By Natalie Romano
COVID-19, quarantines, soaring temperatures, wildfires - it all might really shock a newcomer to our Diocese.
Seven months into his new ministry, Coadjutor Bishop Alberto Rojas is awestruck by something else.
“The faith of the people is just amazing,” he says. “I think people here are more committed to their faith and their parish community. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Just weeks after the Bishop’s Welcome Mass in February, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, disrupting the life of the local Church, from public Masses to Catholic education to the transition of leadership from Bishop Gerald Barnes to Bishop Rojas.
Pope Francis named Bishop Rojas Coadjutor of the Diocese of San Bernardino December 2, 2019, meaning he will succeed Bishop Barnes as Ordinary Bishop upon his retirement. Per Church law, Bishop Barnes submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Francis on his 75th birthday (June 22). The Holy Father has not yet accepted the letter, which will signal Bishop Barnes’ retirement.
For a three-month stretch in the Spring, the COVID-19 crisis forced Bishop Rojas to abandon his plan to travel to the parishes of the Diocese and celebrate Mass – as a way to get acquainted. Instead, he and Bishop Barnes took to YouTube, celebrating livestreamed Masses in English and Spanish every Sunday. Bishop Rojas also livestreamed the Reconsecration of the Diocese to the Blessed Mother, in concert with the other dioceses of the U.S.
In recent months, with the resumption of public Masses, Confirmations and other public liturgies, Bishop Rojas has been able to discover the Diocese in person.
“I think that’s been important to be at the parishes where the pastors are. I need to hear them, the staff and the people,” he explains. “This gives me an important sense of what the diocese is about.”
It also gives those same people an opportunity to meet him. St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Temecula welcomed Bishop Rojas to celebrate Mass for the priests of the Hemet Vicariate on July 23. The pastor says Bishop Rojas spoke to the parishioners like friends.
“With his good smile, he is inviting people to approach him,” says Father Anthony Dao, V.F. “I like the ministry of smiling. Though he came to this diocese at a very difficult time...I can feel the Holy Spirit is with him...I wish him to be smiling all the time.”
When Bishop Rojas is not meeting priests in their parishes, he’s meeting with them in his home.
“I invite them to the house and say come have some coffee with me and they come,” describes Bishop Rojas. “They feel a little better just being there expressing concerns and being physically present with each other. That’s been very good.”
The Coadjutor has already assumed some weightier responsibilities from Bishop Barnes. Bishop Rojas oversees both priest and diaconate personnel, meaning he decides where clergy are assigned and other details of their ministries. He also, along with Bishop Barnes, ordained 10 new permanent deacons in August, which he calls a “blessing.” In June, he concelebrated the Ordination of Father Antonio Guzman to the priesthood.
Bishop Rojas has also had some time to begin interacting with Diocesan Pastoral Center staff. He says there’s a “good group of people” working there, naming Monsignor Gerard Lopez, Vicar General, “who knows everything about the Diocese,” and Father Erik Esparza, Director of the Office of Priest Personnel, “who knows everything about the priests.” However, the person he says he’s gained the most from is Bishop Barnes.
“There’s so many things I have learned, I cannot point to only one. The knowledge Bishop Barnes has is incredible,” states Bishop Rojas. “Yet, before making a decision, he still consults with the Curia, the Vicars Forane, the Deacons. That’s really beautiful. I think that’s something I’d like to continue.”
Bishop Rojas says leading the Diocese with a pandemic underway was certainly not what he expected, but adds that it’s not about him, it’s about all of us. Prayer and sacrifice, which means following health and safety guidelines, will guide the Church through the crisis, he says. Not everyone in the Diocese agrees.
During his short time here, Bishop Rojas says he has received numerous letters from parishioners who are upset about health and safety guidelines for the pandemic. One of the chief complaints; no Eucharist given directly on the tongue. A small number of people have gone as far as refusing Communion from the Bishop over this, he said.
“Those are hard. It doesn’t make any of us feel good,” explains Bishop Rojas. “I respect the devotion and how reverent they are to the Eucharist...but there is a pandemic...We have to come together as one in the name of God, as his children, to protect each other.”
Division in the Church, division in society, these are issues that trouble the Bishop, especially with an upcoming presidential election. He suggests parishioners read The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Faithful Citizenship materials, which are available on the Diocesan website.
Bishop Rojas says it is “an act of faith and conscience” when we vote and that’s not as simple as it sounds.
Bishop Rojas also looks at the larger picture when it comes to the future of the Church in both strength and size. He asks the questions, “Are we going to have enough priests?” and “where are the vocations from, locally?”
Another priority is keeping young people active in the Church. Bishop Rojas’ desire for youth outreach was something he announced at his first press conference last December and has already put into practice by meeting youth at events or via Zoom.
This has energized the Office of Ministry with Young Catholics. Director Edgardo Juarez says he’s excited to watch the Bishop in action.
“If he is talking to a young person, his full attention is on the person,” says Juarez. “You might have 100 people around, but he is still talking to that person. It’s so inspiring, that ministry of presence.”
When celebrating Confirmations, Bishop Rojas tries to make teens aware of their importance even if they don’t get it yet.
“I say to every Confirmation group…’You are our young Church and we need you.’ And they look at me like ‘What is he talking about?’ “ Bishop Rojas says laughing.
Some of the Confirmandi have been moved by Bishop Rojas’ words. “It feels good to have him speaking directly to us,” said Ryan Cantwell of The Holy Name of Jesus parish, who was Confirmed in August.
At the Bishop’s side for these Confirmations; the Masters of Ceremonies. Among their many tasks, making sure the Bishop has everything he needs in the order that he needs it for Mass. Armando Montano, a lead emcee with 10 years of experience, is one of the men chosen to assist the new bishop.
“When I was told that I was going to be with him, that this was going to be entrusted to me, I was very honored,” says Montano, the emotion clear in his voice.
“He (Bishop Rojas) is a very nice and humble gentleman. This is a new experience for him and I’m enjoying it with him.”
On their travels to different parishes, Bishop Rojas takes in the size and geographical diversity of the diocese. The mountains, in particular, bring him tranquility.
“The mountains are just spectacular,” says Bishop Rojas. “When something horrible is going on and we hear the numbers of the infected people (with COVID-19), I come out of the house and look at the mountains.”
Likewise, during these troubling times, the Bishop occasionally picks up his guitar. You may have seen him strumming and singing during Mass on YouTube, an outcrop from growing up in a musical family. He’s even tried his hand at cooking.
“Sometimes it comes out okay, sometimes it doesn’t,” chuckles Bishop Rojas. “I cannot believe the number of things that I’ve been doing for the very first time in my life.”
But now more than ever, Bishop Rojas says he’s praying and trying to live out his Episcopal Motto, Nos basta el amor de Dios (“God’s love is all we need”).
“I notice that as Bishop whatever I say it seems people listen a little more than when I was priest,” he laughs. “Seriously though, I love the line. We don’t need anything else [but God’s love]. I’m totally convinced of that.”
As he prepares to take the reins of the Diocese as Ordinary Bishop, he says he will continue to travel out to the parishes to meet the faithful. Since being named Coadjutor, Bishop Rojas said he’s held the Diocese in prayer and he asks for the people to pray for him in his Episcopal Ministry here.
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.