RALEIGH In the news conference introducing him as the bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh, Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama joked that he speaks just one and a half languages.
“I come here to serve everybody – but when I speak Spanish, I feel better,” he joked.
Zarama will become the first Hispanic person and the first foreign-born bishop of the Raleigh diocese when he is installed in August. He was born in Pasto, Colombia, emigrated to the United States in 1991 and said he didn’t learn English until he was 30.
As bishop of the Raleigh diocese, Zarama will preside over about 200,000 Catholics in the eastern half of North Carolina, a growing number of whom are Hispanic.
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Zarama said he hopes to connect immigrant communities with the church and with other Catholics.
“We can approach them and serve them and help them to find that, at least in the church, they have a place where they can be and feel at home,” he said.
Members of heavily Catholic parishes in the Triangle reacted with excitement to the announcement.
Carlos Lima is the director of operations and finance at St. Thomas More in Chapel Hill, which has a one-third Hispanic parish. Lima, who is Venezuelan, said the appointment is a step in the right direction.
“I think that the fact that he is a native Spanish-speaker is going to have quite an impact among our Hispanic parishioners in the diocese,” he said. “They will feel like this is someone who can firsthand understand not just their language, but their culture and their approach to spirituality.”
Zarama’s appointment gives Hispanic members a sense of belonging, as well as a leader who understands the struggles of immigration, said Maty Ferrer, director of the Center for Hispanic Families in Raleigh, which is affiliated with the diocese’s Catholic Charities.
“The Hispanic population in the diocese is growing,” she said. “Having a leader who is Hispanic is going to bring more people to the faith and to get closer to the church.”
Sam Killenberg: 919-829-4802