Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Family Celebrates New Bishop’s Accomplishment

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 1, 2009

When University of Florida freshman Annie Zarama considers the wrong path or drifts off her track to eternity, she sometimes thinks of her in-house clergy connection, Uncle Luis Zarama.

“I always know I can turn to him for advice or help if I get confused or need advice. If I think of him or ask him, I know I’ll be brought back on track and do the right thing,” said the pre-med student who plays flute at Mass and teaches catechism to fourth- and fifth-graders. “If I want to make sure I’m the best person I can be, I look to his example to follow because I know he’s the best person he can be and I respect his way of life.”

The 18-year-old said her uncle is “a great person to become a bishop.”

“No matter who you are, you can go up to him and feel like you’re welcome and you’re equal. He accepts everyone. It doesn’t matter what gender, race or class. He treats everyone the same whether you’re a child, adult or senior.”

She, her parents, Bernardo and Kristin Zarama, and her younger sister, Katie, were among the family delegation that trekked up to Georgia from Florida to attend Bishop Zarama’s ordination Sept. 29. He is the second auxiliary bishop of Atlanta and the first Colombian native to become a Catholic bishop in the United States.

The oldest of six children, Bishop Zarama is from the southwest Colombian city of Pasto and is the first bishop to come from the Diocese of Pasto, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. The family will attend a Mass in Pasto in January celebrated by Bishop Zarama and the bishop who baptized him.

Three of his brothers live in Colombia while the youngest sibling, Bernardo, their only sister, Rosa, and his parents, Maria Teresa and Rafael, live in Orlando, Fla. To escape escalating violence, the Zaramas sold their business farming wheat, coffee and potatoes and moved with Bernardo to the United States in 1983.

Growing up in Colombia, Bishop Zarama, 50, attended Jesuit schools and the Seminary of Pasto and received his licentiate in philosophy and theology from the Universidad Mariana in Pasto while also teaching philosophy and religion in different high schools. Later he received his licentiate in canon law at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, where he met an Atlanta priest who connected him with the archdiocesan vocations office.

In 1991 he came to the United States and was ordained in 1993, with his first priestly assignment at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta. He was pastor at St. Mark Church, Clarkesville, where he oversaw a new building construction and was administrator of St. Helena Mission in Clayton, from 1996-2006. He’s also served as defender of the bond for the Court of Appeals and as an assistant vocations director, as well as judicial vicar.

He broke the news of his appointment at once to his family in Colombia and Florida in a conference call.

“Well, I have something to tell you,” Mrs. Zarama recalls her son saying on the phone. “He couldn’t talk. We said, ‘What is going on?’ Finally he said, ‘I have been named auxiliary bishop.’ . . . Then it was our turn to be speechless. After a little while, everybody broke loose. Everybody was talking, laughing and crying,”

Mrs. Zarama said that ever since then she’s been overwhelmed with calls from well-wishers in Colombia. “He’s always such a happy person. Right now I think he’s even happier than before,” she said.

The Zaramas said that their bilingual son embraces whatever ministry he’s appointed to, whether serving the undocumented, greeting parishioners and hugging children after Mass or leading the archdiocese.

“Even though his duties have gotten heavier, his personality hasn’t changed. He has to be the same Luis as he always was. He is happy wherever God leads him,” said Mrs. Zarama. “He’s always had love for the church, love for the people, submission to God and his boss, the archbishop, whom he really trusts. That is why people love him so much too. The ties he made in Clarkesville are still strong.”

With maternal grandparents who are from Switzerland and paternal ancestors from Spain, he has ministered to both Anglos and Hispanics, added his mother. “He accepts everybody, any race, any color. Maybe that (background) helps. He’s open to everybody.”

It was with bittersweet joy that then Father Zarama accepted Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory’s appointment of him as a vicar general in 2006 and left behind his Hispanic and Anglo flocks and a more rural lifestyle in the Appalachian foothills at St. Mark’s.

“It has been 10 extraordinary years in my life as a priest that has taught me through my people of the parish the greatest lesson of love. And it is where I learned more profoundly the real meaning of priesthood,” he said upon his appointment as vicar general.

His brother Bernardo, 42, suspected that his older brother might become a bishop after he became vicar general but was “shocked” that it happened so quickly. He’s a lot harder to reach these days.

“He’s super busy all the time. I never call before 9 p.m. because I know he’ll never be home,” Bernardo Zarama said. “He’s a very caring person, very generous. He has always been a kind of serious personality. I think that’s the best way to describe him. He’s focused in his work. … When he sets his mind he likes to reach what his goal is.”

Bernardo appreciates that his priest brother has always stayed involved in his family life, including as Annie’s godfather. And he zings them all at rummy, which the Zaramas often played growing up.

“I don’t know if he cheats—I don’t think he cheats because he’s a priest—when he plays he always wins. As a kid our family together, we all played cards. He always won the cards—that game anyway.”

The Colombian priest, who enjoys jogging and swimming, has also loved the outdoors since boyhood where he hiked volcanoes and played on the family farm, converting wheelbarrows into carnival floats and scaring his little brothers playing hide and seek in the dark. Not liking to study too hard nor being very religious, he led his brothers in mischief as a youth and wanted to skip college after high school to become a farmer, his father recalled with a chuckle. But he did pretend to celebrate Mass as a boy, Mr. Zarama added.

It was in college that his parents saw his sense of his vocation grow. Mrs. Zarama actually felt sad in first learning that he wanted to be a priest and sacrifice the chance for marriage and children.

“Now I’m overwhelmed. He is the son that has been surrounded by the most families anyone can have—all the love,” she said. “We feel very humbled because it’s just God’s will that he was chosen.”

Longtime friend Fila Martinez met him when they both attended Universidad Javeriana nearly 20 years ago, where Luis Zarama was focused on priesthood. He encouraged Martinez also to explore his interest in holy orders.

“As long as I’ve known him he’s had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with his life,” said Martinez, who attended the ordination. “I felt like he had many different choices. He could do many different things.”

Although Martinez shifted gears after attending seminary for two years in Miami, they remained friends. He’s watched him struggle to learn English, American culture and his place as a priest. He recalled that Father Zarama was very surprised to become vicar general and surmised that he would have been very happy to remain at St. Mark’s. But through it all he’s been “someone who very much lives what he believes,” said Martinez, now a Spanish professor at the University of the South.

As a professor, he appreciates Bishop Zarama’s openness to continually learn throughout life, his desire to know his parishioners individually and his strong sense of purpose with faith.

“It’s that desire to learn, that commitment to the community, that strong faith, that’s what made him successful teaching philosophy and theology back in Colombia and as a pastor in North Georgia and I think he brings that” as auxiliary bishop.

“I’m just kind of getting used to the idea that he’s going to be coming into all this responsibility. He’s very humble, very dedicated, hard-working. He has a great sense of humor,” he said. “It’s reassuring that he continues to be the same type of humble person, but at the same time he’s able to rise to the occasion and fulfill great responsibilities.”