Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama reflects on one year in the Diocese of Raleigh

It’s been a year since Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh. He arrived in North Carolina from Georgia, where he served for more than 24 years as a newly ordained priest, pastor and, later, as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

Bishop Luis Rafael sat down with NC Catholics last month to reflect on his first year.

NC Catholics: When you think about the past year, has there been anyone who helped you transition into your new role?

Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama: To single out one or two people would be unfair. [In general] it’s in how they help me to feel at home. Being new and having support … it was a beautiful blessing for me. The people have been there for me without really knowing me. One time I was sick and someone came with soup for me. I was able to relax and be well.

NCC: Did you receive any advice in the last 12 months that served you well? 

BLZ: Archbishop [Wilton] Gregory [of Atlanta] said to me, “You are ready and you can do it.” Instead of saying, “I’m sorry that you’re leaving us” or “We will miss you” he said, “You are ready and you can do it.”

NCC: Since you arrived in Raleigh, has there been anything funny or embarrassing that happened? You know, the learning curve.

BLZ: One thing is measuring the time to be from one place to another place. One time it was for confirmation. I was planning to be ahead of time. And because I was lost … I was almost a minute before Mass [when I arrived.] Another time, at another celebration on Sunday, the GPS didn’t find the address and I was calling the priest, who was giving directions. The only way for me to be able to get there was putting in the name of the Mormon church across the street. I was like 20 minutes late for Mass and that was awful.

NCC: In what ways have people shown you kindness?

BLZ: There is kindness everywhere. Greeting people after Mass, how they approach me and welcome me to the diocese and say, “I’m so happy that you are here.” Many times [people have spoken in Spanish.] They say to me, “The only thing I know is ‘Hola’ and ‘Buenos dias.’ And that’s it.” I say to them: “You’re doing a good job!”

NCC: Would you say you have changed in the last year?

BLZ: I have become older. (He laughs.) I think the change … is being responsible for a diocese. I am the one who needs to make the decisions. It’s not anymore the archbishop. In Atlanta it was easy to give the case to the archbishop, and he was the one who makes the decision. That doesn’t happen anymore. I am the one who need to say the last word and it’s not easy. I was spoiled in that way for seven years in Atlanta. And life here is different in that sense. It gives me a different way to see life. A different way to approach situations. And having the responsibilities, it doesn’t  matter what, always there’s a way to approach a situation with kindness and compassion and find a way to help.Sitting in Atlanta, I gave an opinion. Sitting here now, I have to make decisions.

NCC: When were you most inspired during this last year, and why?

BLZ: I think the beauty of the diocese is to see this huge contrast between the city and the countryside. I like to drive in the countryside to see the huge tractors working in the field and sometimes I say, “I would like to drive one of them.” And how they take care of the soil and the crops, it’s like a teaching moment for me about how hard you need to work to have something. It’s not like I wish and then I have it. It’s a whole process. And for me, driving around, to see the machines and people working … it’s a teaching moment. And with myself I think how humble do I need to be to work in my own “field” in my own heart?

NCC: What has challenged you the most?

BLZ: The size of the diocese. From Raleigh you cannot be to the farthest point in two hours, but four hours. It’s a challenge, but it’s good. As of June, I have visited a little more than half of the parishes.

NCC: When you’re in the car driving from place to place, what do you do?

BLZ: If I have phone calls to do, I will make some phone calls … work or family. And listen to music … classic Swiss music that I can listen to through my cellular phone. I pray the rosary [along with] a CD.

NCC: Anything you’d like for people to know about where the diocese is now?

BLZ: One thing that is very important is how we work with the New Evangelization. I think that needs to become a priority. How will we be able to reach people and keep the people with us? I think as a pastor of formation of souls, not of classes, is the way we need to approach formation. And formation means the whole person, the human being. It’s not to remember things … memorize facts. It’s helping them to have an experience of faith. To focus on a relationship with Jesus.

NCC: When your family members and friends visit, where do you like to take them?

BLZ: It depends on the person and what they are interested in. We drive in the countryside. And I like for them to enjoy the place where I am living because it’s so quiet. Sometimes it’s not too much about making big plans, it’s how people can be together and have time to talk and enjoy the company.

NCC: Is there anything else you frequently reflect on about your first year?

BLZ: I am still … every time I go into the cathedral I cannot believe that I am there. I’m still looking at the cathedral and saying, “Really?” and it’s not my cathedral, it’s our cathedral. And it’s so beautiful. And it’s moving to see on Sundays that the church is full.