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: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.