The next bishop of Raleigh is from Latin America—like many in his flock

Bishop Luis R. Zarama is seen in Nogales, Mexico in this 2014 photo. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

RALEIGH, N.C. (RNS)—In two weeks, Luis Rafael Zarama will be installed as bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh, at which point he will have notched two firsts: He will be the first Colombian-born bishop to lead a Roman Catholic diocese in the United States, and the state’s first Hispanic bishop.

Those twin achievements would not be so groundbreaking were it not for a simple fact: The Diocese of Raleigh has more parishioners of Hispanic heritage than of any other ethnicity. Zarama, 58, who until recently served as auxiliary bishop in the Atlanta Archdiocese, will speak their language and understand their culture in ways no U.S.-born Catholic can.

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To say that Hispanics in the diocese take pride in their newly appointed bishop is an understatement.

“I never thought I’d have a Spanish-speaking bishop here in the U.S.,” said Aida Ponce de Leon, 43, an immigrant from Mexico who lives in Cary, N.C. “We can experience the love of God having someone understand what our hearts and souls are in need of.”

Zarama is not the first Latin American-born bishop to lead a U.S. diocese. There are four others—two in Texas, one in Florida and one in California. But his appointment by Pope Francis is another indication of the growth in the number of Hispanic Catholics, who now make up about 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, as well as the growth of Catholicism in the South, which has edged out the Northeast as the region with the largest proportion of Catholics—27 percent vs. 25 percent.

Latin Bishop
(RNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

Of all the religious groups that have made North Carolina their home over the past 20 years, none have come in greater numbers than the Catholics. Demographers say the migration comes from two directions: From the North and Midwest, thousands of Catholics have come in search of high-tech jobs and warmer weather. From the South, thousands of Hispanics have come from Latin America in search of a better way of life.

But these newcomers have not always been absorbed smoothly.

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