A priest is what he is because of Christ

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

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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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.