Pioneering Guatemalan pediatrician, Opus Dei supernumerary declared venerable

(OSV News) -- Ernesto Cofiño, a Guatemalan pediatrician and Opus Dei supernumerary known for his tireless fundraising and attention to the poorest of patients, has been declared venerable by the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. The Dec. 14 decision means Cofiño is a candidate for sainthood whose heroic virtue has been recognized by the pope.

"Ernesto responded to God's grace and his vocation by living the Christian virtues in his family, in his profession as a doctor, and in generous service to those most in need: the sick, the poor, orphans," said Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, prelate of Opus Dei.

"Ernesto knew how to be a loving husband and dedicated father. He aimed to be a good doctor, a great professional, knowing that work was his way of serving others and changing the piece of the world God had entrusted to him," said Opus Dei Father Santiago Callejo, postulator of the cause, according to Opus Dei.

"(He) devoted himself to serving others with all his heart. He also cared about fostering his own life as a Christian, and he encouraged those around him to grow in their spiritual lives," he said.

Cofiño was born in 1899 to an affluent Guatemalan family. He traveled to Paris to study medicine at the Sorbonne at age 20, specializing in pediatrics.

But rather than pursuing a career in Europe, he returned to Guatemala City, where pediatrics was a nascent specialty.

Cofiño taught at the University of San Carlos, where he held the chair in pediatric medicine. He also worked with the needy, starting in a childcare center for women working in public markets.

He always maintained a private practice, which tended to children of the middle and upper classes, according to Thomas McDonough, author of the biography, "No Small Goals: The Life of Dr. Ernesto Cofiño."

"(But) he brought the same attention to (poor) children he would give in a hospital," McDonough told OSV News. "He had a concern for treating everyone," and, "brought his students to get their hands dirty working with poor people."

His attention for the needy came at a time when "no one from the upper class did anything for the lower classes," McDonough said.

Cofiño's concern was especially apparent in a tuberculosis retreat for poor children he tended to in the countryside near Guatemala City, including many from indigenous communities. He would spend weekends treating children there, along with his wife, Clemencia.

"He was deeply concerned about poverty … while being the pediatrician of the wealthy," John Coverdale, a historian of Opus Dei, told OSV News.

Both McDonough and Coverdale described Cofiño as dedicated to charity, faith and family. He was the father of five children and dedicated himself to them after Clemencia's death in 1963.

Cofiño led Caritas Guatemala for a few years, where he oversaw the distribution of food to poor neighborhoods.

Coverdale said Cofiño was not especially pious early in life, but this faith deepened after returning to Guatemala. He attended Mass daily, prayed the rosary and confessed frequently. Cofiño joined Opus Dei in 1956, becoming just the second person to do so in Guatemala, according to the experts.

As a supernumerary member of the movement, "he was very much a go-to person for the apostolic activities of Opus Dei," Coverdale said.

Supernumeraries of the Opus Dei prelature are, generally, married men and women who have secular careers, focus on "the sanctification of their family duties," and participate fully in Opus Dei apostolic activities given their availability, according to the Opus Dei webpages.

Cofiño worked on fundraising and oversaw the building of a student residence.

He also mentored many of the students and "worked hard to help poor kids," Coverdale said. "He was a man of deep social concern."

His concern extended to the lives of colleagues. Cofiño developed a reputation as solicitous and sincerely interested in others.

"One of the qualities that stands out was his ability to make friends," McDonough said. "Once you were his friend, you could go to him for anything," he continued. "His residents thought he was their best friend."

Despite his stature in Guatemala, he largely steered clear of politics, focusing more on medicine and charitable works.

"He was only interested in the children," McDonough said of the pediatrician. "He never wanted to get political because he wouldn't be able to serve everyone as a doctor. … He didn't want to be labeled as anything."

Cofiño's stature did prove influential on life matters, however. "He had such a great reputation already as a doctor … that when he started talking about life and life in the womb, people listened to him," McDonough said.

Cofiño survived cancer in 1981, but later succumbed to it in 1991 at age 92. His legacy left a lasting mark on both Opus Dei and Guatemala.

"He just had a heart that didn't stop. People recognized that," McDonough said. "Whether it was a friend in need or a child requiring care, he was always ready to sacrifice himself for others, even into his 80s."

- - - David Agren writes for OSV News from Buenos Aires.