By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 1, 2009
The ordination of Bishop Luis Zarama recognizes an important shift in the Catholic population nationally and celebrates the “great blessing” of Latino and Hispanic Catholics to the church—particularly those from the Colombian community as they and others watch a “capable” man learn more deeply “the joy of leadership.”
Bishop Felipe Estevéz, auxiliary bishop of Miami and a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, described the occasion as “happy and joyful.” Bishop Estevéz spoke in a telephone interview before the Sept. 29 Mass and also came to the ordination.
“I think it’s a sign of confidence in Archbishop (Wilton D.) Gregory and a recognition of the presence of the Hispanic/Latino community to choose his auxiliary from and for the (North Georgia) community,” he said. “It’s a great sign of confidence and affirmation.”
Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, also added, “This development represents a significant historical change and Rome’s recognition of the changing demographics here. The South has been the area of fastest growth of the Catholic Church nationally … and it’s undoubtedly a direct consequence of the large number of Hispanics in areas of the South, including Atlanta.”
Father Deck reflected further on the appointment.
“Another thing that is very encouraging is to see a priest from Colombia join the group of bishops. Priests from Colombia, particularly in Atlanta and many parts of the United States, have made great contributions to the church.”
The devotion, culture and reach of this segment of the Hispanic/Latino community warrant “a just pride” for Colombian natives living in the United States.
Bishop Estevéz added that “(Bishop Zarama) is coming as a product from the church in Colombia which is strong in its Catholicism.”
“He will bring into (his ministry in the United States) a vibrant expression of the great salvation story of the Catholic Church” as experienced for the first time from a Colombian bishop’s perspective.
The presence of a large Hispanic population brings with it new and interesting possibilities for the church in the South, Father Deck added.
“The church will be larger, will continue growing and have many youth—all very positive developments. It’s important to say this because … there is so much negative that is said on the subject of immigration. The Catholic Church, its bishops, insist that fundamentally the community of Hispanics in the United States is a great blessing. … Having an auxiliary bishop in Atlanta is a sign that provides more substance to that belief.”
A benefit for the national church in general is a profound “sense of sacredness” found within the Hispanic/Latino culture, Father Deck continued.
“What’s exciting are the changes that come, not only with the numbers (of people) but in the style of worship. Its youthfulness and vitality are part of their Catholic identity and expressed in devotions and rituals that go beyond the seven sacraments. They have a strong devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and certain distinctive (practices) that help strengthen their Catholic identity.”
Bishop Estevéz explained the “different integration of faith and culture” within the Hispanic/Latino community and how “culture causes faith; faith enhances culture.”
“With the Hispanic culture there is a familial sense; they enjoy being together as a people. Another component is popular piety, which is very rich in Latin America. They’re very festive, very joyful in their expression of faith. There are processions and lots of public display of their faith. These are features that are very rich and which Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have praised with exuberance.”
Whether it’s through bumper stickers of Our Lady of Guadalupe or by wearing a crucifix, many do not shy away from open displays of faith, the bishop said.
“The Latino/Hispanic community affirms the sacred and mystery in a direct way while living in a very secular society. They do so with greater easiness.”
Amid the gifts offered by the Hispanic/Latino community come challenges, particularly in impressing upon Hispanic/Latino youth the importance of schooling. The issue is now being addressed primarily through grassroots efforts in dioceses and parishes.
“There is a national movement in formation in different dioceses to promote education, higher education. It is very disturbing to see the dropout rate of elementary and high schools students,” the Miami auxiliary bishop said.
Young adults, in particular, are staging a renewal around the country, encouraging youth to seek higher education and to continue to “go in faith as group.”
These and other challenges for the Hispanic/Latino community await Bishop Zarama in his new role. It will be encompassed in his mission as a bishop, but it will not define his mission, which is to care for the whole flock.
“First of all, his apostolic ministry is to everybody,” Bishop Estevéz said. “Obviously, he has the knowledge of a language and culture, which are a particularly good resource for ministry to Latinos, but there is an order.”
The bishop recalled his own expansion in mindset going from serving as the priest of a parish community to becoming a bishop overseeing many parishes—to even understanding that as bishop, one is “ordained for the universal church.”
“As a pastor, one is able to concentrate on a tiny portion, but as bishop, it’s an entire territory. As bishop, I must think of the total church. For me, it’s been a way of more deeply understanding the ministry. … It’s growing into the all for the many.”
He noted gaining a greater appreciation for the richness of movements within the greater church and their potential to promote new evangelization efforts that offer “greater visions and greater resources to tap into.”
A bishop also benefits from experiencing the variety of parishes as he “exhorts” them in their faith.
“A bishop learns from parishes. The movement is reciprocal; it goes both ways. A bishop goes out into parishes, sees the particular charisms and gifts of the parish so that a bishop has a greater vision of the life of the church and the dynamism of the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Estevéz said.
He wished also to add for the fledgling bishop a reflection on growing into his new role, likening it even more closely to the “mystery of the cross” and how St. Paul grew in his ministry.
“The cross has greater dimension and we see in the first chapter of Corinthians (St. Paul’s) evangelization of Christ crucified. This goes right to the center of his message and in that dynamic of serving the community he comes to appreciate the suffering and offerings that are related to ministry.”
Whatever sacrifices are made and felt, Bishop Estevéz is quick to point out that joy comes from “pastoral care.”
“It fills you to the brim when you see growth.”
Special moments include “seeing the joy on a confirmand’s face.”
“Bishop Zarama will begin confirming first thing. As he anoints the teen or adult, he sees the faces, hears the prayers of those waiting for the Spirit; it’s awesome. A bishop is so close to the experience and sees the holy reception of what the believer receives. There is the joy also of ordinations and the joy of leadership.”
Bishop Estevéz is confident of the future success of the new bishop, who chose the priesthood as “a second career” when he was 35. “He brings a maturity and knowledge—a knowledge of lay families, of lay work.”
He also has distinguished himself in his roles as a pastor, judicial vicar and as a vicar general.
Father Deck had similar votes of confidence in Bishop Zarama, saying, “I am very happy for the bishop; it’s an exciting time to be serving the church as it undergoes developments like this, particularly as a bishop in a part of the country that is crucial. I’m happy for him—he’s a very capable man appointed to serve the archbishop there.”