Catholics in the Diocese of Raleigh gathered in their new cathedral Tuesday to install their new bishop, who gave them a new charge: Go and be the church that Jesus calls them to be.
Zarama was named the diocese’s sixth bishop in July. He succeeds Michael Burbidge, who left Raleigh in December after 10 years to lead the diocese in Arlington, Va.
Zarama is the first Latino bishop to serve the diocese, which covers 54 counties in Eastern North Carolina and has about a half-million Catholics, half of whom are Hispanic.
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Zarama told the congregation, and those who watched on the diocese’s livestream, that he had some trepidation when he got the phone call asking him to move to Raleigh from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, where he was a titular bishop and an auxiliary bishop.
The call came as he was getting ready for a Mass, he said, and when he saw the area code display on his phone, “I said, ‘Oh, God.’ ”
And he didn’t answer.
But the call came again, and again, and when he picked it up, he was told that Pope Francis wanted him to go to Raleigh.
“Can I pray about it?” he asked.
“No,” came the answer. He just needed to say yes.
Zarama, 58, was born in Pasto, Colombia, the oldest of six children. He attended Conciliar Seminary and Marian University in Pasto, earning a degree in canon law. He taught philosophy and theology at the Carmelites School, the Learning School and the Colombia Military School for 11 years.
Zarama emigrated to the United States in 1991 and was ordained as a priest in the Atlanta Archdiocese in 1993. Since then, he has served as a parochial vicar, a pastor and an administrator, all in the Atlanta area. He was ordained to the Episcopacy in 2009.
Clergy and laity from throughout the Raleigh Diocese attended the invitation-only service Tuesday afternoon, some in the hopes of getting to know their new bishop and some just to be at the historic event. Many held up cellphones to capture video or photos as dozens of priests from across the diocese came into the sanctuary.
On behalf of the pope, Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, presented the mandate that appointed Zarama the new bishop. Zarama took the document, held it above his head and walked around the church with it so all could see.
At times since his appointment, it seemed as though Zarama couldn’t believe he was being given such a responsibility, and he continued to appear humble Tuesday.
Zarama stood away from the pulpit; he said he wanted to be closer to people. He gave a brief homily based loosely on the life and death of John the Baptist. He then repeated the message in Spanish.
For parishioners such as Diana Ponce, who works at and attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Goldsboro, the sound of her bishop speaking Spanish was as sweet as the musical liturgy sung by the choir.
“It’s amazing,” said Ponce, who was born in the United States but grew up hearing Spanish in her home.
When Zarama has been asked about his connection to the diocese’s Hispanic population, he repeatedly has said he has come to Raleigh to serve all the people of the church.
Trudi Waters of Rocky Mount got a last-minute invitation to attend the Mass from a friend who had an extra ticket. Waters wanted to come because her father and his siblings lived in the Catholic orphanage that stood on the ground where the cathedral was built, and she had never been to the site.
She also wanted to hear Zarama speak.
“I like that he was so simple and so humble, she said.
At the end of the service, Zarama thanked his fellow clergymen who had traveled from Atlanta, acknowledged his mother, sister and brothers in attendance and choked up as he thought of his deceased father, who he said was watching from above.
He thanked those who filled the pews, calling them his brothers and sisters, and told them the diocese has work to do.
“All of us,” he said. “We can become missionaries and disciples” of Christ.