Father Raymundo Figueroa blesses a child after Mass. The priest is accused… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Rosarito Beach, Mexico — The church bells rang all afternoon. Archbishop Rafael Romo Muñoz was on his way to say a Mass marking the transfer of Father Raymundo Figueroa, the beloved priest at Santisimo Sacramento parish.
Hundreds of men, women and children answered the call of the bells. But they weren't there to greet the bishop.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mexican priest: An article in the Dec. 21 Section A about Father Raymundo Figueroa, a controversial Roman Catholic priest in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, incorrectly reported that Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese sent a letter to Tijuana diocese officials complaining that Figueroa had crossed into the United States to perform sacraments for a fee. In fact, a regional auxiliary bishop from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Gerald Wilkerson, had faxed a memo to parishes in parts of northern L.A. County warning of Figueroa's possible activities. —
They chained the gates and locked the doors. They hung signs. "This church belongs to the people; not the church," read one.
When Romo stepped out of his SUV, 20 robed priests from the Tijuana diocese tried to form a procession, but burly men blocked their way. The archbishop tried to say a prayer, but the crowd drowned him out with bullhorns and bells. Priests and parishioners traded insults through the chain-link fence. "Liar," one person yelled at Romo.
"We hope our brother reconsiders his attitude," Romo said, asking people to join him in prayer. The bells kept ringing.
The archbishop, Baja California's highest Roman Catholic authority, retreated. The people applauded and bowed their heads in prayer.
More than a month after that chilly November evening, Figueroa remains the parish priest. To parishioners, he is a brave figure who transformed a half-finished building into this seaside city's largest house of worship. To the Catholic hierarchy, he's a rogue who has financed his church through simony, the selling of the sacraments -- one of the Roman Catholic Church's oldest and most serious transgressions.
Romo was on a mission to oust Figueroa because complaints had been pouring in from priests and bishops as far away as Los Angeles. They accused the cleric of crossing into the United States and charging up to $180 for fast-tracked confirmations, first Communions and baptisms.
Scores of Mexican priests have been crossing the border for this purpose, but Figueroa's case was so serious that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and Bishop Robert H. Brom of San Diego sent letters to Romo, according to Tijuana diocese officials.
"These are underground celebrations, hidden from the diocese here and the diocese there," said Father Juan Garcia Ruvalcaba, the vicar general of the Tijuana diocese. "It's a lot of money . . . and [Figueroa] doesn't provide an accounting to anybody."
Many Catholics in Mexico aren't fussy about bookkeeping when they see churches rising. They view Mexican priests like Figueroa as Robin Hood figures who raid relatively wealthy parishes in the U.S. to build up their impoverished churches.
Figueroa, 41, seems to relish his image as a populist tweaking the staid church. He's been hammered on talk radio, denounced from pulpits and criticized in an expose in the diocese newspaper.
He delivers impassioned sermons greeted by loud ovations and vows of support from his congregation. When he is pressed to address the accusations, his answers are cryptic and cloaked in irony, only deepening the intrigue. He is clear about one thing: The church is picking on the wrong guy.
"I'm portrayed as the worst priest in the world. Never!" Figueroa said. "I've never become a drunk or a priest that runs around with women. There are priests like that, you know. Drunks. Pedophiles. I've only tried to serve this community as best as I can."
When Figueroa arrived at the parish in February 2007, the church was little more than a wooden shell with a bare concrete floor. Worshipers had to bundle together to ward off cold ocean breezes.
Figueroa oversaw a frenzy of construction to complete the church, a modestly appointed but expansive space that features an open-beam ceiling, a granite crypt and seating for about 300.
The church became a source of pride. The parish rolls have grown dramatically to about 8,000 people, and instead of five Masses on Sundays, there are 14. On Sundays, people occupy every cushioned pew and spill into the courtyard, where Figueroa's sermons are heard through loudspeakers.
Figueroa's success as a builder explains only part of his appeal.
Like many in the working-class hillside neighborhood of Colonia Constitucion, Figueroa grew up in a poor town in central Mexico. People identify with his sermons, which are filled with parables about village life and peasants, and he draws laughs with his impressions of stubborn old ladies and mischievous children.