Sunday, April 15, 2012

That Voice of Peace: A Tribute to Bishop Román

“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)

It is difficult to find holiness around us.  It is difficult to find someone who by their very presence transmits the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This past Wednesday we lost a pillar of our faith community.  I lost a spiritual mentor, a hero, a friend.  Bishop Agustin Román died as he lived: working for the good of his people.  He took the peace of Christ wherever he went and truly lived out the command of Jesus to the disciples in today’s gospel, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Bishop Román was sent to a foreign land to accomplish the task of spreading the gospel.  He would have preferred to do it in his native Cuba, but as he once told me, “The only thing the priest needs is an altar.”   Wherever he was, he spread the gospel and touched the hearts of many through his example of holiness. When you have been in the presence of a “friend of God” (which is the Haitian word for saint, zanmi Bondye), as I have been all my life, I cannot help but to share the story of this holy man to prove that saints really do live among us and that holiness is very much within our grasp.

When I was born, my father was working as a carpenter helping to build the convent of the Sisters of Charity on the grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity.  Every morning, he would have breakfast with then Father Román and every morning he would ask my father about his children.  Father Román would be ordained a bishop in 1979 and every time my parents would take me to see him, his voice would always bring me peace.  It was a soothing voice, the voice of a shepherd who attracted so many.  In time as I grew older, I would begin working with him, serving Mass with him, and yes, even wanting to be a priest like him.  When I made the decision of deciding to be a priest, the first priest that I told was Bishop Román.  I was 17 years old, and I had the audacity to call his office and ask for an appointment.  He immediately returned my call and asked me to come see him on a Tuesday afternoon after school.  I met with him in the same convent that my father had helped build, and I asked him, “Bishop, I feel that God is calling me to be a priest, but I am young.  Should I go to college and experience life a little bit more or go to the seminary?”  The bishop shook his head and told me as only he could, “No, no, no, when God calls, you have to answer him immediately.”  He reached for the phone on his desk and promptly dialed up the Vocations Director and three months later I was in the seminary and never looked back.  That fateful meeting with Bishop Roman occurred on May 11, 1993:  exactly nine years to the day before I was ordained a priest.

Nine years and three days after that meeting, I went to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity as a newly ordained priest to fulfill a great dream and celebrate Mass at that altar below our Blessed Mother where Bishop Román had celebrated Mass countless times.  He humbly put on his episcopal choir robes, took a seat behind a kneeler to the right of the altar, and knelt as I celebrated Mass.  He didn’t say a word.  He simply prayed. What a model of humility for a man who was a successor of the apostles!

When I was Vocations Director, I was concelebrating a Mass for young people with him.  At the end of the Mass, he talked to the young people about vocations to the priesthood and religious life and told them how important it was to pray for vocations.  He called me toward his chair and told me in front of everyone that I needed to pray the rosary for vocations.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his rosary and put it in my hands.  That rosary has never left my pocket since that day. 

A couple of months after that he asked that I bring a monstrance blessed by John Paul II to pray for vocations to the Youth Center so that it could visit the kids and then the next day to the students at LaSalle High School next door.  Even though it wasn’t on the itinerary I released as it toured the Archdiocese, I could not say no to him.  He even offered to allow me to spend the night in his small residence in the Youth Center.  As I was praying with the young people that night before the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop Roman very quietly came in and knelt in the back.  It was common for the young people to see him at their meetings.  I was sitting in the presider’s chair and asked him to come up and sit in the chair.  Even though he would have preferred humbly staying in the back, he never refused a request from a priest, so he came and sat in the presiders chair and I sat next to him and we prayed with the young people.  One of the kids who is now a seminarian took a picture of the two of us praying before the Lord.  It is my favorite picture of me with the bishop.

Later that night, Bishop Román showed me to my room that was right next to his.  His room was very small.  It had a twin bed, a rocking chair, some books and his desk.  That’s it.  I could fit two of his rooms into my living quarters upstairs and I’m not even going to get into all the stuff I have.  Across the hall there was a chapel.  He went to bed around Midnight and he was up before 6:00 a.m. to do his daily reflection for the radio.  The next morning I was supposed to go visit the high school, but first I sat with him for breakfast.  We talked about everything under the sun that morning.  I was so enthralled by this time I was spending with the bishop that 10 minutes after school began the Bishop looked at his watch and said, “Father, you’re late for the school.”  Can you blame me?  I was taking in everything he was telling me. 

Every time he spoke to me, I felt peace.  I felt holiness.  I felt that I had so much more to go to reach his level of holiness.  He was for me the model of priesthood.  During the last few years, his health began to deteriorate and I would only see him three or four times a year.  Even in declining health, he continued to work.  His passion was evangelization.  He was always very interested in how I was doing in Broward and how the good people of Broward were doing.  He was so happy to hear how full our churches are up here and how fast the Hispanic population was growing.  He would always tell me, “You have to go to them.”   My heart sank when I learned that he had passed on Wednesday night.  I tried as much as I could to be part of every aspect of his funeral from receiving his body at the Shrine to saying the second Mass for his repose near his casket to his glorious funeral Mass and then the long procession to his burial where we heard the people acclaim, “Santo Subito! (Sainthood now!)”  I’ve gotten choked up many times since Wednesday, my mind and my heart have been in a fog, but as I drove back up to the parish last night, I could hear his voice, that voice of peace, speaking to me as he did so many times: “Father, the gospel needs to preached.  Someone needs to share the Good News of the Resurrection.  It’s time to get back to work.”  He worked until the day he died.  I pray I do as well.  May the soul of Bishop Román and all the faithful departed rest in the peace of Christ.  Goodbye, Monseñor.