By Christopher White
Just a week before Pope Francis begins his Sept. 6-11 visit to Colombia, the diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, will get a foretaste of the experience, because their new bishop is also a Colombian native.
Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, currently an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Ga., was installed as bishop of Raleigh on Aug. 29.
Bishop Zarama is an adult immigrant to the United States, who likes to joke that he speaks “one and a half languages,” a reference to English being his second language – and by his own account, still a work in progress.
Born in Pasto, Colombia, on Nov. 28, 1958, he is the oldest of six children. His mother stayed at home, while his father was a local businessman. He described a household where the Catholic faith was central to everything they did.
Not unlike Pope Francis, who has frequently recounted the influence of the Bergoglio family’s priest on his vocation, Bishop Zarama spoke of the many friends of his parents who were priests.
“They always came to our home, visited us, and had dinner with us. From a very early age, I knew priests, and especially one of them was very close to us, and that was the beginning of thinking that maybe I could become a priest,” he said.
Bishop Zarama studied theology and philosophy and worked as a teacher for the first decade of his professional life. “It took me a long time before I decided on the priesthood and said yes to the Lord,” he said.
He entered the seminary at age 27, and it was there he was presented an opportunity to move to the U.S. Although Bishop Zarama’s parents had been living in Orlando, Fla., since 1983, he had never considered the possibility of relocating.
“It was nice to come and visit my parents and return to Colombia,” he said. “But when I was studying canon law in Bogotá, the secretary of the faculty had a friend who was hosting a priest from Atlanta who was looking for vocations. That was the beginning of me knowing Atlanta and them knowing me.”
Bishop Zarama moved to Atlanta in November, 1991, and was ordained a priest of the archdiocese in 1993, where he discovered a very different Church than the one of his native Colombia.
“One of the big differences is that in Colombia, you have plenty of devotions and processions. You express your faith in different ways. Here you don’t have many of these different things,” Bishop Zarama said.
“In Colombia, during Holy Week, for example, you can feel and smell everything. Here, if you are not attending Church, you never know it’s Holy Week.”
While Bishop Zarama misses the popular piety that defines Latin American Catholicism, there are aspects of the Catholic Church in the United States that he sees as an upgrade.
“In the United States, the Church is more organized and more open to the lay people to be a part of the parish,” he explained. “In Colombia – at the time when I left, at least – the priests and the nuns were the ones running the parish. We would show up for Mass, and that’s it.
“Another big difference is how diverse the Church is in the United States. In Colombia, you only have people from Colombia, here you have people from different countries that make up the life of the parishes, and that’s a big difference,” he said.
He will encounter that diversity first-hand in Raleigh, where Hispanics make up half of the 500,000 Catholics in the diocese, and where Catholicism is growing at one of the fastest rates in this country.
“The beautiful challenge is that the diocese is growing, and how we respond to that growth, serve the people, and meet their needs will be the biggest challenge I have there.”
Lay involvement in parish life is one of the reasons Bishop Zarama believes the Church is growing in the south.
“Our parishes are open, and we let the people feel a part of the family,” he said. “We let the people serve one another through different ministries. When you feel welcome somewhere, you stay.”
Bishop Zarama acknowledged that such growth presents the added challenge of recruiting priests to carry out sacramental ministry. “In Raleigh, we have, I think, 27 seminarians right now. We are doing okay, but we need to work harder because the needs are great,” he said.
A Divided Colombia
Bishop Zarama is so focused on his new job that he will forgo returning to Colombia for the visit of Pope Francis, which comes at a delicate time for the nation. “The country is completely divided. There are those who agree with the peace process, and those who completely disagree with it.”
In August of 2016, the Colombia government entered into a peace agreement with the country’s biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in hopes of ending a 50-year civil war that killed over 220,000 people and uprooted eight million residents. The controversial agreement failed an October 2016 ratification vote by Colombian citizens.
“Some people, the ones who agree, are expecting the pope to come and help them, and the other side are thinking that the President and others are using the pope,” said Bishop Zarama.
“The challenge for the pope will be to put together a message that will be able to reach both sides of the people, and make a difference. It’s a pastoral trip, but being able to reach everyone in Colombia will be a big challenge.”
While Bishop Zarama grew up during the country’s civil war, he was spared from any firsthand experience of it.
“I do have a good friend who was kidnapped for a year by the guerillas, and listening to him and his story about being there is awful,” he recalled. “It’s difficult, but we need to forgive, and that is the challenge.”
Yet Bishop Zarama is confident that the pope’s trip will have a lasting influence on his native country – just as he believes he is having throughout the world.
“It doesn’t matter which religion or which country people are from, they respect this pope as a leader, and that is something we need to feel good about,” he said. “We should be proud of being Catholic and having the pope that we have – how he’s able to reach people, and how his words are so clear and so simple. That is a beautiful thing.”
Bishop Zarama, like the rest of the world, was surprised at the election of a pope from South America.
“It was a surprise to see him,” he said, “but I think he is doing a great and beautiful job, showing the world the true meaning of mercy and love.”
Twenty-eight years after leaving Colombia, Bishop Zarama is reflecting back with gratitude on the warm welcome he’s received from the U.S. Church and the country as a whole – and he’s looking toward extending that same openness to others in his new role.
“We need to ask ourselves how can we help the people who are here – with papers or without papers – to feel that when they are coming, they are welcome.
“In every family, each child has its own needs. And we have in our Church these individuals with a very specific need so we have to help them and let them know they are welcome.”
As Bishop Zarama is installed as the new bishop of Raleigh, his 80-year-old mother and several of his siblings will be on hand to join him for the occasion.
At age 58, he’s aware of the significant challenges ahead but his good cheer and energy serve as a driving force that allows him to believe that he and the Church are up for it.
“We can never lose hope,” he concluded.