Religions and Spirituality

One year after Newark cathedral assault, Bishop Cruz calls for compassion 

The Most Reverend Manuel A. Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, called for forgiveness for the man who attacked him during Mass one year ago. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
The Most Reverend Manuel A. Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, smiles with Juan Pablo Atencio, a sacristan who protected Cruz when he was attacked a year ago. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
The rose window at Newark's Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which was built by immigrants and which still serves a large immigrant community. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
The Most Reverend Manuel A. Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, smiles with Juan Pablo Atencio, a sacristan who protected Cruz when he was attacked a year ago. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

The Most Reverend Manuel A. Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, stood on the shining marble altar at Newark's Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, doing his job, saying Mass on a recent weekend morning.

One year earlier, Cruz was standing at the same altar when he was struck down by Newark resident Charles Miller while offering prayers at the annual service at the cathedral commemorating the life of the late baseball great Roberto Clemente—a moment of shock and horror for all present.

"I pray in a very special way, from the bottom of my heart, for Mr. Miller, who last year was here with us in the third pew. He had a rough year, and we pray for him in a very special way," said Cruz during the homily, remembering the moment when Miller, wearing a white robe over a red suit, got up and punched the 64-year-old bishop in the face, causing chaos in a sacred place.

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"May the Lord touch him, and know that he's loved, and loved by all of us who knew him in a very personal, intimate way," Cruz said. "I was one of those people, right? So let's pray for him with joy." 

The need for prayer was unexpected and urgent a year ago when Miller, a former professional boxer, struck Cruz in the face, knocking him backwards until he fell on the altar. 

Almost immediately after he delivered a blow that shattered the sanctity of the mass, Miller was apprehended by several Essex County Sheriff's officers. Just hours before his attack then arrest, Miller posted on Facebook an expletive-ridden rant against the Virgin Mary, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and others.

Miller eventually plead guilty, was sentenced to time served with two years probation for third degree aggravated assault, and served 164 days in jail, according to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. Miller was recently re-arrested and is currently charged with shoplifting and contempt of a judicial order. He is now incarcerated at the Essex County jail. 

The cathedral, an architectural hidden gem fixed in the heart of Newark, is open to the public, with no searches upon entry or screenings for sanity. Cruz said that whatever the risks, a church open to the public is part of the mission to serve the community. 

"The beauty of this cathedral is when the doors are open. What happened is behind us," Cruz told TAPinto Newark. "Our identity is that we are the sons and daughters of the one who loves us with no conditions. That is who we are." 

A key part of the Newark church community is the largely-Latino neighborhood next to the cathedral. Sunday's Spanish-language Mass is regularly attended by more than 1,000 Latinos, many of them immigrants.

Juan Pablo Atencio, born in Argentina just like Pope Francis, is one of those immigrants. A sacristan at the cathedral, he was assisting Cruz on the altar when the bishop was attacked. After Cruz was hit, Atencio dove on top of him, protecting him from further harm. 

"What I did was my first reaction. That was the best that I could do," said Atencio, 23. "Working here is the best thing that ever happened to me. I never thought that I would have a chance to be at such a beautiful place. So many people love Bishop Cruz and what he does here. I wouldn't let anybody hurt him."

Atencio, who came to America when he was six years old, knows how important his community is in both a secular and a spiritual sense. 

"We need immigrants because they are the people who are going to build the walls of places like this in Newark, in New Jersey, and the whole United States," Atencio said, a nod to the immigrants who helped to build the cathedral. "It feels great to have such warm hearts around me here. It feels like home." 

Lent began last week for Catholics on Ash Wednesday, the start of a 40-day period before Easter marked by moderation and self-denial, a season of sacrifice. 

Cruz says his annual Mass for Clemente in reverence of his sacrifice. Clemente is lovingly remembered by Latinos in Newark, especially those from his native Puerto Rico, for his tragic death in a plane crash en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972. For the community, Clemente is a hero. A martyr. A saint. A servant of God. 

After mass, Cruz put his arm around Atencio and spoke about the embodiment of service and sacrifice here and now. 

"Homilies are often forgotten, but we have to have a good example," Cruz said.  "This is the man who when everyone ran came to be with me. He risked his life to save me. These are the people I love."

Some of the immigrants that Cruz sees in the pews every Sunday are undocumented. Immigration is one of the most divisive issues in American life. Some claim that the policies of President Trump are driven more by hatred of foreigners that love for immigrants' role in advancing the American dream. 

Cruz looked again with love at Atencio, then looked beyond the walls of the cathedral. His words were inflected with his native Spanish as he expressed the substance of things hoped for regarding the future of a divided society. 

"Remember: the two of us, we're foreigners - I'm Cuban, he's Argentinian - and we're grateful to be in America," Cruz said, smiling. "And what's good for me has to be good for others. You understand? Tú entiendes?"

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