Bishop Francisco Duque of Colombia, the seventh nominee to emerge for the post of presiding bishop, was surprised by the news … and pleased. “It is already progress to have my name among the nominees,” he said. “It is a plus … for Latin America to have one of its bishops considered for such a distinguished office.”
Duque, 55, comes from a Roman Catholic family. He lost his father when he was a child. His mother had a faith that he described as “very strong,” and she brought her 13 children up with solid Christian teaching. Some of his brothers attended Roman Catholic seminaries, though they did not enter the priesthood. Several of his sisters became Roman Catholic nuns.
Duque himself, an acolyte as a youth, became an attorney and taught law at two universities as he also explored the Episcopal Church. His desire to serve the church and what he described as a willingness to let God shape his life led him to consider ministry. Bishop David Reed, the first North American Episcopal priest to serve in Colombia, recalled meeting Duque at that point in his life. It was in the 1960s.
“I was bishop of Colombia when Francisco Duque was in high school,” said Reed, now retired and living in Louisville, Ky. “The first Sunday he went to an Episcopal service, he went to the English-language service even though he couldn’t speak English. We hadn’t developed a Spanish service yet. I remember Francisco as a very interested, alert, active guy in the youth group.”
Reed, who has returned to Colombia three times since he left 35 years ago, attended Duque’s consecration in 2001. Duque said being brought up within the missionary Diocese of Colombia, which visiting priests from Panama served before Reed arrived as a young priest in 1951, gave him a great awareness and appreciation for the Episcopal Church and the relationships and support that come from it.
“It is certain that the Diocese of Colombia and most of the overseas dioceses need that support because of the social and economic challenges facing our countries as we develop,” Duque said. “This is sometimes difficult for North Americans to understand, living as they do in a country of privilege where all their basic needs are met.”
Economic support isn’t everything, he said, noting the church in the United States does and should understand that mission also implies sharing one’s gifts, it means companionship, sharing each others joys and sorrows.”
Serving the marginalized
Duque said he strongly believes that one of the greatest challenges confronting the church today is to truly take on the struggle of those on the margins of society – “their problems, their difficulties, their anguish …
“The people of God need accompaniment, solidarity. They need the church to prophetically defend their rights in a way that is concrete. It is the mission of the church to announce the good news of Jesus and to denounce everything that subverts his dream of fraternity, solidarity and justice.”
Primary focuses for Duque have been missionary expansion and youth programs. He pointed to the remarkable growth of the church in Latin America, especially among the young.
“They are anxious to experience a Jesus who is closer, more human, more sensitive to the realities they face in their young lives,” he said. “This influx of young people, and others, demonstrates that, in actuality, it is not our edifices, not our material goods that attracts people to us, it is our effort to keep alive our evangelical zeal … our concern to show the human face of God.”
Members of the Diocese of Colombia praised the bishop for his focus on youth. “The Episcopal Church in Colombia has had spectacular growth and transformation due to his leadership,” said Catalina Cuellar, a laywoman in the Diocese of Colombia who serves as the Province 9 representative on the Board of Governors of Episcopal Life.
Former members have started to return to the church, he says. With programs attracting youth, Duque now counts 20,000 Episcopalians in 25 parishes in the diocese. Twenty-three male priests, one female priest and two female deacons serve those parishes and various missions scattered through six departments and 14 cities. (Statistics in the Episcopal Church Annual 2006 published by the Church Publishing Company report considerably lower figures.)
The Rev. Olga Bohorquez, dean of the cathedral in Bogota, said she believes that Bishop Duque can be a reconciler in the church. “He is creative at finding alternatives, solutions.” The bishop is most decisive, Bohoquez said, about social justice issues and about “motivating the church to share its time, talent and treasure.”
Bohorquez ticked off the bishop’s achievements as promoting peace and healing within the country, cleaning up the diocese’s finances, enabling the growth of spirituality, expanding peace within the church and maintaining excellent ecumenical relations and interfaith dialogue. His leadership style is collegial, she said.
Cuellar pointed to his commitment to dialogue. “He has been inviting people to attend workshops on human sexuality led by university professors in order to facilitate understanding,” she said. “Many people in the diocese would see him as a reconciler and think that he might be able to play a similar role in the national church.”
Bishop Duque voted against affirming the election of Gene Robinson in 2003. Several people, including a visitor to the Diocese of Colombia, the Rev. Yamily Bass-Choate, vicar of San Andreas Episcopal Church in Yonkers, N.Y., expressed concern about Duque’s scant knowledge of English and limited exposure to Anglo culture.
The bishop himself said he was concerned about his language skills but that he was clear about his priorities for the church: Enhanced communication within the church and outward to the world is of first importance.
Unity is vital if the church is to reach those who need to hear its message, he said. “The second priority is ministry with young people – they are our guarantee for the future.” Of equal importance, he said, is “prophetic action – the church must announce the reign of God and denounce all that would block it.”
Duque is married to Blanca Lucia Echeverry, an attorney. They have three daughters: Angelica Lucia, Maria Victoria and Elizabeth.