At the end of a weekday evening Mass at St. Anne Parish, the Rev. Larry Brito walked around to the two dozen people seated in pews and administered Holy Communion, placing wafers into some of their mouths.
Brito wore a mask and sanitized his hands, but he did not sanitize them after placing a wafer on each person's tongue, potentially increasing the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
In the process, he also was flouting the Archdiocese of Santa Fe's edict calling for priests to provide Communion wafers only in parishioners' hands as a safety measure.
But Brito, 56, insists he conducts the rite safely by going to parishioners, rather than having them come to him, because they aren't moving around the church and brushing past one another. He said he thinks it's sufficient to wear a mask and sanitize his hands once.
As for placing wafers on tongues, Brito called it "a theological discussion."
"It's really up to the individual to receive," Brito said. "I haven't seen any evidence that COVID is spreading through the churches."
Brito's candor on the pulpit and an unmistakable defiant streak have made him a polarizing presence to some in his midtown parish and beyond. Former parishioners complain the onetime Marine is offensive and even reckless, prompting them to leave St. Anne. But others see him as a bold maverick who sacrifices for his flock and adheres to a hard line in difficult, uncertain times.
In recent interviews, a few of his former parishioners said Brito discourages people from getting COVID-19 vaccines because they are remotely linked to stem cells that might have come from aborted fetuses. It's a charge the 21-year veteran of the priesthood denies. Such a stance runs counter to the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which encourage vaccination to help quell the deadly pandemic.
Critics also complain that during the 2020 election season, Brito made his support clear for former President Donald Trump — "the pro-life candidate" — without naming him. He expressed similar veiled support for Trump in 2016, drawing complaints from some and prompting the archdiocese to deem it questionable.
Brito recently stirred an uproar by posting a notice on church doors announcing confession was canceled because he had been exposed to the "China virus," a term considered racist and demeaning to Chinese people. Brito stood by the phrase initially but later apologized.
Former parishioner Barbara Vigil, 58, said that during a holiday church service Brito referred to the song lyric "we three kings of the Orient" and remarked they could no longer use the term “ ‘Oriental’ because that is prejudice."
Vigil said she thinks the comment came off as snide, speculating Brito was still stung over the "China virus" flap.
She said she left St. Anne, where she had been a lifelong member, due to what she felt was Brito's anti-vaccination stance.
Brito's concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines are related to a report published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that states stem cells from aborted fetuses likely were used in testing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. However, the bishops say in the document that the lives saved by taking the shots outweigh the "evil" of abortion being linked to the medication.
The report also says that while the AstraZeneca vaccine is more directly connected to embryonic cells, it should be accepted to curb the pandemic.
Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester said he believes people should get the vaccine.
"I can tell you right now, unequivocally, that not only is it morally acceptable to get the vaccine … but it is morally encouraged," Wester said in a phone interview. "The pope himself has been vaccinated."
If any priest publicly casts doubt on the vaccine, it is "morally irresponsible," Wester added, because impressionable people, in turn, might not get the vaccine and could contract the illness and die.
Wester also said there's also no leeway on the rules that bar priests from putting Communion wafers on people's tongues.
"We made the protocols and the protocols are to be followed," Wester said. "It has to do with the sanctity of human life."
Carlos Ortiz, a Santa Fe resident, said he complained to the archdiocese about Brito's hand-to-mouth delivery of Communion. Ortiz said he heard Brito say the archdiocese told him to stop but that he would keep doing it because it's the parishioners' choice.
"He [Brito] went on to say, ‘And if you should get the virus and die from it, you're dying in the service to God,’ ” Ortiz said, adding this statement was one of the reasons he left for another parish.
Brito said he doesn't recall making such a comment.
"Who knows? People make up things," he said.
Brito said he is fine with some people making the decision to leave his parish.
"My job as a priest isn't to make everybody happy," Brito said. "If everybody loves me, I'm probably not doing my job."
He said he read the bishops' statements supporting the vaccine during a homily and then told parishioners to consider its connection to aborted fetuses — and to not take the shots blindly.
"I just want them to look at it and get advice from the experts," Brito said. "And not just stand in line because they're telling you to stand in line."
By all accounts, Brito never outright endorsed Trump by name or political party at the pulpit during the 2020 election. He voiced support more obliquely, telling people to "vote for life" and to go with the anti-abortion candidate, according to parishioners interviewed by The New Mexican.
Wester said it's allowable for priests to advocate a position such as anti-abortion during a homily as long as they don't identify specific candidates.
Priests can express their personal political views in private because they are not representing the church, Wester said.
Ron Lucero, 67, said he attends services every day and has never heard Brito support or denounce specific candidates.
Lucero said the pastor applauded a document that Trump issued on the sanctity of human life.
"He was not supporting the candidate. He was supporting church teachings that was stated by a politician," Lucero said. "There's a big difference in my eyes."
In a break room at St. Anne after a recent service, Brito said he is registered to vote as an independent. But he said he thinks Trump was the nation's strongest anti-abortion president since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a woman's right to obtain an abortion in Roe v. Wade.
"I'm not a Trumper," Brito said. "Unfortunately, the major news doesn't ever cover anything positive about him. I'm not saying he did everything good, but be balanced."
Fostering the faithful
Brito, who grew up in Las Vegas, N.M., enlisted in the Marines when he was 17 and served eight years in the military. He spent the next several years attending college and working as a graphic designer, producing promotional materials for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
He entered the seminary when he was 30 and was ordained in 2000.
Brito said he wrestled for years with the idea of becoming a priest, going back and forth, and then made the leap when he realized it was a choice, not a mandate from God. In his career, he has served in a series of parishes, including in Taos, before moving to St. Anne about seven years ago.
Although controversial at times, Brito is beloved by many parishioners. More than a dozen who were interviewed praised him as a fierce champion of the church's principles.
"He's amazing and he speaks the truth," said Grace Romero, 76, echoing a common refrain. "One super important issue is right to life. He's keeping with the teachings of the church. These are not our laws. These are God's laws."
His allies extend beyond his parish. The Rev. Bill Sanchez, who heads St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cerrillos, sides with many of Brito's stances, including those on vaccines and offering Communion orally.
Brito's background in the Marines probably helped shape his forceful personality, Sanchez said, adding his friend's views on the vaccines aren't far different from many Catholics.
The pope decided his conscience allows him to take the vaccine, Sanchez said, but added: "Mine doesn't."
"Each person out there must make that same process of decision, and not follow people blindly," he said. "They have to take responsibility for their own lives."
Several of Brito's parishioners said they have no concerns about catching the virus through hand-to-mouth Communion.
"We have to trust in our Lord, our God," Dorothy Rivera, 65, said. "I worked at the hospital for 27 years, and we had HIV, AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis — and didn't have no gloves and no masks — and God protected me."
Longtime parishioner Orlinda Torres, 66, who plays guitar during services, said Brito tells people to do their own research on vaccines. She looked into them and learned they are connected to embryos. Still, she plans to be vaccinated with a message of protest to drug companies.
As for Communion, she said Brito is careful not to touch people's mouths when placing wafers.
"You can't deny someone Communion if they want to take it from the mouth," Torres said. "I don't think there's spread at all."
Torres said she drives from Bernalillo County to celebrate Mass at St. Anne because she likes that Brito isn't afraid to say what he feels is right.
Brito insists his views are in line with church doctrine and other clergy.
"I think I'm more vocal than most priests," Brito said.