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: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.