For nearly four minutes, the faithful shared heartfelt applause. They stood and waved. And, from their church pews, they witnessed history. Their eyes were on Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, 58, who walked through much of the newly-dedicated Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral holding an apostolic letter signed by Pope Francis.
The message, conveyed by the traditions and words of the installation Mass, was clear. Bishop Zarama was the shepherd. And those present: his new flock.
That apostolic letter, or decree, officially appointed him as the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh. Moments before Bishop Zarama shared the letter with the people, it was read by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
“Indeed, it is our earnest desire … to provide appropriately for the Catholic Church of Raleigh,” Archbishop Pierre said. He added that Bishop Zarama came to the diocese with venerable qualities, pastoral experience and skill in canon law.
During his remarks, Archbishop Pierre noted that Raleigh is known as the city of oaks.
“An oak tree is a symbol of strength and endurance. And I have no doubt that Bishop Zarama’s episcopal ministry will contribute to the strength and endurance of this beloved family of faith,” he said.
Following the apostolic letter, Bishop Zarama took his seat in the cathedra, or bishop’s chair. Archbishop Pierre handed Raleigh’s new bishop his crosier, or staff, as a symbol of his new role. Archbishop Wilton Gregory, with whom Bishop Zarama served for more than 12 years in Atlanta, stood nearby and shook the hand of his brother bishop.
As part of the installation, Bishop Zarama received greetings from 15 people in the community, including representatives from Catholic campus ministry, the diaconate, Catholic schools, seminary and Catholic Charities. The Lutheran bishop of the North Carolina Synod, Bishop Timothy Smith, and Rabbi Lucy Dinner, of Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, were also among those who greeted the bishop.
To deliver the homily, Bishop Zarama stood at the top of the sanctuary steps of the new cathedral, which was dedicated July 26.
“I like the freedom to be close … closer to you. I like to be able to see you and to talk to you,” he said of his decision to speak from the stairs rather than the ambo.
Bishop Zarama, who served in the Archdiocese of Atlanta since his ordination to the priesthood in 1993, spoke about transition.
“I was doing fine,” he said about his life in Atlanta. “I was good. It was the life that the Lord was blessing me [with] for many years. And I was doing fine… but the Lord was looking to give me something more.”
He shared a story about how, when he flew on an airplane, he would often open the in-flight magazine and look at the map of destinations. Because he lived in Georgia, Delta was a frequent airline choice because of its Atlanta headquarters and hub.
“I would pray, whenever I was flying,” he smiled. “This is not a pious way to pray … but I would say, ‘Lord, please, if you send me to a new place, will it be to a Delta destination?’”
Those gathered laughed with the new bishop. And the faithful smiled as he shared how God works in mysterious ways.
“The great challenge that all of us, we have in front, it is: Don’t be afraid to let the light of the love of Jesus shine. It’s not too much about words, it’s most about love. Actions of love. The Lord challenges us, all of us, to go and to live our faith,” he said. “[Jesus] is the one who likes to come to us … through the sacraments. To come to us and to heal our own hearts first. We allow Jesus to come to us and make us instruments in which we will only become the voice that Jesus wants us to use to let the people know that love is possible. Redemption is possible. Merciful is possible.”
The Mass reflected the diversity of the diocese, which is home to an estimated 500,000 Catholics of numerous backgrounds. In addition to a reading in Spanish, the prayers of the faithful were spoken in eight different languages, including Korean, Vietnamese and French.
Many members of Bishop Zarama’s family, including his mother Maria Teresa and three of his five siblings, were present for the installation. His mother, sister Rosa Matilde Zarama and brothers Juan Pablo and Bernardo Zarama presented the gifts during Mass.
When asked what it was like to bring the gifts to the altar and see his brother at the end of the aisle, Bernardo said it was a blessing.
“To see the love that he has for the people that he left in Atlanta and the love that he is already showing here … he opens his heart to everybody,” he said. “Just to see him standing there in front was out of this world.”
The bishop took special care to thank his friends and family for their presence and to especially thank his mother. He also spoke about his father, Rafael, who died in 2012.
“For my dad, who has the best place to be able to enjoy this celebration,” he said. “I feel his company and his love.”
In his closing remarks, Bishop Zarama thanked those who were present, including Bishop Michael Burbidge, Raleigh’s former bishop who was appointed bishop of Arlington, Virginia, in 2016. Bishop Zarama mentioned many groups, including the choir, the installation committee, his former parishioners and priests from both Raleigh and Atlanta.
“May God bless you and thank you for your friendship,” he said to everyone. “Thanks is not enough.”
The people respond to bishop, installation
That overwhelming gratitude was not lost on those who attended the Mass.
“He was very warm and he thanked every single person,” Paulette Tune, a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel in Cary, said of the bishop’s words at the Mass. “I felt that it was a very holy place in [the cathedral] today … I love the way they incorporated the different peoples of Raleigh … and I like that he embraces the people.”
Many present responded to the bishop’s quick wit. “I thought it was awesome … the bishop’s sense of humor. Really, it captured a lot of people’s attention,” Pierre La Pierre, a cathedral parishioner, said.
For some, such as Luke Farley, the installation Mass was an opportunity to see the direct connection between the Church in Rome and the local Church.
“I was really impressed just to see the connection to Rome and the universality of the Church. Hearing from the apostolic nuncio, reading the letter appointing the bishop … those things were really neat and not the kind of thing you see typically in a Mass,” Mr. Farley, a cathedral parishioner, said. “It was very clear that he is here to serve. And that was a beautiful message.”
It’s a familiar message to those from Atlanta who have known Bishop Zarama for years.
“[The installation] was beautiful,” Deacon Dennis Dorner, of Atlanta, said. “It was very genuine. It was him. That’s how he is. Very approachable. His consistent message is that we need to reach out and love one another.”
Like Deacon Dorner, Atlanta’s Father Feiser Muñoz has been impacted by the presence of Bishop Zarama, who helped him discern a vocation to the priesthood.
“He was there for me, and for seminarians from different countries and from this country,” Father Muñoz said. “I feel proud about him. I was excited to be here with him, especially when you have been walking with somebody during the process to become a pastor as I am now. We are going to miss him.”
During his time in Atlanta, Bishop Zarama earned a reputation as a great listener who showed respect to all. Amy Daniels, who worked at St. Michael the Archangel in Cary from 2004 – 2010, spent the last six and half years in Atlanta working alongside the bishop.
“He’s collaborative,” she said. “He is a man with great respect for everyone … and it’s authentic for him. In my experience, that’s who he is. It’s not contrived.”
As director of Atlanta’s Office of Formation and Discipleship, Mrs. Daniels said the bishop gave careful consideration to the ideas she and her team proposed. From creating a magazine for teens to overhauling a formation program for Spanish-speaking parish leaders, she said that the bishop’s support led the projects to fruition.
“I have been doing this for well over 25 years, and you can’t do that if you don’t have the support. You can’t try new things,” she said. “And it’s been so successful.”
The archdiocese, she said, recently won an award from the National Conference of Catechetical Leaders for that program.
“That happened because of Bishop Zarama’s openness and because he was willing to allow us to put the energy behind the initiative. That’s how he is,” Mrs. Daniels said. “He has a heart for the people and that, I think, is most exciting.”
-Student journalists Connor Leff and Nicholas Schnittker contributed to this report