The news of the tragic accident that took the life of NBA basketball great and devout Catholic Kobe Bryant sent shock waves around the world on Jan. 26, 2020.
Kobe’s life touched many, as witnessed by the public outpouring of love, tributes, and reflections seen in Los Angeles and around the world. He was known for obsessively striving for greatness on the court through hard work and dedication. But beyond basketball, he offered this advice.
“Greatness is to inspire the people next to you, so that they can be great in whatever they want to do,” Kobe was quoted as saying in 2018. “Rest at the end, not in the middle … smile and keep going.”
The words call to mind another Catholic man of great impact in California: Bishop Alfonso Gallegos, who in 1991 also died in a tragic accident and who would have turned 89 years old today.
He is remembered as a man who touched many lives through his faith, hope, and love. He saw the good in others, not focusing on their flaws or speaking ill of them, but rather inspiring them to be great without judging them.
His humility and compassion, in other words, were his greatness.
On one occasion, Bishop Gallegos was kindly asked to contact a priest to go and see a lady who was dying of cancer, because her friends and family could not find a priest to visit her. He made time in his busy schedule as bishop to visit the lady himself and preside over a Mass in her home. Those in attendance were touched by his presence and described it as a very spiritual, mystical experience, feeling Christ there in that moment.
Bishop Gallegos requested that he be informed once she had died, as she had only days to live. He was outside the city of Sacramento when he heard the news. A few days later, as the procession for her funeral Mass began, there in the back of the church, to the surprise of many, was Bishop Gallegos. He had just arrived in Sacramento that morning and went directly from the airport to her funeral. For him, being present in this time of sorrow was very important, as it was for the grieving family.
On another occasion, a healthy 2-year-old girl in Sacramento was suddenly hospitalized with a critical illness. Doctors told her parents that she had only hours to live. Her father left the hospital in a desperate search for a priest, when by divine providence he encountered Bishop Gallegos in a hospital hallway.
Bishop Gallegos went to the child’s hospital bed. When her parents told him that she was going to die, he put his hands on her, closed his eyes in prayer, and then moments later, calmly assured them, “Do not worry, your child will not die.”
The parents begged him to baptize her before she died. But once again he said, “Do not worry, she is not going to die. Once she recovers, I want you to take her to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to thank the Blessed Mother, because she is here with us, interceding for your child.”
The girl did not die, to the great joy of her parents, who believe this to have been a true miracle, received from God through the presence of Bishop Gallegos.
As a priest at Cristo Rey Church in Los Angeles, Father Gallegos attended to the needs of two very poor ladies of the parish, visiting them weekly and providing them with food and material needs. The ladies commented to others who also visited them, “Father Gallegos was just here.” He never mentioned the good he did for them.
The day came when he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Sacramento on Aug. 24, 1981. The two ladies cried in shock and joy when they received an invitation to his consecration as bishop, which they attended. There is testimony that he had them sit at the head table during the reception. They returned full of joy from this celebration, knowing he did not forget them even in their poor state.
Bishop Gallegos, who was declared venerable in 2016 by Pope Francis, was a great defender of life, proven by his love for all: the unborn, the youth, the elderly, the sick, the migrants and the poor, without concern for race or creed. He often prayed for an end to abortion at rallies in front of clinics.
At one rally, a group of pro-choice demostrators had gathered across the street from the defenders of life. At one point, Bishop Gallegos was moved by the Spirit to go pray with those who supported abortion. As he approached them, he said, “God loves you.”
They yelled at him and spit at him. He proceeded to kneel in front of them with his rosary in hand and prayed peacefully; little by little that hostile crowd began to calm down. When he got up to return to the pro-life crowd, he said, “God bless you all.” Someone in the crowd was moved by his prophetic witness and responded, “God bless you, Father.”
Bishop Gallegos later shared this experience, describing it as a living hell, seeing so much hate manifested by those people toward him.
Such is the lasting legacy that Bishop Gallegos left in the hearts of so many Californians, one that still today moves ordinary people to do good. His life is a fitting example of the mission summed up so eloquently by Kobe Bryant: “May we inspire others to be great in what they do.”
With those words in mind, may we follow the example of Jesus Christ and all those holy men and women who have gone before us.