MONCLOVA, Mexico — The white-haired bishop stepped before some 7,000 faithful gathered in a baseball stadium in this violence-plagued northern border state. He led the gathering through the rituals of his Mass, reciting prayers echoed back by the massive crowd. And then his voice rose.
Politicians are tied to organized crime, Bishop Raul Vera bellowed while inaugurating the church’s Year of Faith. Lawmakers’ attempts to curb money laundering are intentionally weak. New labor reforms are a way to enslave Mexican workers.
How, Vera asked, can Mexicans follow leaders “who are the ones who have let organized crime grow, who have let criminals do what they do unpunished, because there’s no justice in this country!”
In a nation where some clergy have been cowed into silence by drug cartels and official power, Vera is clearly unafraid to speak. That makes him an important voice of dissent in a country where the Roman Catholic Church often works hand-in-hand with the powerful, and where cynicism about politics is widespread and corrosive.
Vera’s realm is a wide swath of Coahuila, a state bordering Texas that’s become a hideout for the brutal Zetas drug cartel. It’s where the current governor’s nephew was killed in October and the former governor, the victim’s father, resigned last year as leader of the political party that just returned to power.
Marked by his unvarnished speech, the Saltillo bishop’s voice carries beyond his diocese here, especially when he weighs in on hot issues such as drug violence, vulnerable immigrants and gay rights.
In late 2007, Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission denounced death threats against Vera and a burglary of the diocese’s human rights offices. The following year, after Coahuila became the first Mexican state to allow civil unions for gay couples, a move the bishop endorsed, Vera was invited to speak at a U.S.-based conference for a Catholic gay and lesbian organization. In 2010, he was awarded a human rights prize in Norway.
Anonymous critics have hung banners outside the cathedral asking for what they called a real Catholic bishop. And last year, the 67-year-old was summoned to the Vatican to explain a church outreach program to gay youth.
Natalia Niño, president of Familias Mundi in Saltillo, told the Catholic News Agency last year that Vera had placed too much focus on the gay community.
“A pastoral commitment to homosexual persons is necessary and welcomed, but not at the expense of the family and a solid pastoral plan for marriage and family, which is unfortunately being neglected in the diocese,” she said.
Vera, who has had government bodyguards before, said he was foregoing similar security despite the criticism and threats. Such measures were rare and frowned upon in Saltillo, he said.
“I’m not the only one exposed, there are lots of people exposed who work with immigrants, with the missing,” Vera said. “How do I cover myself? Them?”
Raul Vera (left) arrived in Saltillo, Mexico, as bishop in 2000, with a reputation as a social crusader. Vera’s voice now carries beyond his diocese here, specially when he weighs in on issues such as drug violence, vulnerable immigrants and gay rights.×