Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, named early Wednesday as the bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh, comes to his new job with a wide range of pastoral and administrative experience and, for now, a goal of getting to know the area, its people and their spiritual needs.
“I’m here to serve and to love everybody,” Zarama said at a press conference at the office of the diocese Wednesday morning, and to help them “to understand we are a family.”
Zarama, who has served the Catholic Church in Atlanta since 1993, traveled to Raleigh on Tuesday to be in place for the Vatican’s announcement from Pope Francis and to meet area priests and to see some of the diocese.
He replaces Bishop Michael Burbidge, who left Raleigh in December to become the bishop in Arlington, Va.
Zarama, who was an auxiliary bishop, said he was sad to be leaving Atlanta, where he has felt welcomed.
He’s leaving an archdiocese that covers 69 counties with about 900,000 registered Catholics to join a diocese that includes 54 counties in Eastern North Carolina, where the church says there are 222,671 registered Catholics and an estimated 250,000 Hispanics who attend church but are not official members of the diocese registry.
Asked whether he was here to serve the diocese’s Hispanic population, Zarama said, “I come here to serve the people in Raleigh. It doesn’t matter what language they speak.”
He seemed to be a bit overwhelmed by his appointment. A small-framed man in wire-rimmed glasses with close-cropped hair and a gray mustache, he stood behind a podium in a meeting room at the diocese office and said all the cameras made him nervous.
“The Holy Father has chosen me to come here. I didn’t choose that. Why that happened, I have no idea,” he said.
But Zarama said he felt immediately welcomed here after a church leader prepared a meal for him.
“It is home,” he said.
“The Holy Father has chosen well even though his decision takes a deeply beloved brother and friend from our midst,” Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said in a statement.
A welcoming smile
Zarama, 58, was born in Pasto, Colombia, the oldest of six children, and emigrated to the United States in 1991. He was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Atlanta in November 1993. His first assignment there was as parochial vicar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Atlanta.
“He’s an exceptionally warm and pastoral person,” said Monsignor Henry Gracz of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a parish in the Atlanta Archdiocese. “He’s very easy to approach. One of the key messages he proclaims is the joy of God’s love. His smile just makes you feel so welcome when he greets you.”
Gracz said Zarama should have no problem overseeing a diocese as large as Raleigh’s.
“I think Pope Francis really invites us all to get our hands dirty with the people in the street, and Luis is not afraid of that,” Gracz said. “He should have no challenge he won’t be able to meet in (the Raleigh) Diocese. His sense of leadership is very inclusive so he will clearly be a pastor of both the Anglos and the Latinos.”
Some members of the Atlanta archdiocese expresses sadness over Zarama's departure on Twitter, but most wished him well on his next assignment.
“Oh how we will miss him in Atlanta! Raleigh is blessed to have Bishop Zarama,” Nancy Fadeley tweeted.
Fadeley, a member at St. John Neumann church in Lilburn, Ga., said she is most impressed by how well Zarama can relate to the young people of faith.
“I volunteer at our parish with our teens and have heard and seen how the bishop inspires, relates and loves the youth of our Church,” Fadeley said. “The first impression anyone sees when they meet Bishop Zarama – joy and love!”
Monsignor Michael Shugrue of the Raleigh Diocese said it was good to have a bishop with that pastoral experience.
Zarama’s appointment, Shugrue said, “means that we have a new shepherd for the diocese of Raleigh,” where some decisions have been on hold since the departure of Burbidge.
Zarama visited Raleigh in April, when he saw the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, scheduled to be dedicated on July 26. His installment will come five weeks after that dedication.
Zarama said he was impressed with the building, and he compared its construction to the furnishing of a home. A home is a place to welcome friends and family, furnished in a way that makes visitors feel comfortable and helps them get to know the people who live there, he said.
Churches, he said, are built “to raise our souls to praise God, and to try to understand a little bit …these mysteries that we celebrate.”
Nicknamed ‘Fat Potato’
Last July, Zarama led the Sunday Mass at the Steubenville Atlanta Youth Conference, one of several summer gatherings held for thousands of Catholic youth across the country. In his 20-minute homily, Zarama spoke gently to his audience and told them a little about his own youth.
“I hated school,” he confessed. “I was a very bad student,” and he was teased by some of his classmates, whose Spanish nickname for him was “Fat Potato.” He joked that many in the church think that bishops come from heaven.
“No,” he said. “We come from hell.”
Because of the teasing, Zarama said, “I started to believe that I was fat,” and ugly, and unwanted. He said he found one place at school where did not feel unwelcome: chapel. He would go there and find a quiet corner where he could pray and where he thought no one but God would see him. Those few moments would give him the strength to get through another class, another day, he said.
As he did during the press conference Wednesday, Zarama told the youth that he had limitations, including his fluency with the English language. He didn’t begin to learn English until he came to the United States, he said. He practiced saying “good morning” on the plane from Colombia.
Zarama told his young audience that no one is perfect and that all must learn to see the beauty in themselves, including the faults and limitations. Recognizing those limitations, he said, allows people to ask for help and healing, from Jesus and from others God puts in their lives.
“Never be ashamed of who you are,” Zarama told the youth. When others are unkind, “Laugh, because you have that beautiful gift of who you are.”
Education/career: Earned a degree in philosophy and theology from Marian University in Pasto, Colombia, and a degree in canon law from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. He taught philosophy and theology at the Carmelites School, the Learning School and the Colombia Military School for 11 years.
Joining the church: He was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Atlanta in November 1993. His first assignment was parochial vicar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Atlanta. He was the first Hispanic priest to be named pastor in the Archdiocese of Atlanta to St. Mark Catholic Church in Clarksville, Ga., and St. Helena Mission in Clayton, Ga. Became vicar general of the archdiocese in 2006, and Chaplain of His Holiness with the title of monsignor by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. In 2008, he was appointed judicial vicar for the archdiocese’s Metropolitan Tribunal. In 2009, he was named titular bishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and was ordained to the Episcopacy.