Shared from the 6/1/2016 San Antonio Express eEdition


Popular priest touched lives far and wide


Father Eddie Bernal died of a massive heart attack at age 66.

San Antonio Express-News / File photo

Father Eddie Bernal conducts Ash Wednesday services in 2013. Sometimes, his statements challenged the status quo, which earned Bernal critics.

When parishioners at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church began hearing that their pastor, Father Eddie Bernal, had collapsed inside the rectory and that EMS had been called, they started gathering in the parking lot.

By the time Father Mike DeGerolami of St. Timothy’s drove up, about 100 people were reciting a rosary for their priest.

“They kept praying,” DeGerolami said. “Even after they knew he had died.”

Bernal, a popular San Antonio priest whose friendships, ecumenism and interfaith spirit took his impact far beyond his parish boundaries, died of a massive heart attack Sunday night. He was 66.

“We held hands as they wheeled him out and drove him away,” DeGerolami said. “They are devastated. We have to keep them in our prayers.”

Many outside Bernal’s parish on the South Side expressed the same grief.

Calls, emails and Facebook posts have come from all over the country, describing what his diverse career meant to families, friends, communities and causes.

His circles of influence included parishioners and non-parishioners, civil rights and LGBT advocates, feminists and the arts and animal rights communities.

Before becoming an archdiocesan priest, Bernal was a social worker, worked for Catholic Charities and supplemented his income with weekend jobs at halfway houses for those with alcohol and substance abuse problems.

He also did a stint as a semiprofessional wrestler and was a talented drummer.

Mourners from both ends of the Americas are expected to attend his services this week.

Two rosaries are planned for 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Benedict’s and Friday at St. John Berchmans Catholic Church.

A funeral Mass is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, to be preceded by a procession of many of the groups he counseled and supported, his sister-in-law, state poet laureate Carmen Tafolla said.

Bernal had longstanding ties to Catholic Television, for which he hosted several shows, including “Catholic Café,” and his brotherhood of priests included a small local group of the international fraternity, Jesus-Caritas.

“He conducted some of the last official Masses for Dignity,” Tafolla said of the national support group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, once tacitly supported, now disaffiliated, by archdioceses around the country.

Bernal’s ministry, grounded in Catholic teaching, often was tinged with humor. Some recalled Bernal’s standard opening words at fancy fundraising galas, where he was asked to deliver formal invocations.

“Please kneel,” he’d say somberly. A sudden hush would fall on audience members before turning to roaring laughter when he smiled broadly at them.

“He was the only person I knew who could do an impression of an inanimate object,” said longtime friend Danny Muraida, who met Bernal in their freshman year at St. Mary’s University.

The object? Bacon frying.

Tafolla recalled a homily on forgiveness and judgment that made a lasting impression. Before getting too far into the liturgy, however, Bernal insisted that cellphones be turned off.

Then a cellphone rang. Bernal, apparently unamused, asked, “Whose phone is that?”

It turned out to be his own, and he decided to answer it in front of the congregation, Tafolla said, saying, “Excuse me, I have to take this. It’s the hotline directly from God.”

Congregants couldn’t see San Antonio actress Lisa Suarez behind the altar, armed with a microphone.

“Hello, Eddie,” Tafolla remembered Suarez saying. “Eddie said, ‘Is this God’s secretary?’ ‘No, Eddie,’ the voice said. She reminded him that we shouldn’t be judgmental,” Tafolla said.

“ ‘But you’re a woman,’ Eddie said. ‘I’m more. I’m more than a man or a woman, and I love you Eddie, I forgive you.’ ” Tafolla said. “Everyone was cracking up.”

Bernal once introduced his widowed mother at church with her beau and announced their impending marriage. He also said, “They had to get married.” Both were in their 80s at the time.

Some of his sermons were far more serious. He once asked women in his congregation at St. John Berchmans to stand if they’d done any work for the church in the previous year. Most of the women in the church stood.

Then Bernal asked a series of questions that slowly eliminated some of them. He asked how many had volunteered in the past six months, then in the past month.

When the pool had shrunk, Bernal had the women sit down and asked them, “How many of you would serve as deacons if you could?” Five or six hands went up.

Then came the question that startled some parishioners but endeared him to them as well: How many of you would be interested in becoming priests if the church allowed, he asked. A couple of hands went up. Bernal ended the liturgy by saying that without women, the church would collapse on itself.

“He was always asking the questions,” Tafolla said. “He was always getting into trouble. He was always in the forefront.”

His most powerful statements, the ones that challenged the status quo, might have been why the affable priest also had his critics.

Tafolla said Bernal was dogged by conservative Catholics who made a point of visiting his churches through the years. “For whatever personal reasons, they made a habit of following his every action and examining everything with a microscope to see if they could find a blemish,” she said.

He was regularly called to then-Archbishop Patrick Flores’ office about such controversies, Tafolla said. “To his great credit, Archbishop Flores would call in Eddie, and Eddie would say, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ Then Archbishop Flores would say, ‘Keep up the good work.’ ”

Bernal was a priest in high demand, often officiating at the funerals of friends and their parents or marriages in his circle of friends, most outside his parish. It weighed on his schedule.

“It got to be so much that his secretary became the gatekeeper,” DeGerolami said. “The demand was beginning to wear him down.”

Muraida, his old schoolmate at St. Mary’s, recalled that Bernal wrestled under the title of “El Gran Marroqui,” from his middle name Marroquin.

He wrestled on weekends while still working for Catholic Charities, earning as much as $400 a night to supplement his meager salary.

“A couple of times people who knew him as a social worker would be in the audience, and he’d address them by name,” Muraida said. “It would freak them out.”

Bernal was at an ACTS retreat over the weekend when he told friends he wasn’t feeling well. He had chest pains but brushed it off as indigestion. He was on the phone with a deacon when he fell, Tafolla said, adding: “We believe he died instantly.”

Bernal, an avid runner, had had a mild heart attack in 2003.

Bernal is survived by his brother Ernesto Bernal; sister-in-law Carmen Tafolla; nieces Ann Richter, Mari Tafolla Bernal and Ariana Tafolla Bernal; nephews Sean Hazuda and Israel Tafolla Bernal; several godchildren , 40 first cousins and other family members.

He preached that dogs went to heaven. His beloved dog Snow also survives him.

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