By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 7, 2017
ATLANTA—Bishop Luis R. Zarama spoke from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Christ the King as he said farewell to the community of priests and faithful in the Archdiocese of Atlanta before leaving to become the bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I’m leaving Atlanta but not my heart. I am leaving Atlanta and you are coming with me in my heart because who am I today is because of your love, your support, your kindness, your prayers. Saying thank you is not good enough. But in Raleigh, you have your place, your house to come and visit,” he said, as the evening prayer service on Aug. 16 concluded.
With his Latino roots, the bishop isn’t afraid to show his emotions with tears, share his vulnerabilities in homilies, and offer hugs. He also brings leadership skills, is organized and collaborative, said people who know him.
Father Henry Atem, pastor of St. George Church, Newnan, and chairman of the Atlanta Council of Priests, watched and learned from him over the years.
“I sat in many meetings with him and I learned to be patient with people and circumstances. He always had a calm demeanor, even if he disagreed with the issues that were discussed. He was also always very kind to everyone,” he said.
An estimated 40 priests, along with people from parishes where he served as pastor traveled to Raleigh for the installation Mass.
It began on the cathedral’s cold floor
Atlanta’s cathedral holds a profound place in the bishop’s life. At the Peachtree Road church, he was ordained a priest in 1993 and then ordained again in 2009 as a bishop.
At the farewell vespers service, he recalled his two ordinations there.
“Every time I look at that floor, I feel the cold when you lay there. But how the Lord takes our nothingness, or unworthiness, and from there, he gave me, and gave us, what we are. There we were nothing, praying for grace, and the Lord gave us more than we can expect,” he said, in unscripted remarks.
His talk mixed lighthearted moments and sadness. He told the story of how he moved from serving as a pastor “up there in the mountains” in 2006 to serve in a key position in the archdiocese. He was pastor of Clarkesville’s St. Mark Church and its Clayton mission, St. Helena.
After he was asked to serve as one of the vicars general of the archdiocese, he suggested instead to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory they spend time together during an upcoming five-day vocations trip to Colombia, Bishop Zarama’s homeland, to know each other better. At the trip’s end, the archbishop could rescind the offer or ask his question again.
“I prayed the whole time in Colombia to make a big mistake,” said Bishop Zarama.
On the way to Cartagena, Colombia, to the tomb of St. Peter Claver, the archbishop made his decision. Father Zarama moved from being a pastor to serving as a vicar general.
“The Lord always challenges us because he knows we have something better to give. We don’t understand. And I can take the reading of today, and say, how would we be able to comprehend what is going on for me today, the breadth, the length, the height, the depth, of what is going on in my life, I don’t have a clue. I don’t need to have knowledge. I need to trust in God’s love,” said the bishop.
He spoke of the mentorship alongside the archbishop. On his 11 years working in the Chancery as vicar general and then an auxiliary bishop of the Atlanta Archdiocese, he said, “What an honor for me, learning from you, your company, how you challenged me many times, and how patient you were with me. You give me the best of you and I hope I can use that, and I will try to use the best of my abilities serving in my new responsibility in Raleigh. Thank you for your trust you have in me.”
Joy, mixed with loss
For Archbishop Gregory’s part, he thanked his colleague for his work, his good nature and asked God’s blessing on his future.
“Our reasons for gratitude are comingled with an experience of loss,” he said.
“Luis we gather with you … to praise God this evening for the gift you are and have been for us as friend and brother,” he said. “You will recall, Luis, on the day of your ordination, in my homily, I referred to the fact that you were the first bishop to be ordained in this cathedral. Other priests from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, who have been chosen for the office of bishop, were ordained in the cathedrals and the places where they were sent. You were sent first of all to us. And how we praise and thank God for that gift.”
“We thank him for your wisdom, and your kindness. We thank him for your sense of humor. Don’t lose that in Raleigh. It may be one of the most important things that will sustain your ministry. But bring with you, also, the prayers, the thoughts, the affection, the fraternity, the love, that this local church has for you.”
“Very genuine in his care for the people”
One of the priests who traveled to North Carolina for the installation was Conventual Franciscan Father John Koziol.
“He was a great number-two guy. He’ll be a great bishop in his own right,” said Father Koziol, who has known Bishop Zarama for more than 20 years. Father Koziol is pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro.
“I feel very confident he’ll do very well,” the pastor said.
Father Koziol said in the bishop’s homily he doesn’t shy away from sharing his vulnerabilities, like admitting to students he did poorly in school. His nature puts people at ease, so there is “no sense of superiority,” he said.
“The word I always think of when I think of Bishop Luis is humility. He is friendly, accessible.”
People in Raleigh heard his remarks challenging Catholics to live as missionary disciples, which mirrors Pope Francis’ vision for the church, its priests and leaders, said Father Koziol.
“He knows what it’s like to struggle with a new culture and a new language,” he said. And it endeared him to the clergy, he said.
When Bishop Luis visited Raleigh during Holy Week in the spring of 2017 months before his appointment, Father Koziol said his fellow Franciscan priests were “blown away by his genuineness.” Bishop Zarama celebrated the Chrism Mass there because the diocese at the time was without a bishop.
Father Atem said Bishop Zarama encounters people with “his compassionate heart.”
“He always seems very genuine in his care for the people around him. He truly embodies his coat of arms: God is love.”
For Father Atem, a highlight of the Raleigh celebration was watching Bishop Zarama receive his crosier and be seated at the bishop’s chair.
He said, “There was a sense of accomplishment and joy that just filled the room. It was almost like a rite of passage.”