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“A faithful friend and servant leader.”  
  Edgard R. Beltrán (1930-2022)  
Mary G. Fox  

A prophet who challenged the Church to stand with the poor and the immigrant. A key organizer for the National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros. A pastoral theologian. An evangelizer. A friend and collaborator to many. A husband and father who called his wife Ignacia and children Edgard Miguel and Astrid “his three loves.”

These descriptors only hint at the influence and life of Edgard R. Beltrán in the Americas and Europe. In 2019, when the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States presented Beltrán with the Virgilio Elizondo Award, presenter Jacqueline Hidalgo said, “Beltrán’s work and vision have transformed how we think, and should think, about US Catholicism.”

With the death of Beltrán on May 8, 2022, friends, family, and colleagues are recalling his contributions to the formation of Hispanic ministry in the United States, his work spreading the Gospel, and the love and care he showed in his relationships. Their stories tell of a man infused with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council who even at the age of ninety-one continued a ministry of accompaniment.

Beltrán, a native of Bogota, Colombia, formed lay leaders throughout the Americas during his work as executive secretary of the Pastoral Department for the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), and in his ministry with the US bishops’ Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, the Cultural Institute for Leadership in the Midwest, and the Centro Hispano Sembrador in the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois.

“Edgard was passionate about the spirit and vision of the Second Vatican Council and how it was received in Latin America, particularly through the gathering of Latin American bishops at Medellín (1968),” noted Hosffman Ospino, PhD, associate professor of Hispanic Ministry at Boston College. “He traveled throughout the continent, training bishops, clergy, vowed religious, and lay leaders on how to think and act pastorally, in light of the Council, while being grounded in the everyday realities shaping people’s lives. He brought that energy to the work of Hispanic ministry in the United States, which yielded many fruits in his work at the Conference of Catholic Bishops and eventually his work in the Diocese of Rockford.”

Ospino also told of a friendship that enriched his theological vision. “Every time we spoke, it was an opportunity to learn from his vast pastoral experience,” he said, adding, “Edgard loved the Hispanic community. He did not do so in the abstract. He loved the flesh-and-blood people, especially Hispanic men and women most in need, those who are marginalized in Church and society; he had a special love and care for immigrants.”

For both the vision he presented and his relationships, he will be missed, Ospino said. “The Church in the United States just lost a giant in the world of pastoral theological thought, especially on matters related to Hispanic ministry. I lost a friend and a mentor.”

Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, attributes his path in ministry to the workshops Beltrán led. “Edgard Beltrán was an important teacher for me and my generation of the Second Vatican Council’s project of renewal and reform,” said the former director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Edgard traveled throughout the United States and gave lively, well-attended, informative workshops in which a whole generation of US Latino Catholic leaders learned more about the see-judge-act method for pastoral planning (the pastoral circle), the option for the poor, liberation theology, basic ecclesial communities, collaborative ministry called pastoral de conjunto, and many other groundbreaking ideas. We were sold on this vision, and many made a lifetime commitment to pursue it. I certainly did!”

As Beltrán formed bishops and lay people in the vision of the Second Vatican Council, he spoke from his experience—the experience of his relationships with leaders at the Council while he studied in Europe, that of having participated in the Second General Conference of the Latin American Bishops in Medellín in 1968, and the experience of teaching catechists and others in Latin America, including Archishop Oscar Romero, who were martyred.

Thomas Florek, SJ, recalled workshops at which Beltrán spread across the floor photos of young priests and nuns who had been killed while linking their faith to justice. “He knew these folks because he gave courses to them,” said Florek, who had worked with Beltrán while with the Federation of Pastoral Institutes.

Beltrán led people to appreciate the gift of differences, Florek said “As a prophet, he made visible the gift of the immigrant community, who brought with them their faith, their family, and their hope for the future.” Florek pointed out that Beltrán saw such appreciation as in service to the Gospel. “Edgard Beltrán would say it’s about Jesus Christ in our world today.”

While Beltrán was still the executive secretary for the Pastoral Department for CELAM, the director of the Spanish-speaking apostolate of the Archdiocese of New York brought together leaders from his archdiocese and the New England region to develop a pastoral plan with Edgard. During this meeting, explained Timothy Matovina, chair of the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Edgard “proposed that Hispanic Catholic leaders organize a national encounter to enhance pastoral planning in their apostolic endeavors. His suggestion won unanimous support and was a catalyst for the influential National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros.”

Not long after the first Encuentro (1972), Beltrán worked at the US bishops’ Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, conducting workshops to nurture basic ecclesial communities and foster faith formation among Hispanic Catholics. He helped develop national and regional offices for Hispanic pastoral formation, continued involvement with the Encuentros in 1977 and 1985, and followed up on the Encuentro process for the next decades through the fifth Encuentro in 2018. “He remained in communication with many of the Latino leaders, encouraged us, and goaded us to keep up the vision until his recent and unexpected death,” said Deck.

Such nurturing endeared Beltrán to Matovina and others. “Edgard is beloved for his leadership and vision, but above all for his love and dedication to the many communities and friends he accompanied,” said Matovina.

Beltrán was “a connector, a builder of community,” said daughter Astrid, who noted that her father was such a communicator that his formation classes included the uneducated. “Men and women who did not know how to read and write would go to his workshops.” No matter a person’s background, she said, he wanted them to be empowered. “He touched everyone he came into contact with,” she noted.

Those workshops, which included ones on family life, connected to his family. “He always mentioned his three loves in anything he did,” Astrid said, referencing the term that her father used for his wife, daughter, and son.

His mission, Astrid said, was her father’s hobby, but also, she said, “he did the work for the ones who had been left behind—the impoverished.”

Even at age ninety-one, he continued that mission. Soon before he died, one of his articles was published in an international periodical, he was planning another article, and he was proposing a conference to Astrid for her work in accompanying college students.

His focus on the family of God will stay in the memory of those who knew him, said pastoral minister Feliciano Tapia, who worked on the pastoral team of the Cultural Institute of Leadership with Beltrán.

“Edgard Beltrán will always be remembered as a faithful friend and passionate servant leader in God’s kingdom where everyone lives and shares, enriching one another with their own identity and dignity, as shown in the vision of Isaiah (11:6), wolf and lamb in harmony and communion.”

Mary G. Fox
is the Editor of Pastoral Liturgy®. Pastoral Liturgy® is published by Liturgy Training Publications.
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