Archbishop: Bill Richardson was 'a real humanitarian'

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Sep. 6—Archbishop John C. Wester, who will celebrate former Gov. Bill Richardson's Mass of Christian Burial next week at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in downtown Santa Fe, said Wednesday the "larger than life" figure will be remembered as a humanitarian who cared about people.

"Even his politics were people politics," Wester said in a telephone interview about Richardson, who died Friday in Massachusetts.

Wester said Richardson and his wife, Barbara, are registered parishioners at the Roman Catholic cathedral and would worship there when they were in Santa Fe. He said it was not only a "natural thing" for Richardson's funeral Mass to be held at the cathedral, but it's not uncommon for service for a civic figure like Richardson to be held in the mother church of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

From a practical level, the cathedral is also big enough to hold hundreds of people, he said.

Details on the Mass have been scarce, but Richardson Center officials announced the former New Mexico governor's body will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda Sept. 13 from 11 a.m-4 p.m. The mass will be held Sept. 14 from 11 a.m-12:30 p.m., and a reception will follow in the Rotunda at 1 p.m.

"There's going to be a lot of people coming in, I understand, from all different countries," he said.

Wester noted Richardson's role as a negotiator trotting around the globe to try to secure the release of Americans imprisoned in what President Joe Biden called "some of the most dangerous places on Earth."

"He was quite good at it because he was so good with people; he could talk to people, so I think, to me, he was a real humanitarian," Wester said.

Although he didn't know him personally, Wester said his predecessor, Archbishop Emeritus Michael J. Sheehan, who died in June, was "very fond" of Richardson and "vice versa."

After Richardson signed a bill ending the death penalty in New Mexico in 2009, the pair traveled to Rome on a "pilgrimage of faith," he said.

"They had a private audience with the pope, and they lit up the Colosseum in honor of passing the bill as a tribute to Gov. Richardson and what he had done," Wester said. "It was quite a moment of recognition for his brave and courageous stand, and he did a good thing in that, so I think Archbishop Sheehan was very proud of the governor and very pleased with what he had done."

Ending the death penalty sent a powerful message because Richardson was well respected, he said.

"I admire him because that was a risk he took," he said, adding the action could have ended terribly politically for Richardson.

"People who are on death row have done some very horrendous, heinous things, so that was risky," he said. "I admire him for that. He was a man of his convictions."

An executive order issued Wednesday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham states Richardson "lived his entire life in the service of others." It orders all flags in the state be flown at half-staff from Thursday to Sept. 14, the same day as Richardson's funeral Mass.

"This action will serve to commemorate Governor Richardson's distinguished life and to mourn his loss," the executive order states.

Richardson was a Roman Catholic who credited "his grandmother with making sure he went to a Catholic church every Sunday, attended catechism school and took Communion," according to the Pew Research Center, which cited Richardson's book, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life.

"While Richardson's stance on abortion rights has clashed with that of the Roman Catholic Church, he describes the conflict in his book as 'not acrimonious' and 'what you would expect with any Catholic politician who is pro-choice,' " the Pew Research Center reported.

Asked whether a politician can be Catholic and pro-abortion rights, Wester called it a complicated moral question.

"What the governor's personal views were and what his public view was, those are all personal questions that any given legislator, civic person, elected official has to answer for himself or herself," he said.

From his experience, Wester said Catholic politicians struggle with that question.

"The problem is sometimes people try to be judgmental and say, 'Well, you're a sinner if do this or that,' " he said. "That's something between between God and the person and the person's spiritual director."

Wester said Richardson was "larger than life" in many ways.

"He did a lot," he said. "Think of his career. Congressman. Governor. Secretary of Energy and then in later years, kind of being a peacemaker, helping to free people, so he did quite a bit, really. He had a full life. There's no doubt about it."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.