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: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.