By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 1, 2009
As an immigrant from South America, Auxiliary Bishop Luis Zarama shares a native language and cultural heritage with others in the diverse and growing Hispanic Catholic population in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
And those common experiences make this native Colombian, who is now an American, the right man to be a spiritual leader and shepherd, according to members of the Latino community.
Bishop Zarama was ordained on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at the Cathedral of Christ the King in front of hundreds of Catholic clergymen, family members, civic dignitaries and representatives of the city’s religious communities, while hundreds more Catholics watched in overflow areas and on live telecasts.
The whole Lationo community adopted him as their own, not caring whether they are Mexicans or from Central America and he comes from Colombia, said Father Jaime Barona, pastor of St. Matthew Church, Winder. His elevation from priest to bishop raises the hopes of the Hispanic Catholic community, the pastor said.
“It means the Hispanic population is important. These people are real. These people have aspirations to be holy, to be part of the church. It acknowledges us as a real presence in the archdiocese,” said Father Barona, who is also from Colombia.
There are about 30 Hispanic bishops in the United States, but Bishop Zarama is the first from Colombia.
While he will serve all the Catholics in North Georgia, people may also look to him as a public figure for the Hispanic Catholic community and as a bridge between Spanish-speaking Catholics and others.
Cucho Garcia, a musician at St. Benedict Church, Duluth, met Bishop Zarama several years ago when the bishop was pastor of St. Mark Church and Garcia led retreats at the Clarksville parish. He thinks the bishop is able to cross cultural barriers comfortably.
“My first impression of him was great. I really liked him the first time I met him,” said Garcia, who plays the piano for close to 300 people at St. Benedict’s Spanish Mass.
“It is easy to be bilingual. It is hard to be bicultural. I think he’s become bicultural now,” said Garcia.
People in the Hispanic community have watched his success with pride, from being appointed the first Hispanic pastor in the archdiocese, to vicar general, then named a monsignor and now elevated by Pope Benedict XVI to the role of bishop, he said.
“Everyone was thrilled. It has been like a joyful thing for everyone in the parish,” he said.
“He is a very humble man. He is always willing to help. He is not talking to you from above. He is always talking to you from eye level,” said Garcia, a native of Puerto Rico.
Luis Guzman, the Hispanic ministry director and religious education coordinator at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta, said the ordination is causing a buzz no matter the person’s background.
“All the community, Hispanic and Anglo, are very excited,” said Guzman.
Guzman, who is retired from the telecommunications industry, said Bishop Zarama may help the Latino community be more outspoken about their faith.
Evangelization is necessary in the Hispanic community because while many Latinos are born into a Catholic faith community, there is little formation and education about living as a Catholic, he said.
A Hispanic bishop “will encourage people to spread our message of life as Hispanic Catholics,” Guzman said.
“He is not going to push us. He will support us and encourage us to do it,” he said.
When the future bishop celebrated Mass at St. Matthew’s in Winder, Father Barona always heard praise.
He connects with the Hispanic and the Anglo communities, said Father Barona.
“He is delightful. People love him,” said Father Barona. He joked that he feared folks at his parish would oust him and ask for Zarama.
“He is a kind, warm, loving person. He is gentle with people. I don’t think that anyone who knows him would say otherwise,” he said.
Bishop Zarama doesn’t make a show out of being a top administrator, he added.
Father Barona described how when he visited then Msgr. Zarama, the vicar general did not sit behind his imposing desk but sat face to face. Sitting behind the desk is for business, but visiting with people is pleasure, he recalled the monsignor telling him.
As it turns out, Father Barona was in a hotel on vacation in Cali, Colombia, when he saw a news announcement on Colombian TV about Bishop Zarama’s appointment.
“I said, hallelujah. That’s great,” he said.
“My advice to (Bishop Zarama), go to parishes, celebrate the Mass with the people, let them know you care about them, be a pastor, be with them,” said Father Barona.
The people have a “tremendous sense of pride and hope,” Father Barona said.