A priest is what he is because of Christ

Meet Auxiliary Bishop-elect Jorge Rodriguez: His life and his vocation

At the end of August, Father Jorge Rodríguez was named the auxiliary bishop of Denver. He will be ordained a bishop on Nov. 4 in Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Rodríguez was born in 1955 in Merida, Mexico, and is the fifth of six children. He grew up in a Catholic home: “We went to Mass on Sundays, but I don’t remember being very involved in parish life. But definitely the name of God was respected in my house,” the bishop-designate told El Pueblo Católico.

When he was 7 years old, young Jorge went to 7 a.m. Mass every day. “I went to church on my own — it was just five blocks from my house. I helped at Mass and then went back home, had breakfast, and then went to school.”

He recalled also how his life developed in Merida. “It had a small-town feel. It was a very safe and tranquil city. We had a great family atmosphere — Mexican style — and when there was a celebration, the whole world was there.”

He recalled how his parents always wanted their children to study in Catholic schools. And how he began to feel an attraction for the priestly vocation thanks to the testimony of a few religious: “I remember one priest, Father Manuel Vargas Gongora, who had a very poor, but a very active parish, on the outskirts [of the city]. I always admired him because he worked extremely hard in an environment that was so poor. I once saw how they were building a new church and how they had to put on the roof. Father Vargas took a place along with the others, who were carrying bags of cement on their shoulders and emptying them on the roof. His example helped me a lot.”

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Though he left Mexico at a very young age, Bishop-elect Rodriguez remembers his homeland fondly and tries to visit once or twice a year. (Photo provided)

Additionally, Bishop-designate Rodríguez notes how he was influenced by a woman religious of the Community of the Guadalupan Sisters, Sister Consuelo Ojeda. “I did her the favor of giving her a lift, because she didn’t drive and I already had a car,” he recalled. “She asked me to take her to pick up a basket of fruit or produce that someone was going to give them,” and during the trip, Jorge told her about his grappling with the question of his vocation and the priestly life. She gave him a piece of advice, “Don’t talk about this with anyone besides God and your spiritual director. Don’t mention it to people who can dissuade you.”

Journey to the priesthood

After finishing high school, Jorge traveled to Spain to study Classical Humanities in preparation for the priesthood. During those years, he says, he dedicated himself to “prayer, silence and recollection,” something which “helped me a lot in my spiritual life.”

Later on, he returned to his native country to spend time doing missionary work in the Prelature of Chetumal, in the south of Mexico.

After that, he went to Rome where he studied at the Institute of Higher Studies. “While I was there, I was very struck by the universality of the Church, which is clearly perceived in these great celebrations [of Rome.] To see people from all over the world there praying in the same Mass, but in different languages.”

Rodríguez was ordained a priest in 1987 in Rome.

Getting to know him

Among the books that have marked him, he includes the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which is about the religious persecution in Mexico; and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which narrates the history of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan in the 17th century.

He expresses a preference for historical movies such as Ghandi, Ben Hur (though he hasn’t seen the new one yet) and Schindler’s List.

In his free time, he says he likes to sit down to conversations with other priests of the archdiocese. “The last Sunday of the month,” he explains, “we get together at someone’s house. We eat, we talk, we enjoy the time. This is my relaxation.”

What he enjoys most about living in Colorado, he says, is “the marvelous nature and such good people, who are so friendly and welcoming — which I’ve found both in the American community and the Hispanic one.”

He says he likes the snow, but not driving in it. “That does make me nervous!”

What he misses most about Mexico is his family, the bishop-designate explains: “Since I’ve been far away, I haven’t always been able to enjoy family time. I wasn’t at my father’s death (in 1982), nor was I able to be at his burial.”

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Father Jorge Rodriguez with his mother, Nery Novello. (Photo provided)

His mother, Nery Novello, is 97. He didn’t see her for many years, but now he’s able to visit her once or twice a year. Due to her advanced age, Nery forgets things easily and doesn’t remember much. Yet, the future bishop said, she sent him a voice message on WhatsApp when she heard of his appointment as bishop. “She told me, ‘You have to be very faithful to God. May God bless you’” — simple words, “but it made me happy that at her age she had a moment in which she was aware that the Lord had given me this grace.”

His roots

Father Jorge has great admiration for the piety of the Mexican people, noting “how they celebrate their faith, how they pray. It is a faith that’s very alive, very rooted in tradition, because Mexico has a very Catholic soul. They have a faith of great value, of great love for the Virgin, for the Eucharist, a lot of respect for the Holy Father and for priests, and they are very generous.”

He adds that he wishes the “faith of the most simple would be better formed — not only in knowledge about our Catholic faith or its principles, but also in a more moral sense.”

Because of this, he wants Hispanic immigrants to intensify their studies of the Bible. “This would give them a very good basis,” Bishop-designate Rodríguez suggests, and he recommends that when immigrants arrive to the United States, “they find a [faith] community and get involved with it, because sometimes we come very disconnected from our roots and it becomes very easy to lose our faith. They shouldn’t be satisfied with just going to Mass, but should integrate themselves into the parish community.”

The bishop-designate considers himself very Marian but admits that his love for the Mother of God is a “devotion that has taken effort.”

When he was a young man, he recounted, he didn’t have much devotion for Mary: “I had the temptation of asking myself why we couldn’t pray just to Jesus,” but as a priest, he took a course in mariology at the Pontifical Academy of Mary in Rome. “I discovered the greatness and the marvels of Mary of Nazareth who, independently of the folklore in the various types of devotions, deserves all of our respect and love.”

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Young Jorge Rodriguez greeting Pope John Paul II in Rome. (Photo provided)

He describes his great admiration for St. John Paul II, who visited Mexico five times. As a seminarian in Rome, young Rodríguez had the opportunity to serve at one of the Pope’s Masses. As a priest, he concelebrated Mass with him two different times during the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I could see up close how he prayed and I have his fervor fresh in my memory,” Rodriguez said.

“After Mass, [John Paul II] would linger praying and giving thanks,” the future bishop recalled. “He would linger there by himself. He took his time and then would greet us personally.”

He confessed that this habit of the Pope made him think, “The Roman Pontiff, with everything that he has to do — and we priests tend to say, ‘Oh, I’m so busy’ — has time to pray at length before and after Mass.”

For the future bishop, his vocation to the priesthood is about “being able to serve the people of God, since if it wasn’t for them, my call would be meaningless.” He revealed that he often prays over the question, “If I don’t do it, who will,” in reference to celebrating the Eucharist or forgiving sins through the Sacrament of Confession.

When a young person confides in him about vocational questioning, Father Jorge offers him this advice: “Give God the opportunity to speak,” and “don’t discard the possibility before giving it a try.”

In the same vein, he says that every priest should have “a very personal and intimate relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ,” and if this is lacking, “everything becomes like a type of career in which I represent and do things, but I am not what I am.”

COMING UP: Should the Church talk about money? If we follow Christ’s teaching, yes.

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In Luke Chapter 3, three different groups asked John the Baptist what they should do to bear the fruit of repentance. John gives three answers: 1) Everyone should share clothes and food with the poor; 2) Tax collectors shouldn’t pocket extra money; and 3) Soldiers should be content with their wages and not extort money. Each answer John gives is related to money and possessions, but no one asked him about that! They only ask how to demonstrate the fruit of spiritual transformation. They don’t grasp John the Baptist’s perspective, that he could not talk about spirituality without talking about how to handle money and possessions.

Jesus puts some harsh words in God’s mouth in the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In Luke 12:20, we hear: “But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Alternatively, Jesus provides some great promises on both sides of that parable. In Luke 11:41: “…give alms and behold, everything will be clean for you.” And in Luke 12:33: “…give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven.”

When my wife Cathy and I were experiencing our conversion to the Lord in the early 1990s, we decided we were going to try to live out our Catholic faith to the full: in our attending Mass every Sunday, in our family and in our checkbook.

So, despite four young kids and no way of knowing if we could afford to send them to Catholic school or college, we started tithing. One thing it dramatically did was contribute to our growth in faith and trust in God. We truly believed in God’s promise that He never will be outdone in generosity. And now, 25 years later, we can only rejoice that we still are doing fine despite paying for Catholic schools, colleges and three daughters’ weddings! So what, that we are driving two cars that have 365,000 miles between them!

When we created our will back then, we decided to leave 10% of our assets to the Church. After I became President of The Catholic Foundation in 2012, we became aware of the concept to “treat the Church like one of your children.” We thought that made a lot of sense, so we changed our will to do just that … such that our four children and The Catholic Foundation will each receive 20% of our estate.

Today, we are not sure how our kids will be able to do what we did; with Denver’s crazy housing market, how will they be able to afford Catholic school for their kids, future colleges and, someday, weddings? It looks daunting for them. Shouldn’t we leave them 100% instead of just 80%? For us, it was an easy decision—better to give them a portion with God’s blessing than to think they’d be better off with it all. Besides, they are helping themselves have the best chance possible.

How? By doing their own tithing! I remember years ago, when the business manager at our parish called me to ensure that it was okay that our daughter had made a large contribution to the parish. Cathy and I were unaware she had done so. What had she done? She had tithed her high school graduation gift money. You can imagine how proud we felt.

A “planned gift” through a will or another avenue is the easiest gift to make because it only gets made when we can’t use it anymore – at least, not in this world. Maybe it can be better used by God and his Church. Listen to Revelation 14:13: “I heard a voice from Heaven say, ‘write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, said the Spirit, let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.’ ”

Cathy and I want our works to accompany us, as we are sure you do, too. We have been saved by Jesus for eternal life – let us make sure our faith in that is manifested in our living and in our giving.

Would you prayerfully discern how God is calling you to steward the assets He has entrusted to you? We hope we and you hear these words someday from Jesus (Matthew 25:34): “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Deacon Steve Stemper is CEO & President of The Catholic Foundation. Please contact him at (303) 468-9885 if you would like a meeting to discuss how your planned giving can be used for God’s Kingdom.