By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 7, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—As Bishop Luis R. Zarama begins leading the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., Hispanic clergy and other leaders of the Archdiocese of Atlanta praised his pastoral legacy as an authentic shepherd who shared God’s love with the people and built bridges of unity with the Latino community.
A native of Pasto, Colombia, Bishop Zarama was ordained for the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 1993 and served at several parishes, including as pastor of St. Mark Church in Clarkesville and administrator of St. Helena Mission in Clayton, becoming the first Hispanic to serve as a pastor.
He was named vicar general in 2006, judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal in 2008 and auxiliary bishop in 2009, bringing new energy, growth and inclusion to the 61 parish ministries serving Hispanics.
Bishop Zarama, 58, was installed on Aug. 29 as bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh, which has 222,671 registered Catholics, plus an estimated 250,000 unregistered Hispanic Catholics.
Jairo Martinez, director of the Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity in the Atlanta Archdiocese, began working in 2003 in what was then the Office of Hispanic Ministry. He has seen growth in their ministries under Bishop Zarama’s leadership.
The selection by the pope of an Hispanic priest as auxiliary bishop of Atlanta was a momentous event, Martinez said.
“It was a huge blessing to the community,” he said. “I think it was really good to connect the Hispanic community with the church.”
“I remember at the beginning the Hispanic community was not very well connected to the church; they felt like strangers. Having Bishop Zarama brought that kind of familiarity and culture. I realized when I saw everybody wanted to be close to the bishop,” reflected Martinez.
There are now about 15 Hispanic pastors in the archdiocese, he said.
“We’ll try to continue the legacy he left with us here. I think the Archdiocese of Atlanta, especially the Hispanic community, grew a lot because now we can see Hispanic leaders participating not only at parishes but also in the archdiocesan offices here.”
Martinez received steady support from Bishop Zarama as separate offices for black Catholic and Hispanic ministries were merged to form the new intercultural office. The bishop helped him to grow spiritually during the process and trust in God’s providence.
“One of the most important things I received from him was his example, how he tried to live and work, being a humble person, always open . . . always listening,” Martinez reflected. “He was really helpful at times to discern what is best for this office and the community. Sometimes you want to do something and he says, ‘Don’t worry. Take your time. Things will happen in God’s time.’”
Bishop’s work in vocations encouraging
Father Feiser Muñoz first met Bishop Zarama when he accompanied then-vocations director Father Luke Ballman to visit seminaries in his home country of Colombia.
“I received a lot of support from him because he knew what it means to come from a different country, to learn a language, learn the culture, to work with different people,” he said. “He interviewed me with Father Luke Ballman because he was the only one who spoke Spanish.”
He described Bishop Zarama as a compassionate, wise man in touch with emotions, who inspired him to minister authentically among the people as administrator of Christ the King Hispanic Mission on Buford Highway. He said that on visits there, Bishop Zarama would linger after Mass and visit with families.
“That was one of the main things I learned from him—be what you are, find where you are happy, do the best you can, and then God will take care of everything,” he said.
As a fellow Colombian, Father Muñoz is also inspired by Bishop Zarama’s selfless service to all God’s people, building bridges of unity. He will take this example with him as he begins serving as administrator of St. Clement Church, Calhoun, and as a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain.
“I’m proud not only to have a Colombian bishop but to have the opportunity to meet somebody like him,” he said. “He’s a gentleman, he’s respectful. He’s loving, caring for the people, and he never does things about himself or to show off in any way. He just does what an apostle does, what a disciple does, serving the people and being with the people, just being there, available for those who need him. As a Latino bishop, he’s a good example not only for Latino priests but for everybody in the diocese.”
As vicar general Bishop Zarama was also there from the beginning for Father Ignacio Morales—visiting him in seminary in his native Mexico and attending his first Mass after ordination at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Dallas. When he accepted his first pastorate at St. John Vianney Church in Lithia Springs, Bishop Zarama encouraged him.
“He was very aware of what was coming for me and was always asking me how I was doing. And I felt I was able to convey that in talking back to him. He always listens to us, (offers) a lot of support.”
Father Morales served on the committee for ongoing formation of priests where Bishop Zarama continually encouraged clergy of many nationalities to unite as one family.
“He was very focused on improving relationships within the presbyterate,” Father Morales said. “Whenever we had meetings, study days, days of reflection, pretty much he was there, pretty visible and very approachable.”
Tribunal staff appreciated his patience
At the Metropolitan Tribunal, notary Karren DeBow worked with him for eight years and also appreciated his humility, patience and respect for youth and women. His patience shone through as Bishop Zarama handled cheerfully those dispensation requests for permission to marry that landed on his desk at the last minute due to the tardiness of the priest, deacon or couple. Once DeBow even brought him paperwork to approve a marriage as the officiating priest vested for a marriage.
“We’ve had a few of those over the years. But you know what, he never snapped back or took it out on me or the priest because I brought it late to him. He just took it with a smile and got it done,” she said.
DeBow calculated that Bishop Zarama oversaw some 6,300 dispensations and 5,400 annulments. Since Pope Francis called for revisions to simplify the annulment process, more people have applied, some with unrealistic expectations about how quickly their cases could be resolved. Bishop Zarama helped staff stay focused on their higher goal, she said.
“He made some changes for us so we could get things done in a more efficient manner. We still, as the Catholic Church, obviously have a respect for marriage. That comes first. He didn’t wipe that away, but we approach them with compassion and love. That was his reminder, his message.”
He always gave staff the opportunity to bring up any issues at the end of each meeting, she added. Beyond Tribunal business, he provided spiritual guidance on her challenges in serving as her parish confirmation coordinator.
“This humility and his listening are his strongest qualities I see in him, (that) and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead him,” she said. “For him to have ‘God is love’ as his theme is fitting. It fits him and I’ve never seen anything other than that with him. It’s always been quite a pleasure to work with him and for him with a higher goal of serving the people of God here in Atlanta.”
Father Morales traveled to Raleigh to attend the bishop’s Mass of installation, always grateful for Bishop Zarama’s presence at his own first Mass.
“We’re so proud of him,” he said. “It’s sad to see him leave, but all of us understand. He was a peacemaker. His personality, he’s so gentle, his relationship with God, his spirituality, makes him very approachable and that is going to be good for the people.”
“He belongs to the church and he has responsibility for taking care of the church as a whole and the Diocese of Raleigh,” Father Morales said.