CHINO HILLS, California — In his nearly nine years as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, people warned Bishop Alberto Rojas that something like this might happen.
“Somebody told me before, ‘You’re not very old, and you’re probably going to get a diocese of your own, so that I knew, but I wasn’t sure when or where,” he recalled in a recent interview.
In December 2019, Rojas found out “where.” Pope Francis tapped him to be coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of San Bernardino, the nation’s sixth largest diocese, working alongside Bishop Gerald R. Barnes, 74, who has headed the diocese since 1996.
Barnes turns 75 in June, the age at which canon law requires bishops to turn their resignation into the pope. Upon his retirement, Rojas as coadjutor will automatically succeed him as head of the Inland Empire diocese.
On Feb. 24, over 2,500 people packed inside St. Paul the Apostle Church in Chino Hills to welcome Rojas to his new home. Two cardinals and more than two dozen bishops were there for his welcome Mass, including Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
But while Rojas joked with the crowd about whether to call his transfer a move from the Midwest to the “very West” or the “wild West,” he is no stranger to Southern California.
Rojas was born in 1965, in Aguascalientes, Mexico, the sixth of eight children. He entered a minor seminary in Mexico at 13, but eventually asked for time away to experience working life, according to the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
After immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico a few years later, he spent a short time in the L.A. area working before moving to Chicago and entering seminary.
For 30 years, the 55-year-old has called the Windy City home, first as a seminarian, then as a priest, ordained in 1997, and most recently as an auxiliary bishop, a post he was appointed to in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI.
For Rojas’s niece, Norma Gallo of Ontario, California, the surprise news that her uncle was going to become her bishop was bittersweet.
“I felt so much joy, but also sad for him, thinking of all the time he’s been in Chicago,” she told Angelus, the online media platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “It’s going to be a big change for him. But it’s a blessing from God to have him here so close.”
As a parish priest, Rojas had a reputation for being available and accessible to parishioners and nonparishioners alike. While on the staff at Mundelein Seminary, he was known to frequently help cover Masses in parishes around the archdiocese.
As auxiliary bishop, he helped minister to Chicago’s large, heavily Mexican Latino Catholic population. He was the only Latino bishop in the U.S. church’s Region VII (Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana), making him the natural choice to serve as the region’s lead bishop representative during the V Encuentro, or Fifth National Encuentro, a process for prioritizing Hispanic/Latino ministry in the U.S. church that culminated in a national gathering in 2018 after four years of parish, diocesan and regional gatherings.
“He understands the everyday struggles of people, but he also is of the mind of Pope Francis, where he sees it’s important for people to encounter Christ,” Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich said in an interview at the Mass of welcome.
In his homily at the Mass, Rojas laid out his vision for the Catholic Church’s mission in contemporary society. He recalled the answer Pope Francis gave him recently when he asked the pontiff what he feared most.
The pope’s immediate reply? “Division.”
“Division comes from the devil, and unity comes from God,” Rojas quoted the pope as telling him and his brother bishops from Region VII during their “ad limina” visit in December.
“From the watering down of marriage, to the young adults going away, to the scandals in the church and so on, these are sources of division, sources of evil that seem to be taking the world over,” Rojas told the faithful.
In the face of divisions, he said, the church needs “wisdom from above,” which comes from “the knowledge that we need to live in this life and to interact with our circumstances and with those around us united in the love of God.”
Rojas stressed that every Catholic has a duty to be a “missionary disciple,” using a favorite term of Pope Francis, and he said the church’s mission is to bring Jesus Christ to “a world that is starving for God.”
“Our challenge as missionary disciples is to help the world distinguish between good and bad,” as well as to distinguish “good religion from bad religion.” To distinguish, he said, “and to listen to the voice that is coming from the Lord Jesus among the many other noisy and loud voices, and there are so many of them.”
To make his point, Rojas quoted a Bob Dylan song (“Gotta Serve Somebody”): “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you have to serve somebody.”
“Well, we want to serve the Lord. We are God’s children, we belong to him,” Rojas said. “The very day we were baptized the Lord Jesus said to us, you belong to me, you don’t belong to the devil.”
At the reception after Mass, San Bernardino’s new coadjutor was greeted by a mariachi band, local Catholic students, tables with trays of Mexican “flautas” and Filipino “lumpia.” Dozens of families lined up for a blessing and a photo with their new shepherd.
Kay is the editor-in-chief of Angelus, the online media platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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