By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 15, 2011
The bishop was the guest speaker Aug. 13 for the Magnificat ministry that brings women from across the archdiocese together for a morning of inspiration, music and reflection.
This was the 78th gathering for Atlanta’s Joyful Visitation chapter of Magnificat. Founded 30 years ago in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Magnificat ministry seeks to help Catholic women open more to the Holy Spirit through a deeper commitment of their lives to Jesus as Lord; and to impart the Holy Spirit to one another by their love, service and sharing the good news of salvation. The gathering takes place in the setting of a breakfast where women can spend a morning together and hear a speaker’s faith story.
This was the first time the Atlanta chapter, which is nearly 20 years old, met at Holy Cross. It is part of an effort to reach more women in the archdiocese, said Beth Gowasack, coordinator of the Joyful Visitation chapter.
Facing the full room of women, Bishop Zarama confessed he was worried what to say.
“I was praying and asking God, ‘What could I say to these women?’ I couldn’t find any answers from upstairs,” he said, eliciting laughter from the group.
But his story quickly captured his audience. Ordained to the priesthood in 1993, Bishop Zarama served 10 years as the pastor of both St. Mark Church in Clarkesville and St. Helena Church in Clayton, traveling the country mountain roads between the churches to say Mass. He then was asked to be a vicar general of the Atlanta Archdiocese by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as auxiliary bishop of Atlanta to assist Archbishop Gregory in any way he is needed to shepherd the Church throughout the archdiocese.
His auspicious rise in the archdiocese was not something he anticipated, and he often struggled with the challenges internally.
When he was ordained as a priest in Atlanta, Bishop Zarama said his ability to speak English was a “disaster,” and his self-esteem was weak.
The second assignment for the Colombian native (who became a U.S. citizen July 4, 2000) was as pastor to St. Helena and St. Mark churches.
“I arrived in Pampers,” he joked, alluding to his inexperience.
“I kept praying to the Blessed Sacrament, praying to learn English. When I learned, I said, ‘Father, you have given me the gift of tongues, I’m speaking in English,’” he recalled.
But, he said, “Jesus was laughing. He said, ‘No, I didn’t give you the gift of tongues—I gave the gift of understanding you to your parish.”’
“Jesus does find the ways to make us humble,” he said with a smile. “St. Helena’s is my first love—I grew up with that parish,” he told the gathering. “They taught me to love.”
Although he knew few people personally in those early years as a priest, he kept those who wanted to know him better at a distance, he said. It took awhile for him to understand how important his parishioners were to his own spiritual health, the bishop said.
“He said, ‘What do you think, you’re going to get a sign from God? This is your sign—God is speaking to you through your people. Why is it that when God is speaking to you through us, you don’t listen? He’s speaking to us, and we’re telling you how much we love you.”’
The message stunned the bishop, and he took it to heart. His lack of self-esteem as a priest made it all the more powerful.
“When God offers the medicine of healing, we often don’t take it. We prefer the ‘miracle.’ I was looking for saints—but they were right there in front of me. I thought I was handicapped because of my language; but I realized I could not be afraid of my limitations. I needed to enjoy what I am,” he said.
That “medicine of healing” was something he had sought for his entire life, even as he entered the priesthood, he said. The oldest of six children, he struggled as a student and had a rocky relationship with his father.
“I had a master’s degree in ninth grade,” he said. “I mastered it because I had to take it twice.”
He found that he could not gain approval from his dad no matter what he did. “My father called me a donkey. … That stays with you forever; the past wounds keep on hurting.”
When he became a priest he hoped to impress his father. But the praise he expected didn’t arrive. “I didn’t have the self-esteem; I couldn’t change my dad’s attitude because I was a priest.”
He felt empty. “I was a priest without heart,” he said of those early days.
Bishop Zarama said he went to his own spiritual director to seek some guidance.
“I said, ‘I don’t understand why my dad is so rough with me,’” he told the man. “I was expecting that because I was a priest, (my spiritual director) would side with me. Instead, he looked at me and said, ‘That is God’s way to teach you humility.’ He told me that only with humility will you be able to understand the experience of being loving.”
He began to understand that he needed to change his own heart toward his father.
“When we pray to God, we always pray with conditions. We ask God to change the other one. ‘Change them first,’ we say. But you can’t expect God to answer in our way—he knows how to love us in His way. You need to remove the conditions.”
He said he realized that he had to let go of his need for his father to change his attitude toward him.
“I needed to change; I needed the freedom for me to accept him as he was. We need to first open our hearts to the medicine for that person to allow it to work.”
The process of healing takes time, he said, and isn’t always easy.
When he called his family recently, his father was full of praise for him and pride in his role as an Atlanta bishop. He got his mother on the phone right after speaking to his dad.
“I said, ‘What’s going on with Papa?’” He couldn’t believe that he was receiving praise after all this time.
In his early 80s, his father had mellowed, his mother told him.
The medicine of God’s healing had moved through his father. He was starting to enjoy his life—and enjoy his son.
“At the end of his life he had accepted me. God is good,” Bishop Zarama said.
The bishop reflected on his own journey of healing.
“We have to see how God is speaking to us and how we are open to his healing,” he said. “Sometimes receiving the medicine hurts in the moment; when bad things happen, we think that God is hurting us, but that’s not true. We need the medicine to help us experience the resurrection on earth. We need to listen to how God is speaking to us; we need to be open to healing.”
He told the group, “God has been so patient with me; everything is a lesson; we need to learn. We have to accept the challenge to be healed, accept with a humble heart. It was a painful process, but I am happy to be what I am today.”
Olga Myers, who founded the Joyful Visitation chapter, was in attendance and rejoiced at the gathering of women.
“There is such a need for this ministry for women of faith today. It is a light in the world of darkness,” she said.
The next Magnificat meal will be held Saturday, Nov. 19, at Holy Cross Church in Atlanta, and the speaker will be Kari Beckman of Canton.
Those who would like to be notified of upcoming Magnificat breakfasts, which are hosted quarterly by the Joyful Visitation chapter in Atlanta, are asked to send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.