assigned to work in Mexico in 1968. He first worked in Mexico City, then in Tehuacán, Puebla, until 1976, the year he became the executive vice president of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, a private Catholic college.
He had been at the school for about five years when, in 1981, he received a phone call from the archbishop of San Antonio asking him to accept a position as the auxiliary bishop of the diocese. Ramírez had been selected for the job by Pope John Paul II after undergoing a clandestine background check that took about two years to complete.
However, Ramírez didn't accept the position right away, he said. He had asked to speak with his spiritual director before making a decision. He was given three hours but never got a hold of the spiritual director. And, later that night, he called the archbishop.
"I said, 'Archbishop, I really want to help you — so if you think I could help you, I will accept,'" Ramírez recalled.
On Dec. 6, 1981, he became the auxiliary bishop of the San Antonio Diocese. He was the diocese's second-in-command for nine months before he was asked to become the founding bishop of a new diocese in southern New Mexico.
Before October 1982, most of the Catholic churches located between Lordsburg and Hobbs were part of the El Paso diocese. That changed when the Vatican established the Las Cruces diocese and Ramírez was installed as bishop.
His installation took place at the Pan American Center on Oct. 18, 1982, before a crowd of about 10,000 people and more than 100 priests and 30 bishops.
"It was a historical moment," he said. "This is a new diocese that will be here forever and ever, and this is the moment when it is created."
At the time, the diocese inherited 43 parishes throughout southern New Mexico.
For some, Ramírez's installation represented a watershed moment for Hispanics in the Catholic Church.
"I distinctly remember that day when he was named (as a bishop) because they announced it over the intercom after the morning prayer," said Bishop Cantú, then a high school student in Houston. "In those days, you didn't hear about too many Hispanic bishops."
Cantú added: "There was a sense of pride that there was, from the Houston area, a Hispanic bishop."
Before becoming bishop, Ramírez had only visited Las Cruces twice, he said. The first time, he drove through on his way to visit a friend who worked at White Sands National Monument. The second time, he had come to a retreat at Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla Park. And, he wasn't impressed with what he saw.
"People told me then that this was going to be a diocese. I looked around and saw all these poor houses and I said, 'Poor guy who's going to be in charge of this,' not knowing it was going to be me," he said.
Ramírez's first act as bishop was to organize the diocese's office, a small space in the Downtown Mall with one manual typewriter. Then, he formed the diocese's tribunal, or legal department, and selected his priest councilors, essentially building an administrative infrastructure for the diocese.
"It started from the ground up, but slowly it became what it is now," he said.
"The main challenge was identify the diocese as a diocese," he added, explaining that people sometimes struggled to recognize they were part of a new diocese.
To overcome this obstacle, Ramírez had to build loyalty and support — both financial and spiritual — for the fledgling diocese. His work mostly revolved around daily administrative duties, like setting policy and raising funds for seminarians and retiring priests, among other things. But he balanced those obligations with pastoral work.
"That is the most enjoyable part of a bishop's life, to mingle with the people, to say Mass for them, to preach and socialize with them," he said.
By the 2000s, Ramírez had been appointed to sit on several high-profile committees, raising his prominence and status throughout the county.
He was a member of the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, and he served two terms as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, among other positions that took him to all corners of the world, including China, Egypt and Africa.
In 2013, Ramírez retired as bishop of the Las Cruces diocese after 31 years. He was given the title of bishop emeritus and chose to remain in Las Cruces. He was succeeded by Cantú, who like Ramírez had been an auxiliary bishop in San Antonio before becoming bishop of Las Cruces.
"When I first visited Las Cruces when it was announced that I would be the next bishop, I really sensed the tremendous respect that people have for Bishop Ramírez," Cantú said. "I wanted to tread carefully on his reputation (and) the legacy that he was leaving — he was the only bishop that people knew in the Diocese of Las Cruces."
Looking back on his own legacy, Ramírez said he is most proud of uniting people under a new diocese and "building up the faith in the people — I think that's a legacy any bishop can leave," noting that as bishop, he confirmed more than 40,000 young Catholics throughout southern New Mexico.
Last year, Ramírez published his book, "Power from the Margins," which has received acclaim. It is part autobiographical and addresses a range of topics related to Latinos and Catholicism, including immigration, an issue at the center of national debate.
In his book, he writes about his first encounter with immigration authorities as a child in Bay City. His family had befriended a man who had been living in the U.S. illegally. While visiting Houston with Ramírez's family, the man was detained by Border Patrol agents. Ramírez and his family were shocked and devastated to learn that their friend was facing deportation to Mexico.
"As a small child, this was my first encounter with immigration authorities, and it left me deeply sad," he wrote.
He also wrote about a binational Mass that was celebrated in 2014 at the border fence in southern New Mexico. Two sisters, ages 10 and 12, attending the Mass were able to greet their mother, who had been deported to Mexico several years earlier.
The mother sobbed as she and her daughters pressed their hands together on the fence that separated them, Ramírez wrote.
For Ramírez, immigration is a theological and moral issue. He and other U.S. bishops, including Cantú, have called for comprehensive immigration reform.
"For us, it's just not all political. It is scriptural and a moral question," he said.
It took two years for Ramírez to write his book, and during that time he underwent two major operations. In late 2017, he got pneumonia but recovered in time to celebrate the yearly fiesta for Our Lady of Guadalupe in the village of Tortugas.
These days, Ramírez officiates Mass at least once a week, sometimes more, he said. When he's not working, he likes to cook and entertain friends at his home, which he shares with his dog, Rico.
"He's extremely smart," Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said of Ramírez. "Every time I'm with him, l learn more about not only the Catholic faith but others."
He described Ramírez as a "walking encyclopedia when it comes to religion."
Miyagishima said he first met Ramírez several years ago through former Mayor Ruben Smith. Their relationship grew after Ramírez's retirement. "He's like a member of our family. We treat him — when my dad's not here, he's head of the family," Miyagishima said.
Miyagishima said one of Ramírez's strengths as bishop was uniting people across the expansive diocese that ranges from Hobbs to Lordsburg.
"I would joke with him and say, 'Bishop, you should run for Congress because your diocese is as big as Steve Pearce's district," referring to the 2nd congressional district of New Mexico. "It's a big district; it goes from one end to the other — and he just chuckles."
Ramírez has not expressed any interest in seeking political office — but with Pearce running for governor, that congressional seat is up for grabs in 2018.
Carlos Andres López can be reached 575-541-5453, firstname.lastname@example.org or @carlopez_los on Twitter.